South Africa

Some of them wouldn’t even touch the paintbrush. Twenty-two faces with hungry, hungry eyes stared up at me. Waiting. I stared back at them, –looking from one tiny face to another. I scanned the room, and I scanned it again, and again, and again. Waiting. As if something was going to change. I waited, aimlessly; it didn’t take a mastermind to tell me that I really, really wasn’t making any sense to them.

“We’re going to paint.” I said again, “We’re going to paint. We’re painting animals.” I held up a paintbrush as if it were a too-short burning match, the flames almost licking my finger. I mimed drawing a picture. I might as well have been at the top of the tallest cliff staring down into the deepest gorge. I’d so much rather tolerate my intolerable fear of heights than this. Anything but this. They’re waiting for instructions. I can see it in their eyes, they want to learn. They want me to teach them. They want me. Why would they want me? I traveled over eight thousand miles to stand shaking in front of these beautiful children who actually want to learn. My face was burning red.

Again my eyes wandered around the cinder block room. I knew this room so well already. I looked to the brown dusty floors that were once as blue as the African sky. The door had no doorknob, a thin stick of plywood was wedged in there meticulously so the heavy door could be opened again. The grey walls were bare, so bare, without even a hole from a pushpin or the glue residue that would’ve hinted that maybe something interesting had once been up there. I looked again across the faces and then back to the floor, and then the walls. I didn’t want to look at the ceiling. I’d been through this before, I didn’t want to look up there, to the spider webs and peeling paint and the cracks that snaked down to the windows; the windows with no glass; those crevices in the ceiling, the one that let in more light than the window, and water during the rainy season. No, I didn’t want to look again. The guilt comes in through those cracks faster than the rain.

I stared down at my feet and then their feet. Their dark, dark, bare feet. One boy had a pair of baby-pink sneakers, a few sizes too large. There was duct tape sealing up the hole near the toe. I looked at my own shoes. The colors had faded a little and the laces were a little frayed. I’d never felt so grateful for laces before, and that my toes weren’t bare. My eyes were stinging and if it hadn’t been so dry I may have even cried a little bit, but I didn’t. Instead, I took a deep breath and looked up again. Almost two dozen pairs of eyes on me. Everyone in the room. Except one boy, there was one little boy, head crooked down, the paintbrush safe in his chubby baby fingers. I did not know what he was painting but I swallowed and the lump of solid fear tightening inside my throat slithered down like jello. I smiled. I walked over to the boy and stood next to his desk. He didn’t even glance up.

“Sipho.” I said, remembering his name. He looked back at me with innocent eyes and quickly moved his hands back to his lap, the paintbrush left a blue splatter of paint on his desk. I smiled again, I needed to make sure he didn’t feel like he was doing something wrong. I took his paper and held it up to the class. I smiled a lot more and gave them a “thumbs up.” I tried in every way I knew how, to without speaking, make them know that this is what they should be doing; I felt like I was playing charades and slowly they were piecing together what I was struggling to say. Finally, one by one, they started picking up paint brushes. Five minutes later everyone was painting. The room was completely silent, but as I looked around I could see kids smiling as their brushes swirled across the page.

Before I had left to go on this trip, people asked why I was going to South Africa. I’d proudly tell whoever it was that I was going to work at a school. Of course that sounded noble and impressive but honestly I really didn’t understand how teaching six year olds how to paint was ever going to make the world a better place. I really didn’t believe in what I had been told over and over again that one person can make a difference. I think it was then that I really realized why I was there.

I was there for the little boy wearing his sister’s old worn-out pink sneakers, who’s never had control over any one decision in his life. I was there for everyone who’s never held a paintbrush before, to have the chance to make something beautiful all on their own. I was there so all these kids can forget, even if for just a little while, that they have to walk home barefoot along the road with broken bottles and mud up to their knees. I was there because of the boy who’s teased and called isibhanxa because he’s almost twelve and he can’t spell his own name, because for once he’s not a “fool”, he’s just as smart as everyone else. I’m here so that even if it isn’t for very long, they can feel like they have everything they need. Then all of the sudden, somehow, even though I was about as far out of my comfort zone as I was away from home, I knew exactly where I was and it was exactly where I wanted to be.

Elinor Hills
Age 15, Grade 10
Brooklyn Friends School
Silver Key

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