U is for Unforgettable
There are moments in our lives that stand out far above the rest, times that were simply the best ever. In this post I'd like to share one of my most unforgettable experiences with you...
In the Fall of 2001 a friend and I initiated a friendship/class sponsorship with young teacher just starting her career teaching first graders at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Over the course of that school year and the next I became a penpal friend to the children in first and second grades, exchanging pictures, visiting with them on the phone, and getting to know them and the school.
In the Spring of 2003 I was invited to spend a week at Red Cloud Indian School, staying in one of the guest rooms of their convent, attending classes with the children for an entire week, and getting to meet some of their parents and siblings. I returned for another week-long visit the following Spring. The time I spent in the company of these beautiful, amazing children remains one of the happiest memories of my life.
I will never forget the first morning of my arrival, when a little girl moved forward thru a group of shy giggling children to meet me and introduce herself. It turned out to be a wonderfully bright little girl that had called me on the phone to visit on her own initiative prior to my visit. Her last name was Brave, which seemed oh so appropriate! We became fast friends, and remain so to this day, though it has been some time since we have seen each other. Her life has been anything but a picnic, both in her preschool years before I met her and in the years since, in fact most of us would be unlikely to have survived it, and yet somehow she does, managing to do well in school despite countless moves in and out of various foster homes. It is my dream to see her graduate from college some day, and I believe she will.
Then there was the painfully shy little boy who had experienced a bad dog bite injury to his hand. I had mailed him a TLC package of little toys, puzzles and such that could be enjoyed with one hand while the other was bandaged. When I arrived in his classroom that Spring, he spoke barely loud enough for me to hear, but we hit it off instantly and have remained close at heart. The next Spring he wrote me in advance of my visit to invite me to sit with him at lunch the first day of my visit. What a delightful and proud lunch date he was! A few years later he was hospitalized with a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes, something very familiar to me as my daughter was diagnosed at age 12. I was able to share support, and encouragement to stick with his diet and shot regime, and I sent him a large stuffed animal that he loved.
I could go on with more two or three dozen more examples like this, each child, each friend with their own special story and unique spirit, each one capturing their own special place in my heart then, and remaining there now. The hearts of these children are amazing. They grow up in one of the poorest counties in the nation, food is in short supply in their homes, as is heat, adequate clothing, and all the other basic necessities we take for granted. Domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism and gang affiliation run rampant and effect nearly every family on the rez. It's not easy for a child to grow and bloom. It's not easy for a child to even survive there. Unemployment is extremely high and jobs are nearly non-existent. The future holds little promise for those who choose to stay , rather than leaving the reservation for college and a life elsewhere. But for them, it is home and the only way of life they know, with strong cultural traditions and identity, and where family extends far beyond the boundaries defining it in other cultures.
What amazed me most about these children was their resilience, their ability to laugh, love, learn, and hope, in the face of some horrific experiences. Hardly a child there hasn't experienced several untimely deaths of relatives by they time they reach young adulthood, all too often thru violence, suicide, or alcohol related auto accidents.
The second thing that amazed me was their strong desire to give when they themselves had so very little. They came bearing presents for me each time I visited, and sent them stuffed in envelopes with pencil scrawled letters... precious gifts, trinkets, some handmade, some treasured, such as the much loved/worn stuffed rabbit one little girl gave me that I took home and made the main character in letters and photos I sent her from there on, much to her delight. Some children brought beautiful beadwork and quillwork done by family members for me. One mother came to school with a beautiful star quilt she had made for me - a tradition Lakota gift of honoring. The teachers and students worked together before my arrival to create a quilt formed of squares bearing the decorated handprints and names of each child. It is amazing and crafted with so much love! All these gifts, large and small, I treasured and still have. Even more treasured are the memories of times shared, bright smiles, warm hugs, little hands holding onto mine and clinging to the edges of my jacket as we walked across the campus to lunch and to their school buses at the end of day.
Now many of these children are completing the 9th grade this spring at Red Cloud and other schools across the reservation and state. Some have fallen a year or two behind, lagging in their studies and struggling to continue. Some have dropped out altogether. One has taken her life by suicide and several others have attempted the same. Within a year or two, there will be some who are pregnant, some who are gang members, and some who are addicted to alcohol or meth; some already are. I still manage to keep in touch with a few thru Facebook and email that they access thru school computers and their phones, and for each of us, the memories of those early years and the times we shared remain precious and unforgettable.
Someday I hope to take John back home to South Dakota to experience the Paha Sapa Wacipi (Black Hills PowWow) in the Fall, and to meet some of my friends, now nearly grown up. I pray for these young people daily, for their safety and wellbeing, for their families, and for their futures. I still struggle to understand why they should have to make do with so little in the midst of a nation that has so much.