The matchbox car rides the edge of the table, flirting with a 4-foot fall to the floor. A look of concentration is etched on Gaspar’s face as he navigates the car, the puttering of the engine escaping softly from his lips. As I enter his classroom his head stays down, totally absorbed in the perilous journey happening at his fingertips. I tap him on the shoulder and his face lights up, “Now?” he asks.
I nod and with a quick shout to his teacher that he is leaving for tutoring, we are out the door. He grabs my hand as we walk down the hall towards the stairs. At the top of the stairs he stops. He takes a long look down the steps and asks me, “Cuentame las gradas?” ‘Count the stairs for me?’ I nod and he buries his face into my side, hiding his eyes, and we begin the 34-step journey to the first floor. He never opens his eyes or looks up, he simply listens as I count the steps and warn him of the landings. It is a total surrender, a brief moment when Gaspar can let go of his tension, let go of his fear, and simply put his trust in someone else, even if it only lasts 34 steps.
You see, in about an hour and a half, he is going to walk out of the front doors of Camino Seguro and into the streets in which he lives. He will walk down the hill, towards the dump, holding his little brother by the hand as they wind their way through metal shacks, men high on glue, feral dogs and mountains of trash. When he walks there, his head is never down. His eyes are never closed. Finally we reach the bottom of the stairs and he opens his eyes. “What are we going to do today?” he asks me.
I say we have a few math exercises and some writing we are going to do. He gives me a long look. “Ok, but we can read after right?” Gaspar loves to read. We begin class with some basic math problems, he struggles at first, but as he gets into the swing of the class, the layers begin to peel away and the kid inside comes through. We play a game, saying our multiplication tables and tossing blocks into a bucket. He makes most of his shots; at first I try to miss a few on purpose. This is a bad idea as I soon find myself falling far behind. He wins.
He gives me a look and asks me if we can read now. He chooses a book, it is one he has read before, but it remains one of his favorites. We sit down to read Ferdinand the Bull. We switch every page; following Ferdinand on his journey from the safe pastures of his youth to the bullfighting rings in Madrid. We watch as he refuses to fight, and eventually is returned to his home to spend the rest of his days sitting underneath his favorite oak tree. We finish the class; it is time to go back upstairs.
“Cuentame las gradas?” he asks. “Of course” I say, and begin to count. At 34, once again we have reached the top and I return him to his classroom. “See you tomorrow.” He says.
“See you tomorrow” I say. Gaspar is one of seven children. He lives next to the Guatemala City garbage dumps in one of the difficult areas of one of the poorest cities in the Americas. He takes care of his brothers, cooks, cleans, and helps bring in what little money he can, all while going to school. He has walked through his violent world and has remained one of the sweetest and gentlest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Gaspar is many things, he is a caretaker, a student, a cook, and, for a few hours each day, he is even an eleven-year-old boy. When we are children, all we think about is growing up. Sometimes, staying young is the hardest part.
Safe Passage Tutor