Consigning them to a future

published August 10, 2015

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote about his friend Rick Goff this week. Known for his commentary on  international humanitarian issues, Kristoff rarely gets personal. When he does, it is usually about something compelling.
“Talent is universal but opportunity is not,” Kristoff mused, referring to the life of his friend whom he had known since childhood in Oregon, and who had died last month of a heart attack. “Goff was smart, talented and hard working, but he faced an uphill struggle from birth.”
Goff’s mother died when he was five, and his father, an alcoholic, abandoned Rick, his brother and two sisters. Their grandmother took care of them and the kids took to hunting and fishing so they could have something to eat every day.
Kristoff described Goff as having a terrific mind, but he had a then-undiagnosed attention deficit disorder and their teachers punished him, eventually pushing him to drop out altogether.
Then followed a series of odd jobs, accidents, two marriages and two divorces. He raised his own kids and was a good friend to everyone in need – including an ex-wife, for whom he gave up buying his own medicine. She needed to get her car back – it had been towed. Not taking the medicine made him even sicker, and eventually led to his death.
“Too often the best predictor of where we end up is where we start,” Kristoff said, as he cited that 77 percent of those in the upper crust of US society earn their college degrees by age 24.  In contrast, only 9 percent of those from the lower rung manage to finish their studies.
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Particulars aside, I found the story compelling – and true – enough for the situation here in the Philippines. Two years ago I wrote about a boy named Tomtom ( who lived across the street. Tomtom’s family life was anything but peaceful. There were several of them children in the house, and the silence of the neighborhood was shattered by the sound of any of the children crying – wailing, actually.
None of the kids also knew how to talk much. They usually just stared at the neighbors, a penetrating gaze that you could either take for a plea for help, or plain stoicism. And yet they tugged at your shirt asking for “piso.”  You had to be careful, though, lest their mother or father see you.
The father is a worker by day and a drunkard by Saturday night.  Get ready for the sound of glasses breaking, or a monologue of bitter feelings, faulting you for doing relatively better in life than he was. Once or twice, some of the neighbors actually called the barangay to report his disruptive behavior.
But forget the father. Were the children crying out of hunger? Were their parents beating them? Was their older brother taunting them? What other secrets were hidden behind the walls of that dark house?
The situation is tragic enough, but their prospects, even more so. How can you imagine those children attending school, developing talents, contributing to the community and obtaining gainful jobs?  At this early age, they feel entitled that you give them anything when they ask you. They do not go to school. They run around half-naked on the streets. What sort of situation awaits them ten, 20 years from now? Jail? Early pregnancies? Destructive addictions? Sicknesses?
On the day I moved out of that house, I called the kids to the gate to say goodbye. “We’re leaving soon,” I said. “Be good. Take care of each other. Don’t fight. Study hard.”
I got no response whatsoever, just blank stares that make you wonder whether they even understood what you were saying at all. When I handed them some biscuits, they grabbed it swiftly from my hand, turned around and ran home. They hid the biscuits behind the window – and I wondered why. I wondered too if I would ever see them again, and whether they would be able to stray from the future that seems to have already been defined for them. I hoped so. I am still praying they would.
Kristoff  lamented the situation some more as he ended his column. “That’s what the presidential candidates should be discussing,” he said.