This cartoon drained me just reading it. I used to volunteer at an afterschool counseling center for children with behavioral and emotional problems usually referred to us by the school districts. Each summer and during my periodic breaks from school I would work daily with the Kindergarten and Elementary school aged groups. Some children were abused; physically, mentally, sexually or a disturbing combination of all three. Some were just from poor families. But the former tended to be referred with alarming consistency.
It was hard to work with children that have been betrayed by that most sacred and profound trust between child and parent. The bond that serves as the template for all future relationships. My practice was not strong enough to keep me there for too long (I only lasted for two years). The anger that was brimming over in many of these children was shocking but by far the most difficult thing to witness in these children, these orphans of Samsara, was the loss of care or of hope. Empty eyes. Shellshocked beyond all caring.
Everything in their eyes was just blank; not sad or forlorn but just tired. It may take many of us thirty, forty or more years to become jaded and bitter at what samsara has to give and to take away. But what these children live with. What they internalize and what they have to witness is beyond most of our ability to recognize or understand. It would take most of a summer to just get a child to smile at us. Even then it was only momentary and fleeting.
As I said. My practice was not strong enough for these children. After two years of volunteering I just couldn’t distance my emotions and my rage from what I saw happening. At the same time I also couldn’t come to terms with it. Every bruise or flinch or untrusting glance I received was my bruise and my painful memory. Every occassional smile, moment of respite or easy breath was too little to keep me going. I was drowning.
I took the pain home with me. My words aren’t doing this experience justice but a story about my last day there may. We had a client who was in our kindergarten group. He was referred to us after he was caught repeatedly torturing and in some cases, killing animals. We worked together for most of my last summer. Consistancy was so important to this age group so everyday I would come in and facilitate a short art/craft session and then take the group to our playground. This one child was bullied often so I spent extra time with him. Sometimes just playing in a sandbox or coloring a picture. He never made eye-contact with me. This orphan of samsara, who was abused physically by his father and then sexually by his stepfather afterwards. This orphan of samsara that experienced horrors that I can only imagine, on my last day, right before I was leaving to go back to school was laying out on the sidewalk…
…collecting ants in his hands and transporting them onto the grass. When I came over to say goodbye (all the other kids already gave me hugs and cards) he looked up at me and said…
“You know, Mr. John. No-one ever thinks about the ants.”
It was a strange experience. I don’t know what the take home message is but I did learn that a caring and trusted adult is a moment of respite for our orphans of samsara. And while it may seem like a small thing, just being mindfull may make a world of difference to them. I saw many of the abused children at the schools and programs I worked for since spend too much time in detention or in trouble, not because they were bad, but because it was the only way to stay safe for a moment longer. When I ran the tutoring center at Youth and Family Services, many just needed the time and place to escape.
If you work with children, you need to remember that you may be the only safe place they have.