Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Miami Day 2

Don’t let the great blue skyscrapers, tropical breeze, or idyllic, pastel houses fool you; Miami is a city of blatant, sometimes upsetting dichotomies. It’s only been a day, but for every moment I’ve reveled in temperatures that are double digits above Charlottesville, I’ve seen bits of the sheltered life my parents carefully built over 18 years disintegrate. It started with a girl I helped in an after school program today, while we were painting flowerpots. I helped her mix colors, red and blue for purple, red and white for pink, watched her paint a bed of flowers, and listened as she rattled off her life story until the fourth grade, glancing up every now and again to make sure I was really listening. I learned that her favorite color is purple, that she knows her time tables by heart (when I asked her for proof, she told me 9 x 9 is 81, duh), that she loves to play football, and that her father is unemployed. She’s living with her mother now, she told me as she painted a heart-shaped flower, and shows no signs of bitterness at her fate, even though I could feel a visceral indignation welling up inside me. I didn’t have enough time to speak with her; the bus came, and she left quickly to make sure she would make it, clutching the flowerpot in her hands. Her classmates followed, 97% of which have free or reduced lunches, all shuffling out into the hot Miami heat, living another day in a life I’ve only read about in books.

We also heard two women speak later today; they both had been previously homeless, and were working with an organization to create lasting governmental change in the way homeless people are treated. I approach these things with a certain bit of skepticism, something built up over years of experiences with ragged, sometimes aggressive, homeless people clamoring for spare change. That was until one of the women spoke of her 8 children, her attempts to find soap and integrity on inner-city streets, her brutal beating by street youths with spray paint guns, and her battle with heroin addiction that underpinned everything. The other woman was no better off; her life, she told us, started in a brutal, alcoholic family, which led into her drug use and the prostitution she used to provide for it, and climaxed in the devastating news she was HIV positive. When her voice broke, and tears streamed down her face, I took solace in the fact that much of the audience grew misty-eyed in empathy, including yours truly.

Even with all the heavy gravitas, Miami has given me a real optimism; the kids are motivated and irrepressibly hilarious. Both of the women have recovered, and are living the life they’ve missed out on for decades. I’ve met Jews from all over the country, laughed, ate, and sung with people I barely know, and have already made lasting change in an elementary school that desperately needs it. If anything else, I’m going to bed tired, hopelessly sore, surrounded by intelligent, compassionate people, and cognizant of the chance I have in this amazing week all of us have just begun.

Ben Bissel
University of Virginia

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