The Thirty-Third Chart

March 23, 2012

By Ekta R. Garg

On our way to school every day, we pass a particular corner that homeless people have claimed for their personal campaigns.  Every day someone stands on that corner holding a cardboard sign summarizing his (they’re always men) personal plight and needs.  And every day I extend some silent sympathy towards the person standing on that corner and—it must be said—look heavenward with deep gratefulness that I don’t have to resort such measures to support my family.

I’ve also waited with bated breath every day wondering when Five might say something or read one of the cardboard signs.  Three has begun reading and can make out three-letter words on her own, but she has just embarked on the literary world and hasn’t discovered the world’s bitter truths yet.  Five, on the other hand, is more than capable of doing so, and I’ve steeled myself every day since school started for the discussion that would arise as a result of seeing those people on that corner.

And earlier this week, Five offered me a glimpse of that discussion.

As we sat at the light waiting to turn right, Five began to read the sign of the person standing there that day.

“Homeless vet.  Hungry.  Will work.  Anything helps.  God bless,” she recited, and just then the light turned green.

We turned and Five piped up from the back.

“Wait, Mommy, I could have given that man work,” she said brightly, with that optimism of youth I wish she could hold on to forever.

“What work?” I asked.

“I could have told him to paint something.  He could have been a painter.”

“No, sweetheart, he needs work that can help him earn some money, like a job,” I explained, cringing slightly in anticipation of whatever question she might ask next.

That next question didn’t materialize because we got closer to school and the pre-school chatter began, but I thought for a little while about Five’s offer and the simplicity with which she can solve the world’s problems.

Admittedly I’m not ready to have a conversation with my daughter about homelessness and its complexities.  I’ve never had to sleep on benches or under overpasses, have never scrounged in garbage cans or dumpsters for my meals, and have never summarized all of my dignity and self-worth in a short description on a cardboard sign.  I am truly blessed in that regard.

I do try read and be aware of the world around me, and from what I’ve read homelessness isn’t always about a person losing all of his/her worldly possessions.  Sometimes—not always, and certainly this doesn’t apply to every single person on the streets, but it’s true for some—sometimes homelessness has to do with drugs or alcohol or prostitution.  Sometimes teenagers feel they have no other way out of their problems and leave home, and instead of finding solutions they realize they’ve only created more problems for themselves.  At one time I used to watch “Unsolved Mysteries” on TV and learned of a couple of people who sustained head injuries, actually lost their memories, and ended up on the streets because they had no recollection of their lives, their homes, or their families.  They simply wandered because one day they woke up and realized they were alive but had no idea of their identities and didn’t think they had any other options.

My older daughter will be six years old this summer, and I’m discovering this is the point when children begin to realize the entire world isn’t full of people who only care about them and their safety, that every single person on this planet doesn’t always have their best interests at heart—some, in fact, the opposite—and that some people couldn’t care less about them.  That not everyone will take care of them.

With these ideas slowly tapping at her awareness, I don’t know how to explain to Five that sometimes people do terrible things to one another and those terrible things create consequences.  And one of those consequences can turn into living out of doors and scrounging an existence from whatever society decides to bestow on the homeless person.  How do I present to this bright-eyed open-hearted child whose very nature thrives on helping others the idea that we can’t always help people?

I wish I had an answer for the questions that will come, I know, easily and with the openness that only children display.  I guess that’s why people say so casually that parenting is the most difficult job in the world.  I only wish the actual practice of parenting could be so casual.

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