When I volunteered to play with little kids in an orphanage in Mexico, I expected to be affected by poverty or loneliness, the disproportionate ratio of children to caretakers, or the lack of resources in the orphanage. I was not expecting to be reminded by one little boy how an appreciation of beauty and a desire to create lives in all places.
After disembarking from the bus that took our group to the orphanage, we were told to go play soccer with the kids, and if we wanted to play with babies, then we could follow a woman to the nursery.
I watched several girls head for the nursery, and as they disappeared, I noticed a little boy who wasn’t playing soccer and who wasn’t swinging on the swings. He was sitting on a little wooden step looking at the ground and poking it with a stick. We introduced ourselves when I sat down next to him. He had milk-rotted teeth and his name was Juan. I invited him to play soccer with me. He played for a few minutes, and then decided that he would rather fight for a spot on the swing set in the shade. I pushed him fast and then faster, but soon he wanted to return to his stoop.
He became sad and pushed the dirt with his sneaker. Scooting closer to me, he told me wanted to paint. I looked around. The only color that interrupted the clay tan of the place was the greenery God had put there.
Quiero pintar—con Crayolas.
I told him to wait on the step, and approached a woman who seemed to be in charge. I asked her if she had any crayons and paper we could use, and she told me it wasn’t that time: it was playtime. Also, no one in the orphanage had crayons. She had no idea where the boy had even seen them.
It would have been better not to ask if I could bring him some, because then I could have at least sneaked in the contraband and given them to my little boy, but because I asked, she told me I’d have to buy them for every child if I brought some for Juan.
Upon returning to the boy, I told him I couldn’t get any from the lady, but that I had a pen. I tore a page from my journal and gave him the blue pen I had. He took it, but told me that it was not what he’d asked for. After scrawling for a few minutes, he gave me the pen and told me again that he wanted to paint.
In desperation, I told him we could get some water and paint with mud on the concrete. At this latest suggestion, he began to cry.
I told this child he could paint with mud. God, what was wrong with me? I almost cried too. It’s fun to paint with mud when that’s not all you have to paint with and you are getting dirty, or when you don’t know that there’s color out there that you can’t have.
As our group left for the day, I promised myself to look for crayons for the whole orphanage. I thought it would be easy. We were staying in a big city, we had a MEGA, so of course there would be crayons there. I scoured outdoor markets and drugstores, but I couldn’t find a single crayon. I was told that people didn’t keep them because they melted too often. Colored pencils were preferred by school teachers in the area.
The next time we went to the orphanage, Juan introduced me to his older brother who had been playing soccer. The three of us played together, but after a short while, Juan told me he wanted to paint and I had to tell him that I couldn’t find any Crayolas for him. His brother rolled his eyes and returned to the pickup game.
Often I think of Juan, and how a child in a safe home can throw a fit and make demands. The child is either disciplined or mollified momentarily with the fulfillment of their wishes. Juan may have been doing what all children do, but he struck me because he knew he was being cheated. He had lived in the orphanage for most of his five years, and he already knew he didn’t want to be told to play soccer and that he would rather make art but couldn’t.