One of our kids is in trouble. Engaged in work such as ours, one always knows there will be kids on the borderline, that the barrier between safety and the sex trade sometimes grows incredibly thin, and that trouble can come from where you least expect it. One always hopes it won’t happen, but sometimes it even comes sooner than you think.
She is thirteen years old. Her problem first came to our attention when she began receiving threats from friends at school. When we unearthed her story, we discovered she had been making friends with a woman in the city – a woman who has a history of prostitution. This woman bought her friendship with the gift of a mobile phone and has begun trying to lure her into the sex trade. Ostensibly, she will get paid a reward for luring her in. Our student’s “friends” feared she would tell someone about this woman and cause trouble for everyone involved, and thus began the threats. She told her parents what had been happening and her parents came to us for advice. We advised them to sit tight and not do anything just yet. Meanwhile we contacted the authorities, people we work with and trust who have the legal authority and expertise to deal with the woman in the city.
Unbeknownst to us, the parents also went to talk to a teacher at the school. The teacher decided the blame for all the trouble lay with our student – and thus prepared to expel her. Luckily, it was possible to talk the teacher down, and our student wasn’t expelled–yet. Instead, she had to sign a notice agreeing that if she got into any more trouble of any kind, she would be expelled.
She’s a good kid, gets decent grades, but she has such limited life experience and, yes, she made some poor choices. She also clearly yearns for more than her small village life offers, hence the lure of the woman in the city. Now her friends have turned on her, and the people who were most meant to protect her, by acting in the way they thought best, have ended up putting her into an even more precarious position. We proclaim poverty the biggest culprit and education the cure…the truth is these two forces work in much subtler ways than simply “need money” and “need education to get a good job.”
If she weren’t fighting poverty, one could imagine she wouldn’t be so susceptible to a friendship bought with a cell phone.
She might also have access to a better school and more opportunities to explore the world and find healthy challenges to soothe her yearning.
And an education that’s more than “Yes, teacher, thank you, teacher, I’ve memorized my ABCs,” one that teaches children to question the world around them, to think critically, and to analyze several steps ahead could actually protect her. We all teach our kids not to take candy from a stranger. But what about a gift from a friend? This was not a relationship formed over night. It was created through a thousand little decisions, every step of the way a chance to question, “Does this feel right?” Thirteen is young. Children grow up faster than we think. At the Resource Center, we are working to shift staff schedules so we can be open more days of the week, because when we are open, the kids do come, and at the Resource Center, they are safe. But we cannot watch over every single one of them every waking moment of their lives. At some point, they have to learn to make the right choices for themselves. We can only try to prepare them as best we can.
It’s no secret here that memorization and respect towards the teacher remains among the highest priorities in many schools. At SOLD, however, we try to add to their regular learning with a focus on 1) inspiring them to find their dreams, and 2) teaching them to think critically. But it’s a challenge because most kids’ self-esteems are so broken they dare not even think to question. For many of our students, getting them to dare try anything at all is the baseline.
And what of our student in trouble now? We’ve decided to put together our resources and draw on outside help. Our plan is to find a trained child psychologist or therapist for her (and a few others we think may need an extra hand) to talk with privately. And we’ll keep in close contact with the authorities to see what can be done about the woman in the city. Meanwhile, we plan to hold a few meetings with the other children, where age-appropriate, to discuss with them the importance of being on their guard.
We worry for her. To be quite frank, there are no guarantees with the work we do. But I shudder to think what would have happened to her by now if we weren’t here at all.
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