Second chances

Second chances

Violet had all the potential of being a great student. I first met her five years ago in our intensive English course that we offer for all of the kids when they finish primary school – in three months we teach them enough English so they can have a fighting chance in secondary school. Violet certainly was bright, and she was eager, and she was just sixteen years old. She was a great kid to have in school.

Then one day she didn’t show up for class.

The next day she wasn’t there either.

I remember going to find her in the village. They told me that she had run away to Dar es Salaam. As I probed more to try to understand why she would possibly do something like that, it became obvious that her family members were just evading my questions, and there were snickers as I kept asking. It hurt when I finally put it all together and realized that Violet hadn’t run away to Dar es Salaam. She had been sent there. One less mouth to feed, no school fees to worry about, and what chance did a girl have of making it in secondary school anyway. Hardly anyone thinks that way in these villages any more, not when every graduating class proves again and again that girls can make it all the way through, they can have a future, they can make it. But five years ago, no one had any examples of any girls who had graduated and so it was hard for most people in these villages to believe in “improbable dreams.”

Five years later, I meet Violet all over again. She’s no longer a 16-year old eagerly sitting in my classroom. This time I meet her as a mother whose newborn infant has a swollen lump on the side of his head. This time I meet her at our AIDS clinic. She shyly tells me that she has been coming since March, trying every time to avoid seeing me because she was simply too embarrassed.

I felt so sad. For a fleeting moment I thought back to all of the potential that there was in that 16-year old girl in my classroom. The one who would have been graduating this year. The one who had told me once that she wanted to be a teacher. The one who instead cleaned someone’s house in Dar es Salaam until she got pregnant and got sick and was sent home to her village. Now she’s a young woman who will be living with AIDS the rest of her life.

One thing about Violet though is that she is still sweet. A lot of the girls who used to get duped into going to Dar would come back hardened by the city life, and I’m thankful that she is still her sweet self. She came to get medicine for her baby, but I wanted to make sure she left with more than just the medicine. I wanted her to leave with the knowledge that we would love her and help her and follow up on her. I wanted her to leave with hope. Hope is as powerful as any of those high-powered drugs we give to people at our clinic. Without hope, people die, and they die quickly.

I’ll talk to Violet about going back to school. One the beautiful things about our school is that we take everyone and anyone. No one is too old, no one is too poor, no one has any problem too great. It doesn’t matter if your parents can’t help you. It doesn’t matter if your parents are dead. It doesn’t matter if you have had some rough detours in life.

In eight days, we start our intensive English program in all of our schools. The other schools in this country are choosing the best and the brightest to get the few select places. It’s a contest to get to go to the 8th grade, and there are precious few winners. We will take the best and the brightest as well, but in our schools we’ll also take the average kids and the below average kids. We’ll take the Violets of this world. We’ll take the kids no one else will take – the ones everyone calls “the unchosen ones.” And every single one of them is a victory. Oh they’ll have to study harder, we’ll have to push harder, our vacations will be shorter, our days longer, but for all of us, that’s quite alright.

All across the country kids will be coming this next week to sign up to study at our schools. What people already know is that they’ll never be told in our schools that there is no more room, no one will ever be turned away at any of the 22 schools we now have, nor the 4 new ones which are just opening their doors for the first time. We pray – and we hope you’ll pray with us – that everywhere people will believe that what sounds “too good to be true” really is true. We really do want every kid to come. We also pray– and we hope you’ll pray with us – that our teachers in all of our schools will have wisdom to intervene and to follow up and to seek out and find those who would normally slip through the cracks. We really do believe that every single girl who comes is a victory. We pray all the time – and we hope you will pray with us – that in our schools our students will find love and care and concern and that will come to know God and to love Him and to serve Him. We sincerely believe in second chances.

I hope Violet comes. For the second time.