Imagine you are a curious child, about 10 years old. You don’t know your exact birthday, because no one ever cared enough to write it down—you think it’s sometime in February. You long to go to school, but you have never been able to, what with seven little brothers and sisters to be looking after. Your mother abandoned the family long ago, and since then you’ve lived with a madrastra (stepmother) who had little time and less money to keep you healthy and clean.
While this might sound like the start of a Charles Dickens novel, it is none other than the sad reality of the newest member of my Ecuadorian family—a bright ten year-old with a contagious smile. Carlos arrived from Ibarra on Christmas night, a miraculous, wonderful gift. My parents described that they’d been unable to refuse him a place in their home when they saw his ragged clothes, torn shoes, and wild hair, and they determined to bring him back to the Amazon with them.
Carlos is still extremely skinny, even after living with our family for over two months now and feasting daily on the enormous portions of rice, menestra (lentils), huevos fritos (fried eggs), and maduro (sweet plantain) that my host mother never fails to dole out to us all. It’s clear that before he arrived he didn’t eat regular—or perhaps not even daily—meals; he eats as much as he possibly can at desayuno, almuerzo, and merienda (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), as if concerned he won’t be seeing food again for a while.
One day as we all ate lunch he asked me to read the words on the side of a plastic container. “You read it,” I replied playfully.
“I can’t,” he said with a doleful shrug and went back to his arroz (rice).
I sat there, horrified that my new little brother had been denied the right to a basic education, something I view as a human right. How can any person expect to be fully functional in this world, without being able to read street signs or without knowing which month comes after febrero (February)? It seems an impossible situation, but this story is all too common throughout Ecuador.
Since childhood, reading has been my escape, my favorite pastime, something I could do at any hour of the day. My biggest childhood inspirations came from whatever book I was reading—whether it be Harry Potter or To Kill a Mockingbird. The gift of being able to decipher the strange-looking squiggles in black ink that in truth create beautiful, whimsical visions and complex characters is something I will never take for granted after struggling hour upon hour to teach Carlos how to read. For me reading is second nature, something everyone knows how to do. For Carlos, it is yet another enormous privilege—like a loving family and enough food to go around—that he’s been unable to have in his short yet difficult life.
During our evening reading lessons, I struggle to figure out the best way to teach him. He tries so hard, but the letters are still impossible symbols lying impassive on the page—stories waiting to come alive. We work letter by letter, sound by sound… “ma, me, mi, mo, mu; mamá” and “pa, pe, pi, po, pu; papá”.
“Quien te enseñó a leer?” (Who taught you to read?) Carlos asked innocently one evening while we were reading “sopa, suma, paso” (soup, sum, step) in his primer.
“Mi mamá y mi papá,” (My mom and dad) I said easily.
“Tu mami y tu papi?” He repeated, and stared at me distantly. I wondered what he was thinking, and then felt my heart tighten; was he wondering why his mom and dad hadn’t taught him? I looked away from his eyes, unable to stand the innocent confusion I saw there.
As I try to fall asleep each night after our evening reading lesson, I ask myself again and again how many children like Carlos humanity has failed. How can Carlos ever learn all that he missed out on as a young child, when he is also expected to watch my baby brother, cook and clean, and help my dad with his projects around the house? Sometimes I think what a harsh world it is that we live in, where a child has no mother present and can’t even learn to read. I worry that after I leave, no one will have time or energy to continue his lessons; then what? How can I help to break this cycle of illiteracy? I have begun, one letter at a time—but April looms with such certainty that I fear that when I leave Ecuador, I will have failed my little brother.
*Note to the reader: The translation to the text on the featured image is: “To educate for life is to serve the community.”