Coming of Age
Sometime toward the end of my Peace Corps service I had a revelation: being a grown-up is hard.
When you're a kid, you have this idea that all your problems can be easily solved by some person you perceive to be a "grown-up." When you've got a serious problem you need help with it’s great to be on the kid side, but, as I joined the Peace Corps straight out of college, I've only recently started to experience things from the other side, and that's not so great.
A friend of mine, a fellow volunteer living in the same region as me, called me while he was away at a training in the other side of Kyrgyzstan to check up on me and to report that his 16-year-old host brother had run away from home. Being so far away for the next several days, the volunteer couldn't really do much about this. When the volunteer told me this over the phone, I said something along the lines of "hmmm, that's too bad,' and when he asked me for advice, I assured him that he shouldn't worry about it. "It's not your problem now. This is between him and his parents. You probably shouldn't interfere anyway."
My apathy bit me in the butt when the runaway turned up at my front door a few nights later.
The self-proclaimed "fugitive" (he spoke very good English, but he had to spend some time flipping through his Kyrgyz-English dictionary before arriving at this word) had been floating around southern Kyrgyzstan for the past two weeks, staying with friends and acquaintances and avoiding family before arriving in my village (a 45 minute taxi ride from his own) at the house of his friend. He then asked around until he found me, knowing me as a friend of his PCV “brother” and hoping that I could help him.
So, the kid said he had a place to stay, food to eat, and a change of clothes, but nothing else. He said he'd grabbed 100 som (about $2) before he left home two weeks ago, but now he was broke.
He was trying to play it cool, telling me he was just going to look for work, no problem, but I could tell he was getting desperate.
He asked if he could come and help me teach at school the next day, and I told him that would be fine, since it was the last day of classes anyway and I was only planning to do some games. Then he continued to stand around expectantly at my host family’s gate, with my host mom hovering around curiously, frowning at our indecipherable and mysterious English conversation, and I didn't know what to tell him.
"You have a place to sleep tonight, right?"
"Well you'd better go there before it gets too late. See you tomorrow."
He wanted me to promise not to tell his American brother about this, but I wouldn't promise, even though I had the urge to be the cool grown-up as opposed to the responsible teacher type.
In my childhood, I read enough books about runaways to recognize this story. At this point in the plot the runaway, who had been more or less confident until now, is getting scared and feeling alone. The happy feeling that came with freedom has worn off and reality has set in. He's broke and out of options. Everything is looking bleak; but wait! Enter a new character: the wise spiritual guide who will offer sage advice and point the young protagonist in the right direction, resolving the story and teaching the runaway and the youthful reader a valuable life lesson or two.
However, the author of this novel did a crappy job because this runaway got me.
After following me around for two days, we finally sat down and had a good talk about his options. Being both an adult figure, a teacher, and an American (not to mention the teenage boy crush he had on me), this kid had big expectations for the advice that was about to come out of my mouth. He thought for sure I might have some connections that could help him get a job, a place to stay, whatever. It was hard for me to look at this kid who is directly asking me for help and telling him that I can't even offer a possible solution for him that is anything other than going back home, making amends with his parents (which I knew he didn't want to do) and most importantly, finishing his 10th grade tests.
At long last, I offered to go with him back to his village and stand by him while he apologized to his parents. I expected him to turn this offer down flat, but his face kind of lit up and he promised to think about it overnight. In the end, after a few days, he worked up the courage to go back to his parents alone (with the help of taxi fare from me).
I guess it wasn't that grown-ups always knew the solution, but they knew a solution. Wisdom comes with age, yes, but even more so it comes with the opportunity to experience responsibility over the life of another human being. And the difference between a child and an adult is sometimes not a difference in years, but the difference between trusting and being trusted.
And that is my sage advice for the resolution of this novel.