When I first saw it I almost missed it. It was hidden behind an old rusted MAC truck settling into the earth like a chicken nesting on eggs. It was just another grey building on the outside. Grey walls made up of porous cement, too little rebar, and bricks begging to be crumbled and returned to the earth.
The floors, especially in the corners, were still thick with dirt and trash from the last time the building flooded. The watermarks in the back room tell the story of a flood that went so high it took the paint off the ceiling and deposited dirt and trash in its place. If these walls could talk they would tell you it didn't flood once but twice in the last eight years.
It was a classroom of sorts or at least in the most general sense of the word. There were three desks, two peering intently at a fresh math lesson on a chalkboard looking far too advanced for the summation of its surroundings. The third desk was on its side, like that student who never knew quite when it was time to settle down and pay attention.
With no windows or doors to protect from the elements the air was heavy with humidity compounded by 98 degrees of motivation sapping heat. It was so hot I paced just to manufacturer a breeze.
I had walked in over a pile of trash and rubble and now stood in the middle of a room. Part of me wanted to figure out the math lesson on the board but a better part of me, a deeper part of me, wanted to be quiet and reflective, allow myself to fully feel a scene that wanted to make a connection.
I found myself becoming emotional, what was it about this place, what was it that some part of me was already experiencing yet my consciousness was left desperately trying to catch up? In the last flood over 600 people had died in this very town. Was this sadness and reverence? No... however appropriate that would be that was not it. This feeling wasn't sadness. It was humbly reflective and full of beauty. It had the gumption of fortitude and that's when it hit me... it was hope.
When I got home I pulled the picture up on my phone and told a friend about it. He stared at the photo for a second. I thought he was going through the same journey I had. He looked at me and said "That is great stuff, we need to go back there and get pictures of a little black kid at the chalkboard. Can you imagine if we showed that at a conference? There wouldn't be a dry eye in the room. We could help these kids."
And just like that hope was turned into a spectacle. The spin machine was turned on and the goal was to dial up a little sensationalization to complement that devastation. As much as it was for a good cause it equally felt like a lie. I don't blame my friend; it's what we have been taught to do.
Unfortunately, big problems demand big money. If you want to raise money to fix problems in a country like Haiti the go-to best practice is to create a spectacle of someone's pain and suffering. Sensationalize the saving of lives and education of children never stopping to ask ourselves why such things would possibly need to be more compelling than they already are. Never stopping to value this budding and beautiful hope because we can manufacture it in mass if we can just sell enough people on the despair.
These regular people found the courage and hope to fight for a better tomorrow. They should be celebrated. They are the story. If they've managed to put the pain and suffering behind them and refuse to use it as a crutch why should we?
I was reading a social media post the other day and a person was telling someone how important it is to only give to the good charities. The ones that make the best use of your money to help the hopeless. I have traveled all over the world, I have been to the largest slum in the world and I have traveled across a country rocked by the deadliest natural disaster in modern history and I am still looking for these masses of hopeless people. Every time I travel I am reminded of a sentence I wrote in my journal the first time I went to Africa. "Never underestimate the power of people who have nothing to teach you all you need to know about everything that matters." This empty classroom, full of lessons and hope powerfully whispered the same.
Originally Published by @natejmueller at Medium. Photos taken by Nathaiel Mueller.