200 Colored Buttons and 4 Cans of Diet Coke

So, I live on the west side of Michigan – about 30 minutes from Lake Michigan. There’s a school on the other side of the state where an adoptive mom teaches – she has two children from Haiti and I consider her a friend.

When I was working for the orphanage, she asked me if I would come to their school and talk to their kids about Haiti and what it is like as part of their multi-cultural week. Obviously, I was very happy to – not only was it what I did for a living, but it was and is a passion of mine.

The day came, and I showed up with a small cooler and with 4 bags of various colored buttons. The teacher had 6 kids make sure that each of the approximately 160 students picked a button out of one of the bags before they sat down in the auditorium.

After introductions, I told them they were going to be participating and asked them all to stand up.

“If you have a black button, I need you to sit down. Right now.”

“Those of you who did not sit down, take a look around at your friends who are sitting down.”

“They died.”

“Before kindergarten. They never went to school.”

“You never got to play with them on the play ground. That many of the children in Haiti never live to the age of 5.”

Stunned silence…….

“Okay, moving on. If you have a blue button, please sit down.”

“You are alive, and most of you live until adulthood, but you never got more than a 5th grade education. You never got to learn the things that it really takes to hold down a steady job. You missed out on the “high school” years because you were hauling water or working in the fields and trying to figure out how to make enough of a living to put food on the table. Tonight. You aren’t worried about next week, you’re worried about tonight. Oh and you might have learned how to write your name, you might not have learned that skill.

“If you have a yellow button – please sit down. Congratulations, you “graduated” from middle school, but never any farther. Minimal wage manual labor jobs are in your future.”

At this point, approximately 80% of the students are sitting down. The students who are standing up are looking around at all of their friends who are sitting down and starting to feel uncomfortable. Why are they still standing?

“If you have a green button, please sit down. Yep, you guessed it. You got to go to high school, but you didn’t make it through. Graduation was not in your vocabulary and any time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to say you have a high school diploma.”

At this point, I asked them all to take a look around the auditorium. A minute (well, maybe 30 seconds) of silence as they all looked around and it sunk in that of the approximately 160 students who came into the auditorium, there were 4 still standing.

They had the red buttons.

That’s right four.

One over there.

One in the back.

One right in the middle of a really long row of friends.

and one sitting off to the side.

“If I did it right, all four of you have red buttons, correct?”

They all say yes or nod. Obviously feeling uncomfortable being the only four still standing in the auditorium.

“Come down front please.”

They slowly and reluctantly come down to the front and I meet them at the front edge of the stage. I hand them the small cooler that has been sitting next to the podium.

“Here, this is for you. You four are the entire graduating class. That’s right, out of all of these fellow students, out of all of those who died before they could even attend school, you achieved the statistically unachievable. You graduated from high school.”

“In some of the worst schools in America, it would be considered a tragedy if half of the students didn’t graduate. Less than 4% graduate on average in Haiti.”

“Open up, the cooler is for you. While I’m talking more about Haiti, have a seat right here in the front row, enjoy the Cokes, enjoy the candy bars. You earned it.”

Awkward silence…….

“Mr. Vanderwell, can we take these home instead? We feel really awkward eating these in front of our friends who have nothing.”

“And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the point of my time here and a little glimpse of what life is like in Haiti.”

I told them more about Haiti and about the orphanage, but I could have (and probably should have) ended it right there.

At that point, less than 4% of the students graduate from high school and the United States is a very short plane trip away and it doesn’t seem to bother us. What’s up with that?

I don’t know whether it bothered them more or bothered me more.

But I know I won’t forget the time I spent with those high schoolers. It’s been 6 years and the statistics might have changed a little bit, but very very little.

However, according to the current US administration, Haiti is doing very well and able to absorb an additional 60,000 people who would have to go back if the Temporary Protection Status is lifted.

Stay tuned – how does Gilligan fit into this?

Tom


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