Picking Sides

By George Bean

Boys would play soccer on the long, dusty field in the centre of the complex. The older boys picked teams from the kids sitting on the bleachers and once the teams were filled, the choosing stopped. The others called the mean-looking boy “Chino” because of his narrow eyes, but he may or may not have had a Chinese grandparent. Calling somebody “Chinese” was something like an insult, but it was never clear to outsiders and I’m not sure the kids were entirely sure themselves. Chino was usually one of the captains of a squad, but there was surprisingly little politics involved with his choices; those that could play, regardless of whether or not they were liked, were always chosen.

At CIMA, the Centre for Rehabilitation of Young Adults, there were two sessions for games: one at 6:30 in the morning, after the morning prayer, and one twelve hours later, before dinner. Most of the students and faculty gathered around the games for the morning sessions, but I was generally struggling to get out of bed at that time and would usually wait for the evening session to make an appearance on the pitch. I was typically picked first because I was about six inches taller than anybody else and significantly heavier. I could also still hold my own, years after playing for my school squad. Still, I always suspected it was more fun for them to play against me, because my size and my status as an outsider made me more of a target on the field. The type of soccer they play in Lima has little to do with teams and a great deal to do with individual prowess; egos are formed and identities grown entirely based on skill on the pitch. Perhaps there is never any hope of making it as a professional player, but if a kid was good enough he could always hold some respect with the rest of the group. Getting beaten on the pitch meant more than losing a game. It meant giving up bragging rights, which translated into credibility, and for the good players each game provided the chance to humiliate an opponent and steal themselves some respect. So I, with so much to lose, became an easy target on the field.

One of the older boys, Maycol, told me from the beginning that he didn’t play soccer, that he preferred basketball. I never really saw him play basketball, but I did see him playing with a soccer ball once or twice, and I understood from his clumsiness that playing in the games would mean something like disgrace for him. I also knew that sitting out saved him the humiliation of being beaten on the field, which means a lot when there aren’t many other arenas to compete in. Maycol was only atypical in that he actually spoke to me about his home life. He didn’t know his father and he and his older brother had moved out of their house when they were little. According to Maycol, his mother had been a prostitute and her boyfriend had beaten her habitually. He also said that once his uncle had found his mother beaten severely in a ditch and his brother and him had set out to find and kill the boyfriend. I never knew whether or not they found the man, but after seeing their mother taken care of, the two brothers left again to live on the streets. Apparently Maycol’s brother had stabbed a rival street kid to protect Maycol and was serving time in prison for the offence, even while Maycol was at CIMA. Maycol, for his part, seemed immensely proud of his brother and wore his own scars aggressively. He happily explained the histories of each one and seemed most proud of the ones that had resulted from clashes with the police, the most prominent of which was a bullet wound cut into his elbow.

The most striking thing about CIMA was the complete lack of privacy within the complex. If one worked there, he or she was on duty twenty-four hours a day. For the “teachers” who stayed with the kids, it would be impossible to have a single hour of solitary time. This necessitated ten-day shifts, after which the teacher would be allowed to leave and spend time with his own family at home. While living in the houses with their students, the teacher had his own small room off the main room where the students slept. The only divider between the two spaces was a curtain and the adult had to be aware of what happened in the dorm all night.

In this way CIMA felt like a strange mix between a prison complex and a school. There were no gates to the complex or sheer walls to scale, but every few weeks one of the new kids would climb over a shallow stone wall during the afternoon farm session and be declared missing a few hours later. Most of the staff, including as many kids as could fit in the back of the trucks, would then drive out of the complex, with sandy gravel rising behind them, to give chase. Apparently some kids had gotten away in the past, but nobody did while I was there. I suspected it might have been a form of entertainment more than anything else; the thrill of escaping for those daring enough to try it and the thrill of seeking for the rest. Either way the entire episode was usually viewed as a prison break, but somehow felt like a spectator sport.

In fact, the school really was something like a prison for some of its residents. Many of the children had been sent there by their parents because of unruly behaviour. The harder boys, those like Maycol, had been given the choice between serving time at CIMA or in prison. Obviously the state’s proposition wasn’t much of a choice at all, and CIMA had its fair share of convicts, or would-be-convicts. All these boys were under the age of eighteen.

I was barely twenty when I started at the school, which made me something of an older brother to the youngest group of boys. One of the kids that started at the same time as I did was only six when he arrived. He looked like any other kindergärtner, which is what he would have been if his parents had any money. Instead he had lived on the streets, like all the others had, and had learned to fight and steal for his food. Cocaine is very cheap in Lima, so cheap that it make sense as a food replacement sometimes. That meant that in dorms “1A” and “1B,” where the youngest students lived, most of the kids had been using for several years. Many of the older kids tried to beat more serious addictions to heroin or cocaine while at CIMA; a fact that always baffled me. I never understood how the boys could beat addictions that could be difficult or impossible to break in clinics. Having seen some of my own friends in fancy rehab centres for addictions to marijuana, I didn’t understand how the students at CIMA could possibly be expected to break addictions to harder drugs without the help of doctors or therapy. Most commonly, I was told that working in the fields would help them get the addiction out of their system and that farm work could do that better than anything else could.

I don’t think Rafael, the six year old who arrived when I did, even really understood the permanency of my leaving when I left at the end of the summer. I’m sure that at some point he and the other kids in his dorm had asked me if I was ever coming back, which was always the first question a boy asked after he found out a volunteer was leaving. I think I said that I would return soon, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t. The older kids knew that the volunteers who came would stay for a week, or a month, or a summer, and usually never returned. For all the sanctimony of flying to a third-world country for community service, I could never shake the feeling that I was buying an experience and a sense of good deeds done. When the older boys asked if I was going to return to CIMA it always seemed tinged with a sense of sarcasm, as if the inquiry were more of a desperate taunt than a question. They seemed to understand the nature of my charity, even though it took some time for me understand that myself. I suppose it just came from experience–those that had been at CIMA long enough understood that it was a rare occasion if somebody came back. Even if a volunteer did return, there was no telling where the kids themselves would be. Often the boys would have grown too old to stay at the school.

Two years later, I find myself having trouble with some of the student’s names, even those who I was closest to. I once asked Maycol to write me something like a memoir; an account of everything that he had told me in person. He did, on two small pieces of double-sided lined paper, crumpled and flattened, and then handed over as a gift. I lost the papers several days later and couldn’t bring myself to ask him again.