It’s late Saturday night, about 1:30 AM, and Roger Wolfson is back from spending a full day in New Haven. An event today changed his perspective of the world and he’d like to share it with anyone who has the patience to read this essay.
He’s typing this (very softly) on the computer in the downstairs study/guestroom of his parent’s New Haven house; his 90-year-old grandfather sleeps within his sight. He can hear him talking in his sleep, coping with the bureaucrats in his mind, as we all do ‑‑ “What do you mean I need to have Connecticut plates…” “I took all the medication, like I was told…” and other garbled phrases with similar incredulity and seasoned passion. He is lonely for Roger’s grandmother and he is not happy with the cards life deals an elderly man; his expressions and his fitfulness say the same things, why, this isn’t just, this isn’t right; why?
His mildly tortured ramblings have inspired Roger Wolfson to approach the issue of the day: what good is it to fight lost causes? Aren’t we just protesting in our sleep?
Today Roger went to the top of a mountain that overlooks New Haven and Long Island Sound with a friend of his who is a Yale medical student. They went up there to “get away from it all.” But, near where they parked, they heard drums and followed the sound with curiosity. Soon they came upon a community action organization that was treating about 100 little kids from inner‑city New Haven to some fun in the sun on the mountaintop.
There was dancing and live music and singing and children painting each other’s faces and hotdogs and lemonade. Roger and his friend Julie jumped right in and danced with a bunch of the kids and then Julie and Roger grabbed some of the brushes and paints and started illustrating the upturned faces of two of the children. No sooner had they started when they each had a line of 30 kids, desperate for painted faces, but probably more so, desperate for a moment of an adult’s attention.
The children were beautiful, and they relished the little hearts and roses and butterflies Roger and Julie painted on the girls and the bats and tigers and masks the boys wanted so very much. Roger tried to paint more gender‑unbiased items but the children were thirsty for “la difference.” In fact, it seemed to Roger that what they wanted most was a gender statement; even at that age and in that forum of green, pink, red, blue, and yellow water‑based paints the children found those distinctions important to express.
Also compelling to Roger Wolfson was the fact that most of the young girls immediately lined up in front of Julie and most of the boys in front of Roger; they automatically divided along lines of gender. This is learned behavior, Roger is confident of it; even if it is instinctual, he does believe that society encourages it from day one.
The adults working with them seemed to love Julie and Roger and reached out to them with a “brothers in arms” mentality; yes, you two (they seemed to say), you are a part of this righteous, this noble, this *losing* struggle to save children. They hugged Roger and Julie and a few of the adults wanted them to paint them, too, at the end; just to be nice. It was very sweet. Roger was touched.
There was a little boy there with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who was barely aware of his surroundings but loved the music, he knew how to dance, at least. As Roger carried him and danced, the boy broke Roger’s heart. His mother told everyone as she left that this had been one of the happiest days of his life, so perhaps the event contributed something for the children. Roger knew it was happy for him. But what did they really accomplish?
The adults are trying all they can. But not for a second would any of them have told Roger, “what I do today to help these kids will prevent them from falling into the statistical trap of poverty.” Sure, they can take the kids up to the top of the mountain for a view. It helps. It moves a teaspoon of water into the desert. But then they’ve got to return to the valley and the harsh realities of a society that, much of the time, couldn’t care less about children.
The low‑income white, Latino, and African‑American kids were in that magical age between 4 and 9 when they can communicate freely and with love and aren’t jaded by maturity. In a few years they will not scramble to have their faces painted, they will have few, if any random, friendly experiences with adults from different backgrounds; statistically speaking the girls may end up mothers and the boys, perhaps, deadbeat dads. Many may end up in prison. They are still within our reach now, but just wait, not for long; they are headed full speed away from the type of future their wealthier suburban peers will know.
So Roger’s question of today was, “why do they do it? Why do those adults he meets today dedicate every day of their life to fighting the good fight, the battles that seem already lost?”
And providence provided for Roger three immediate responses.
First, when he sat down to write this, his e‑mails came up and he read a new message sent to him with the following quote:
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” ‑Martin Luther King, Jr. King. Perhaps by sharing the lives of these children, even momentarily, the people Roger met that day were really perfecting their own self‑images and their own lives.
Second, Roger’s grandfather’s hearing aid woke him up suddenly and he looked up at Roger. All the tension that had moments earlier been stored in his forehead disappeared as he recognized Roger. Roger closed the computer and went over to help him remove the hearing aid he had accidentally left in. Roger leaned over, brushed his hair away from his face, kissed him goodnight, and told him that he loved him. His grandfather put his hand against Roger’s cheek and, with a similar expression as the children today, repeated the sentiment back to Roger.
What good is warmth and affection, expressed to strangers or to family?
Better than anything else in the world.