A little boy’s strength

Jocelyn - Berkeley, California
Entered on September 30, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I believe human beings show the greatest strength in the darkest of moments. Our strength is born of an unassailable dignity that each of us carries inside. I learned this lesson from a 12-year-old named Victor.

Victor lived in an abandoned building in the bus terminal of a poor El Salvadoran town called Quezaltepeque. When he visited the lean-to where his parents lived, his mother screamed at him, his father beat him. Usually, Victor slept on a strip of cardboard, sniffing glue to dull all that pain.

I’d first met Victor while conducting research on the country’s violent street gangs. He was staying temporarily at a shelter run by former gang members I knew. When he escaped to the streets, I followed.

At first, I was more than a little afraid – both for Victor, and for myself. I felt sorry for these children, and I wanted to change their situations. But I was just 22. Who did I think I was, trying to dream up solutions to problems I hardly understood?

Victor reached out to me as I wandered around that bus terminal. He introduced me to his friends, who until then had eyed me with distrust. Despite his circumstances, Victor displayed a consistent generosity to everyone around him. If he found a fallen mango in the creek, he shared it. If someone offered him a tamale, he broke it in half.

He loved dancing to 80s music and holding babies, and he proudly led me to a hidden swimming hole where he and his friends bathed using slivers of soap.

I felt a special connection with this little boy with his child’s candor and his old man’s wisdom. I imagine no one ever explained to Victor how special he was. He told me once that I was a good person and he was a bad person. “God loves you more,” he said, his big brown eyes widening with conviction.

The pure wrongness of this pronouncement made my stomach drop. I knelt down on the dirty asphalt and tried to argue with him. Then again, aren’t wounded souls always being told they’re responsible for their own suffering?

I knew he couldn’t see in himself the strength I saw, much less the beauty.

One gray afternoon, I was sitting on a doorstep when I felt something crack against my skull. A mentally ill alcoholic named Trinidad had accidentally hit me with the stick she was wielding as she chased after Victor. Apparently, he owed her 60 cents. I watched my young friend lose one of his laceless, too-big shoes. I saw him fall. Dodging Trinidad’s blows, I scooped him up. I wanted to carry him forever – away from all this hurt.

Instead, after about 30 yards, he asked me, quietly, to put him down. He wiped his tear-smudged cheeks, straightened his back, and walked back toward the bus terminal.

Nearly a decade later, the power of that moment –and the strength of that little boy – still takes my breath away.