We never truly know the inner journey of another. I can only guess at the feelings, fears, motivations of anyone… even of a partner or of a best friend. Clearly that’s true – a case in point: my best friend in youth became so estranged and not at all the girl I thought I knew. Sure, people change, but I reflect and think, “Yeah, I probably knew nothing about how she really felt.” Or what anyone has ever felt. And it’s a challenge and a pain to face that you don’t really know the people you think you know, or at least not the way you think you do.
It is stranger, though, to reflect on the hidden, inner journeys of the people whose paths crossed ours but whom we did not know at all. Peripheral characters who populated our world, briefly appeared like little more than a blip upon the screen of the movies of our own lives. We thought of these people very little, except where their actions appeared briefly before us.
In junior high school a girl named Lupe appeared. She spoke no English, which I can only imagine created the tremendous frustration and anger she regularly exhibited. At the time it was easy just to dismiss her (and I cringe as I write this) as “some Mexican kid”. The town had a large number of migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, but the truth is… what did I ever know about any of them or of the children who came with them? Or even if that was their story? Maybe they were there for some other reason. That is the point – I have no idea. It is not that we have to know the stories of everyone we meet or see, but the danger is in assuming the background story because it’s easier, and lazier. We can make assumptions and assign stories and stereotypes to people, making it easier to categorize, dismiss and dehumanize them. It is not that that was the intention at the time. No one wanted to actively make fun of Lupe. We just had no way to reach her. Even if we had been active in trying to engage her, it would have been next to impossible. Why? Because we were Americans, and despite being enrolled in basic Spanish classes, we only spoke English. Of course!
It is not as though these stories and people come to mind frequently, but in a bout of crazy exhaustion recently, I used the word “loopy” and then as if the light in my life’s film projector flickered on, there was Lupe’s face in my mind. Lupe’s overly colorful and unfashionable wardrobe, her thick, out of control hair tamed by equally colorful rubber bands, seeing her plow through the hallways silently and angrily, one morning kicking the corner of a classroom door held open by a piece of wood, sending the wood flying, causing the door to slam shut. By the time the teacher in that classroom came out to scold the offending party, Lupe was long gone, but my friend T and I were walking by, and the teacher looked at T as if she were the culprit. Flummoxed, T exclaimed, “Lupe did it!”
And that is the sum total of what I know, knew and remember of Lupe, and it’s only now, more than 20 years later, that I begin to wonder about the inner life and frustrations of Lupe. Where did she come from, how long would she remain? Where is she now? What did she think about back then? Did she share the same adolescent frustrations we all felt, compounded by the language barrier, not being able to talk to anyone in school, and not fitting in?
When I was even younger, just a small child, a Cambodian refugee joined my second-grade class. His name was Praseuth. His “plight” had a deep influence on me to the point that I remember him very clearly even now. And the sensitivity of my youth intact, I felt so much for him and his situation, even if I could not fully comprehend it back then. I was untainted by the hideousness of … society, judgment and misconceptions. People did make fun of him and his ill-fitting wardrobe, and this broke my heart. I wanted to jump to his defense, which was something I did infrequently in general because I was ridiculously shy – could barely defend myself. He was quiet, but exceedingly polite, always making an effort to converse politely, rapidly picking up English.
I remember very clearly a picture he drew, particularly in contrast to pictures the other students drew. They drew over-the-top, brightly colored rainbows and unicorns and his monochrome pencil drawing was a lone tree, bare of its leaves, with just a few leaves blowing away in the wind. I am sure I have written about it before because I found the picture so striking, so lonely and so haunting then, so much so that it still haunts. And what of him? Where is he now? What of his hidden, inner journey?