When I had finished, Sandra made a few announcements in English. The children understood English quite well after spending time with volunteers, and the little ones who didn't understand as well had it translated by the older children sitting near them.
The big announcement of that particular evening was the introduction of three new garbage cans that had been placed out front, one marked "Plastic and Glass," one "Paper," and one "other." Sandra explained their fairly straightforward functions. She was rewarded with eighteen blank stares. Trash in Nepal, like all Third World countries, is a constant problem. Littering is the norm, and environmental protection falls very low on the government's priority list, well below the challenges of keeping the citizens alive with food and basic health care. Farid took a stab at explaining the concept of protecting Mother Earth, but the children still struggled to understand why anybody would categorize garbage.
"Maybe we should demonstrate it?" I suggested.
Sandra smiled. "That is a great idea. Go ahead, Conor."
This was a big moment. I had never interacted with children before in this way; I had no nieces, no nephews, no close friends with children, no baby cousins. I steeled myself for this interaction. Fact: I knew I could talk to people. Fact: Children were little people. Little, scary people. I took solace in the fact that if this demonstration went horribly wrong, I could probably outrun them.
"Okay, kids!" I declared, psyching myself up. I rubbed my hands together to let them know that fun was on the way. "Time for a demonstration!"
I picked up a piece of paper leaning against my stool and crumpled it up. I walked over to Hriteek, one of the five-year-old boys, and handed it to him.
"okay, Hriteek, now I want you to take this and throw it in the proper garbage can!" I spoke loudly, theatrically.
Hriteek took the paper in his little hand and held it for a few seconds, looking at the three green bins lined up with their labels visible. Then he started to cry. I hadn't expected that. But I knew that kids sometimes cried - I had seen it on TV. This was no time to quit.
"C'mon, buddy," I urged him. "It's not tough - throw the trash in the right bin," I said, nodding toward the "Paper" bin.
No luck. Finally I took it from him, giving him an understanding pat on the shoulder, and walked over to throw it in the proper bin.
"Brother!" called out Anish, one of the older kids sitting opposite us. "Brother - wait, no throw, he make for you! Picture!"
I uncrumpled the paper to discover a crude but colorful picture of a large pointy mountain and a man - me, judging by the white crayon he used for skin tone - holding hands with a cow. On the bottom it was signed in large red letters: hriteek. Uh-oh.
"Hriteek! Yes! Great picture! Not trash, Hriteek! Not trash!" I said quickly. He cried louder.
Sandra leaned over to me. "It's no problem, Conor," she said, and took Hriteek's hand. "Hriteek, you do not need to cry. Conor Brother is still learning. He doesn't understand much yet. You will have to teach him." This brought a laugh from the children, and Hriteek, despite himself, started giggling.
"Sorry, Hriteek!" I said over Sandra's shoulder. "My bad, Hriteek! Your picture was very beautiful, I'm keeping it!" I smoothed it out against my chest as Hriteek eyed me suspiciously.
"Okay, everybody," Sandra said, clapping her hands. "Bedtime!"
The children leaped up, brought their plates to the kitchen, cleaned up, and marched up to bed. Anish, the eight-year-old who had informed me of my traumatic error, lingered in the kitchen to help wash the pots at the outdoor tap. By the time he finished helping clean up, the rest of the children had already gone up to their rooms. He lifted his arms to me to be carried upstairs. "We are very happy you are here, Conor Brother!" he said happily.
Excerpted from Little Princes by Conor Grennan. Copyright © 2011 by Conor Grennan. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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