A Lesson from a Child

by Trevor Walker

Sometimes lifeís most valuable lessons arrive in the smallest, most innocent packages, and sometimes, the more we search, the more elusive they are. Iíve always tried to keep my eyes open for these lessons, but Iím blinded by lifes frivolity and complications. As it turns out, itís those very things that we must shed to see what is truly there- kind of like not being able to see the forest for the trees. On a recent trip to Mexicoís Yucatan peninsula, I learned what might prove to be the most valuable lesson of my life. A lesson so pure and glaring, that it was somehow painful to learn.

My wife and I had been on a tour at the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Coba.  We had spent the morning in awe of the incredible achievements of this fascinating and brilliant race of people. Our guide, Eduardo, told us one amazing fact after another about this miraculous site. It was said that this was, in fact, the main city in the Yucatan peninsula, even more important than Chichen-Itza or Tulum. The Mayans had constructed roads from Coba, reaching in each of the four compass directions. The road to Chichen-Itza, north from Coba, is one hundred kilometres long and arrow-straight.  It was constructed from limestone blocks, cut by hand with the same immaculate precision used to build their temples, ball courts and observatories. The roads were then coated with a layer of white sand and crushed conch and seashells. This was done so they would sparkle at night- when the Mayans travelled from city to city. Even though they had use of the wheel and domesticated animals, they did not use them for transportation, but rather walked the roads and used baskets to carry their leather, jade and other wares for trade and commerce. We rented a site-taxi, which is a three-wheeled bicycle with a thirty-inch wide seat on the front, to be ushered around the expansive city. The young Mayan guide spoke with pride about this place while he pointed out poisonous trees, not to be touched, and the deceiving danger of the young jaguars in the primary jungle. It was truly fascinating, and we stared at each other, slack-jawed and bewildered, hanging on his every word. We returned to the tourist van almost unable to speak, our heads swimming with what we had witnessed, and loaded ourselves in.

 In the early afternoon we pulled into a small Mayan village where the residents lived just as they had for hundreds of years. They had no hydro or plumbing in their simple one-room huts, and slept in hammocks suspended from the pole-walls and thatched roofs. Outside, their skinny, short-haired dogs all lined up to take turns at our vans tires in the sweltering, Mexican, mid-day heat. The Mayan women, in their snow-white ceremonial gowns, had prepared a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes and pickled cucumbers for us, cooked over an open fire and served with pride. We ate like wild animals, trying hard not to take too much food, lest we give away our spoiled North American, gluttonous ways. The meal was washed down with fresh pineapple juice, and finally satiated, we wandered back to the van to bask in its air-conditioned comfort, and seek refuge from the staggering humidity of the jungle. This is when things changed for me- I was about to learn the most valuable lesson of my life.

As we approached the van, a young boy peeked from around the other side, and when he saw us he retreated back, out of view.  We put on our best smiles and slowed our pace. Suddenly he re-appeared with a small red flower, just on the verge of opening. He had seen my wife approaching and held the flower out to her with great pride. In the shade of the van, he had been preparing an offering of several beautiful, scarlet flowers, laid with great care on a chosen place of the rock fence bordering his home. His smile was infectious, and consumed his whole face, but his eyes told a different story. My wife gently accepted the flower and quickly fished out a small coin from her change-purse and held it out to him. He seemed confused, and his smile faded to a look of bewilderment. He had not been trying to sell us anything; he merely wanted to present a gift to her. His mother appeared at the back of the van and, speaking to him sternly, in Mayan, the young boy quickly began to back away. We spoke as softly as possible in our broken, feeble Spanish, and motioned to her that we would like to take his picture. She smiled and nodded her approval to us, backing away to be out of the picture. My wife stood beside him and I carefully prepared the camera for a picture. The boy pasted on his best smile for the camera and I took a quick photo. He had obviously never seen a digital camera before, and after the picture was taken I turned the camera around so he could see himself, and my wife, on the small screen. A smile spread across his face like a bush fire, and he looked at me with amazement. I put the camera away and we started to turn when he, once again, caught my eye. He was making direct eye contact with me, but instead of turning away he let his gaze remain. In his deep, brown eyes I saw something I have never seen in my life. He had the look of an old man, or a boy who is wise far beyond his years. In that fleeting moment he looked beyond my eyes and deep into my soul. I felt like he easily knew more about me than even I knew. He smiled gently and held his vigilant gaze. I wanted to turn away, Iím not sure why, and I was suddenly very unsure of myself. I was suddenly aware of how little I knew about life, and how much he truly did know. For all my possessions and treasures, none of which he had, I was struck with a feeling of inadequacy and shame. For all my years I had engaged in a struggle to gain material objects and success, but compared to the wisdom of this boy, I had nothing. With a single look he had broken down the walls of confidence I had taken decades to build, none of it mattered anymore, and in that split second I realized he was more than I could ever hope to be. 

My wife touched my arm and brought me back from a place so distant and humbling that I had lost track of my own life. I turned away and we got into the van. Outside, the boy climbed a tree and continued to smile warmly and wave to us. I waved back to him and blew him a kiss. Without warning, tears began to well up in my eyes and I turned away to wipe them. This child had touched me so deeply that I was unable to speak. Iím not sure if the tears were that of joy, or shame, or a sudden recognition of something so primal and deep that I had never known it even existed. Something for which I had been searching my entire life, was as clear as the smile on his face. I thought that when I returned home, and the intensity of the encounter wore off, I would come to grips with my emotions. That did not happen, but rather the feelings continued to build to a feverish level, and even as I write this story, the tears continue to flow. I still donít know why, but I do know I shall never, ever forget that child or the lesson he taught me that day - a lesson about love, acceptance and pride, a lesson about how easy material objects are to obtain, but how elusive true knowledge and meaning are and a lesson from a child, without a single word spoken.

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