When we’re in middle school, life seems to be ever-lasting. We are care-free,
blissfully unaware of anything other than our immediate surroundings. We are,
effectively, trapped by our own developing brains that are beginning the search for
identity and meaning and leaving very little to be concerned about other’s. Middle
schoolers are selfish. They talk back. They roll their eyes when you speak of others and
their feelings. They don’t understand the bigger and more important concepts of this
world because biology is working against them. So, when my grandma offered to take
me on a cruise in the Caribbean over spring break in 8th grade, my first thought was,
“my friends are going to be so jealous!”.
The excursion we’d picked the day we would be in Panama cited a nice city tour
ending in a trip to the rainforest and the Panama Canal. Entering the city was like
stepping into a different world. The driver and tour guide explained that Panama really
doesn’t have driving laws, but the unwritten rule was that the “little car always stops for
the bigger car”. I was genuinely scared for the first time in my memory. It didn’t matter
that we were in a tour bus or that our guide was being so upbeat. The thought of a place
without traffic laws, signs, or functioning lights made the entire city seem much more
foreign than my suburban neighborhood at home. As we went deeper into the city the
poverty grew exponentially. To my left, the guide said, was the biggest shopping center
in Panama. The only issue was, you couldn’t even see it. There was a thirty foot cement
wall circling the complex with barbed wire jutting out at the top.
Someone asked why the wall was there, and the guide casually explained that it
was simply too dangerous to have people come and go as they please. There was only
one entrance and exit, and each had security guards posted and did checks on all the
cars coming in and out. I could look at the hard, grey wall any longer, but the view to my
right was worse.
There were apartments stacked six stories tall, if you could even call them
apartments. Most of the walls were so worn down you could see people walking around
inside, even the ones on the top floor. Extensions had been built precariously over the
street below, with as many as two extra room sticking out over the street, some meeting
with others in the middle. These rooms were covered with what looked like scrap pieces
of metal, pieces that we would throw into recycling without another glance back at
home. Dirty clotheslines ran back and forth between the buildings, with tattered shirts
and pants limply strung like Christmas lights. There were children as young as five or six
running barefoot between parked cars, holding filthy cans and rattling the few coins
they had, asking in colloquial Spanish for some change.
The chocolate croissant and fresh fruit I’d had for breakfast no longer sat well in
my stomach as I thought of the luxuries on the cruise ship in comparison to the horrible
poverty I saw here. I was scared, not only for myself as I translated the news flashing
across the bus’s TV screen into English (three shootings so far today, one major robbery
of a nearby bank) but for the people, the children I saw that were stuck in the only life
they’d ever know. These people were so incredibly brave without the slightest awareness
of how they were living their lives. It was the first time I’d ever truly feared for others
because of what they were suffering.
When I think of bravery, I think of the barefoot kindergarteners scampering
across the horribly dangerous streets of Panama City trying to bring home enough
change for their parents to buy a loaf of bread. I think of the mothers and fathers
working tirelessly to bring home food for their children, not knowing if they will be able
to eat next month. I think of the security guards at the shopping center who work there
every day not knowing if it will be their last because someone is desperate they have to
force their way in. I then think of myself and the way I was scared as we raced through
the busy streets. The bravery I saw in the people of Panama four years ago has seeped
into my own life. I am no longer a scared, naive thirteen year old. I am a woman with a
bright future who is forever grateful for the opportunities I have been blessed with and a
newfound courage to take with me as I reach out to what this world has to offer.
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