I do not remember much about the boy, and I cannot say I remember much about him now besides that his name was Claens. I met him when I was maybe eleven years old, a time when I was aware that there was a world around me that was very different from the world I experienced, but a time when I was still ignorant to that world. The private Catholic school I had been going to for six years, and was destined to go to for another three, isolated me from much of the world in a regrettable way. While the school was taking a somewhat obvious step towards more diversity, I was still in a grade with only one black student; the other twenty nine students were white, like me. World history class only taught ancient history, shielding me from the state of our modern world, and religion class focused only on the religion I was told to believe in. English class had me reading solely American literature. The only class from which I received some real knowledge of the world was Spanish. I loved Spanish class for that reason.
My mother noticed the fact that the world was being hidden from me, and often made steps to break down the walls between other cultures and myself. She often organized international trips for my family so that I could see the rest of the world. I loved to travel, as I still do. I enjoyed seeing how different people lived as much as I enjoyed seeing old monuments and buildings. However, I didn’t see any of those things very often. That is the only reason I know of that my mother would decide to take this Claens kid in. She had come into contact with a program, the name of which I cannot remember, which was designed to “bring inner-city kids to suburban areas like ours to give them a good summer,” as my mother described it. Fifth grade was just finishing up, and it was nearly time to begin our annual two month vacation to Long Beach Island. This year, we would bring Claens with us for a week.
It was early June, and my family and I were waiting in the main lobby of my middle school for a bus that was already very late. After the bus arrived, Claens came off of it to meet us. He was about a year older than me and a few inches taller. He wore his older brother’s old clothes and approached us with a small duffel bag. I knew that he was from New York City, but not much else. His French-sounding last name led us all to believe his family was from Haiti, a notion that was later confirmed. An ever-present feeling of poverty lingered in the air when we were together. Through his clothes and his speech I could tell that I was much better off than he was. As we met each other for the first time in the halls of my private school, I knew what task was ahead of me. Being the child in my family whose age was closest to Claens’ I knew it was mainly my duty to show him a good time this summer.
As I spoke with him more, I learned his story. He was from a small family who had moved to The United States from Haiti when he was much younger. They did it to escape poverty, but were only met by more when they moved to New York. It was the sort of classic story you read about. I could tell that his parents wanted him to have a good life. They dressed him in the little clothes that they had and put him in this program to show him a good time, and perhaps to inspire him to work hard as well. I gained a lot of respect for him and his family. I never had to drastically change my life to get to where I was. I never had to leave my life behind and move to another country just to get by. From the day I was born, I always had more than Claens’ family are likely to ever have. This was the beginning of a very pensive journey for me, despite my young age. We departed for the shore that day.
The New Jersey coast was nothing like he had ever seen, and I could tell. He seized and valued every moment he had in the warm climate that LBI offered, and his enthusiasm inspired me to do the same. He smiled more than most of the people I knew. It was like the sun energized him. He liked to run, especially on the sand, which was like a new platform for him. Swimming and being at the beach was not a new experience for him – he did it in Haiti – but he had not done it in a long time. I was always impressed with the energy he had, and I pushed myself to be just as active. He wore a striking bright orange bathing suit with white flowers on it whenever we went swimming. Whether we were at the waterpark, at the beach, or at the pool in my backyard, he wore that bathing suit. Roughly five days into this vacation of his, I decided to ask him about the bathing suit. I distinctly remember the exchange that followed, because it changed my life forever.
“Claens,” I asked him on the sand at the beach that day, “Why do you always wear that same orange bathing suit?” Nearly every day that we had gone swimming up to then, I had worn a different bathing suit of mine. They were all dark blue or green, like most of the clothes I wore when I was that age. I never wore anything flashy or bright like this orange bathing suit. In fact, I probably wore my school uniform more than anything else for the nine years I went to that school. The uniform we had was a white polo shirt with khaki pants and a belt. I had become used to wearing those uncomfortable clothes by then, and I did not have many other clothes besides navy t shirts and basketball shorts. In some ways, I was jealous of the orange bathing suit he wore wherever we went together.
“Why would I need more than one?” he responded, quickly and clearly. The response caught me off guard. I am not sure what answer I was expecting, but it certainly was not that one. His answer got me to do exactly what his visit was intended to make me do: question and realize my situation. In one sentence, my attitude towards life and my value of material objects changed completely. Why would he need more than one? I wondered. Why do I? In many ways this vacation was for him. The program was intended to show these kids a good time and help them enjoy their summer, but in reality it made me realize how good I had it. Why do I deserve all that I have? Questions like these ran through my head constantly for a while after that. They still do, in all honesty.
“I… I don’t know,” I stammered, before running into the water with him. This was the first time in my life that I thought hard about the world. As I swam in the warm water of the Atlantic Ocean, I looked around at where I was and appreciated what I had. As we walked back to my beach house, a luxury almost nobody in the world has, I realized what I had been given and stopped taking my life, and especially my education, for granted.
A few days later, it was time for him to leave. I spent much of the two hour drive back to Pennsylvania looking out the window at the miles and miles of pine trees. This was the most pensive part of my week. As I returned to my home state, I thought about returning back to my school. For this week, and this week alone, the two of us were together; we were in the same situation. However, we were both returning to our real lives: the lives in which we are divided by wealth and education. Only a few hours from then, Claens would yet again be some inner-city kid nobody cared about and I would be miles away living the life everyone wants. I didn’t deserve it, though. I didn’t earn it. This was handed to me.
“Thank you all so much for allowing me to stay,” our guest said to us in his most polite voice.
“Any time, Claens. You’ve been a wonderful visitor,” my mother replied, her eyes teary. She was sad to see him go. He’d become family to all of us. My sisters begged him to come back next summer, and he said he’d try to. We waved goodbye to him as he boarded his bus back to the Big Apple.
Claens returned for another visit the next summer. He stayed with us for much longer than he had last time, but I never saw him again after that second visit. I think about him occasionally, and I think about the world he told me about. I wonder how he’s doing; I wonder if life is still hard in New York for him. It’s odd to think that everyone you’ve ever met is still out there. Everything you’ve ever interacted with is still out there somewhere. Every simple little thing – like a utensil at a restaurant – still exists and has existed for a long time. The point, however, is not that these objects exist still. While you may interact with some things for very short amounts of time, you can take some profound things away from them. A short trip to another country might not be very lengthy, but it may have an effect on you that lasts for the rest of your life. That is how I choose to think about Claens and his life-changing visit.
I don’t have any ways of contacting him, so I suppose I will never find out how he’s really doing. I also wonder how many other people are in similar situations. Haiti has not improved too much since the time when he was there. It is possible, almost certain, that there is a family going through a very similar thing right now. I wonder what I can do, but I don’t have any answers. What I can do, though, is continue to realize all that I have and utilize my opportunities. I can not take any of what I have been given for granted. I will appreciate that I can wear my own clothes, have my own bedroom and go to one of the best schools in the country. My limited experience with this boy has inspired me to take advantage of what I have. It was a turning point in my life that was formed by two simple questions and a pair of orange shorts that I will never forget.
– Jack Roarty, The Haverford School, Class of 2017