Wasted youth

Even in our well-off county, youth potential can be suppressed. In 1999, while in affluent Frederick, Maryland, I found myself in a Rotary Club that took on the task of one-on-one tutoring of failing sixth graders. It soon became clear to me that the boy assigned to me could not read the words because he could not see them. He had broken his glasses and his mother worked in two fast food jobs that did not pay enough to afford the rent, buy food and buy new glasses. When I purchased new tough glasses for him, he began to catch up on his school work.

A recent article in the New York Times reported that 7-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi and his family fled Nigeria because of the terrorist group Boko Haram. They quickly found themselves in a homeless shelter in the United States.

Would a typical visitor to the shelter see much potential in any of the refugees much less a child? Not likely. However, at 10 years old today, Tani, as he is known, became the 28th-youngest person ever to become a chess master in the United States. He was introduced to chess in order to deal with the boredom of the shelter. Soon he was defeating kids from expensive private schools. He has a bright future. His story reminded me of the movie, “The Queen’s Gambit.”

It also reminded me of my two years in Xoconostle, Mexico helping to build a village school. With no electricity, our evening entertainment often involved talking in the village plaza. Young people wanted to know about the world outside their remote and poor rural village. What I learned from them was sad. It was clear that very, very bright young people who might have been superstars in a developed county would be wasted as stoop laborers in rural Mexico.

So, with this experience in mind, yesterday, I listened to a 10-year-old girl in Gaza standing before a pile of rubble that was once her home. I should have been shocked, but I confess to being numb to the violence. Instead, my first question was what was this American child doing in Gaza? Her American English was perfect, but Gaza is like an open-air prison. She could not leave. Later I learned that she was not American and has never been outside of Gaza. She was smart enough to teach herself English by watching YouTube videos. I made a mental note to add her to my list of young people with enormous unrealized ability and huge constraints.

How can we find and support young people like this in our community? If you know the answer and need help saving someone, let me know.

James Upchurch


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