The moment I met my assigned activity partner, 12-year-old Erick, at Las Tías, I felt some regret that I couldn’t join him among the brave souls playing an aggressive soccer match on the sweltering asphalt. (I’ve had lower back surgery, so contact sports are out.) It was immediately obvious that Erick was shy and all preteen boy: his body language and facial expressions, while very polite, slammed the brakes on the hugs and raucous laughter being enjoyed by other pairs.
Would he prefer a male partner? I wondered.
I didn’t even have any Spanish. Of course I was happy to follow his lead, but I worried whether we would make a connection. Luckily the Spark team helped us with the language barrier, organizing a project where we wrote statements in English and drew pictures of our favorite things. Erick was very studious about his drawing, eschewing the colorful markers on offer and digging in his backpack for a pencil.
“I like to… play sports,” he wrote.
Then he paused over the paper, reached in his pocket, withdrew a coin, and traced it to make a soccer ball. He did the same for the tires he added to on an impressively technical drawing of a bicycle. He would draw for a while, then vigorously erase much of his work.
An artist, I thought. And a perfectionist.
I felt a rising affection for Erick.
He wouldn’t practice much English with me—and now, appreciating his careful nature, I suspected I knew why. Unfortunately, back among the group, Erick was positioned first to introduce himself to everyone in English, and I sensed this was a worst-case scenario for him. I was sure he would have made careful study of listening to the others before him in preparation for his turn. Now he wouldn’t have the chance.
His moment arrived, and he froze. I leaned in as sneakily as I could and prompted, “My name is…”
After he got through it, he swiftly slapped my offered hand. Now it was my turn to go out on a linguistic limb.
“Muy bien!” I smiled.
Over the next few days Erick and I forged a friendship amidst his frequent rollicking with the boys and my giggling with the girls. At his request I filmed him on my phone while he showed off his handiwork with a spinning top. When we learned to play kazoo, we excitedly hit upon a tune we both knew: Jingle Bells.
Later, he wanted to know the English word for sheep. Baaahhhhhh he bleated, trying to make me understand his request. He intended to use the animal for his verse when the group came together to perform “Old MacDonald.” Another day, we joked around while poking fun at the pronunciation of different color names in both languages.
“You’re very smart,” I told him, pointing to my temple. Inteligente. He is.
When it was time to leave on the final day, I glimpsed a handsome Erick out on the court and marched right over.
“It’s time to go,” I said, shrugging and shaking my head. Then I threw caution to the wind, gripped both his shoulders and lightly pressed my cheek to his.
“Hasta luego,” I said, conferring every ounce of respect and well wishes I could through my eyes. See you later.
“Hasta pronto,” he replied. See you soon. We smiled, and I turned to go.
This is a meditation on a young man I met while volunteering with Spark Ventures at a Community Center in León, Nicaragua in October 2013. Want more Spark? Disappear for awhile and join me as I discover what it’s like in Zambia, Africa.