Originally published 7/8/11 on the Broadway in South Africa blog
There was a little girl in camp, about 13 years old, who immediately stood out to me on day one in Diepsloot. First of all, she was extremely shy, and secondly, she was wearing bright neon orange slippers with big bows on them. I thought the shoes were adorable but so unlike her personality, which was quite subdued. They were Frankie shoes! I actually thought at first that she was a boy, as she seemed gender neutral in her posture, had very short hair, and her persona seemed devoid of femininity, so I was even more shocked by the girly shoes. But then I saw her name tag, which read “Wendy,” so I simply complimented her on her fabulous shoes and continued to teach class, but I continued to be intrigued by her. Later her name came up when I was talking to the incredible Lilli Cooper about the day and she mentioned that she was extremely reserved in acting class, barely getting involved with the exercises. It was at that point that Steven, our South African teaching liaison who has been working with these children for some time already, told us that she is HIV positive and that the medications she is on make her moods inconsistent. Thus she feels it is better to not open up to anyone and to remain very quiet and internal with her thoughts, and despite their efforts, they could not get her to come out of her shell. Of course my heart immediately went out to her. She is a lovely girl who could not be over the age of 13, who has been infected with HIV through no fault of her own. From that point on I always kept an eye on her in class to see if she was opening up at all.
Our first big break through came on the third day of camp when I showed the entire group Katy Perry’s Firework video, class by class. Wendy was sporting a new pair of slippers that day; they were shiny metallic sliver with sparkle bows in the front. I immediately thought of my sister Ariana and I, as she is obsessed with bows and “sparkles” is my favorite color. Once again I approved of her shoe choice and obviously, my fondness for Wendy continued to grow. The reason I decided to show the Firework video in class was to illustrate the meaning behind the song thru the lyrics, as I was teaching them an empowering dance to the song. I thought they would get an even better understanding of the song by watching the music video, which is extremely beautiful and inspirational. I hoped they would use the information they garnered from the video and apply it to the dance, as dance requires as much internal motivation as acting does. If you haven’t seen the video yet, watch it now, because it is gorgeous! The video follows a few characters thru their challenging lives, showing them that no matter how bad things are, you have an inner spark in you that can outshine any obstacle. As you can imagine, this message is extremely important to the children in South Africa who are living in townships where death, disease, extreme poverty and hunger are everyday obstacles.
After the video finished playing in each class I initiated a dialogue about each of the characters in the video and what personal hindrance they overcame and why. In each group, the children all first spoke about the young boy who stopped their parents from fighting. As I know they all live in tin shacks where there is no privacy, this did not surprise me. Then they would talk about the girl who was upset about her body image, but eventually jumped into the pool in her bikini anyway, or the gay boy in a straight club who was uncomfortable until he finally traversed the club to kiss the boy he was attracted too. The frank matter in which they approached homosexuality, even at their young age surprised me. But same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, so I imagine the children here are more comfortable with the concept then they are in the United States. Finally they would get around to the sick girl in the hospital. There is a section of the video where a young girl of about 13, suffering from cancer, is sitting in her hospital bed watching a girl on TV flipping her beautiful blonde hair. She seems to be longing for the days when that was a possibility for her, as all of her hair is gone due to her chemotherapy. That young girl begins to wander the hospital halls until she sees a woman giving birth. She becomes transfixed by the woman struggling to bring her child into this world, and after she sees that act of welcoming new life, she finds the strength to walk out barefoot into the streets and join the masses of playing, celebrating children assembled there.
I think the reason it would always take awhile to get to the sick girl in the bed, who I actually assumed was a boy at first, is because the reason she finally sees the light within herself and begins to glow is not as evident as with the other examples. So I would always take a moment to take them thru my reading of this part of the video. I told the children that even though the young girl is sick, and must spend the rest of her life with regular visits to the hospitals and rely on drugs for her survival, she is still filled with life. I believe seeing the woman in labor, witnessing that act of creation, reminded the sick girl about the miracle of life, and though she may feel like she is dying, she is still alive, teeming with life in fact! Thus she must live her life, no matter how incredibly difficult it may be. While I was explaining this to my last class of the day, I locked eyes with Wendy. We looked at each other for only a moment, but in that moment I saw her eyes stare deeply into mine. She knew I was talking directly to her, and I really hoped she heard me.
The next day was the last day of camp. The day went beautifully, we reviewed the dance as a big group with all sixty kids dancing at once and they all were wonderful. Mission accomplished! Then came the part of the day that was my favorite. Chris split the group in two, sat half the group in a circle with their heads down (I was in this group) and put the remainder standing inside the circle. He then asked the students standing in the center to pat someone sitting on the outside of the circle on the head who had really helped them that week. Children immediately surrounded me, patting my head and messing up my hair, showing me so much love. I began to sob tears of joy into the carpet with my head down. Then Chris gave the next prompt to the kids in the center of the circle: now go and pat someone on the head who you did not know before this camp, but you think you will keep in touch with forever, cause you have made a life-long friend. I stared at the carpet, still blinking out tears in my eyes from the previous moment, when I felt a hand on my head. I kept my head down but opened my eyes wide. There, right in front of me, was a pair of metallic sliver slippers with sparkle bows. It was Wendy. The tears flowed freely from my eyes, for in that moment I knew she heard me. I knew we made a connection that would last for years and years to come. I lifted my head, looked into her eyes, and she gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen on her face, I returned the massive smile and without saying anything, she hugged me.
At the end of the final presentation I was taking photos of all the kids and Wendy came over to me and began to do runway poses, bidding me to take her picture. Could this really be the same genderless girl who would not speak to anyone for fear of him or her knowing her condition? In just four days she had gone from a shy, lonely, depressed soul to a girl with a future, maybe even in modeling! I am so blessed to have met Wendy and though I am not terribly religious, I pray to God I will see her again, and I desperately hope that the lessons I taught her are enough to motivate her to keep fighting, no matter how difficult her life becomes… I wrote her a very long letter in her journal before I left and the last line of my letter read, “Wendy, you’re a firework!”
You don’t have to feel like a waste of space,
You’re original, cannot be replaced.
If you only knew what the future holds,
After a hurricane comes a rainbow.
Maybe a reason why all the doors are closed,
So you can open one that leads you to the perfect road.
Like a lighting bolt your heart will glow,
And when it’s time you’ll know,
You just got to ignite the light and let it shine,
Just own the night like the fourth of July.
Cause baby you’re a firework!