Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I LOVE This Kid

Twelve-year-old Evgeniy sits thoughtfully before us as Faith fires questions and I scrawl notes. The language barrier aids me, giving me double the time to write as Faith says everything in Russian, then English. With Elaine sitting behind me, I scribble, “I LOVE this kid!” in the margin of my book. A bit sophomoric, perhaps, but I will her to know, and now. The more he says, the more insistently I underline “LOVE.” We interview a gaggle of kids in the nine orphanages we visit before the Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, and Evgeniy emerges as the single best interview we get.

Mom admonished, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” and Evgeniy embodies the truism of her advice. Confident, not cocky, and considerate, not brash, Evgeniy tilts his head, engrossed in the queries. Furrowing brow, he answers, then punctuates with a smile. In this beguiling way, we learn he wants to build houses, loves reading books of all stripes, enjoys “farm duties,” and has a slew of friends. With his personality, I see why.

When I first saw Evgeniy, he was similarly charming, and I promoted him as my favorite child for the October-November trip. Back then, he said he’d lived at the orphanage the six years since his mother’s death, and he’d love to have a family again. He bakes cookies, and likes gardening and eating carrots. A church neighbors the orphanage, and orphans at times attend; Evgeniy believes God created everything. When asked his dream then, he wished everyone worldwide would be good, and that he could make the world a brighter and happier place. Now, Evgeniy dreams of America; he knows some English, and would like to travel and practice it more.

In his original interview, he was “trying so hard” in school, but found Russian and math most difficult. Now, Faith allows me a question, so I request a description of a teacher he likes. Naming one, he says he chooses her because she is demanding, adding he appreciates how well she prepares her students. Said instructor teaches Russian, one of the classes he listed last year as especially challenging. Now, the Russian teacher is favorite, not because she’s easiest, but because she’s toughest. This maturity garners Evgeniy my most emphatic underlining yet. I’ve been studying Russian myself, and could benefit from a little goading under the tutelage of his teacher. I ask him, in passable Russian, if he speaks English. “I’m Zhenya,” he answers, using his nickname, as the interview concludes. He shakes Elaine’s hand, not mine, since I am still feverishly writing. I am delighted by Evgeniy, and like him even better than last time.

At the end, a worker strides in. I’ve not met her before, and find her a dour, joyless soul. I start to offer a Russian pleasantry, but she adamantly refuses it and I forget my lines. Unprepared for this reception, I improvise as she bids us sit. With her dictatorial demeanor, I comply instantly. Faith explains to her that I have coordinated the Moscow trip, and the newcomer unleashes a tirade with an icy glare my direction. Faith apologetically translates words that sting me, and since I’d reserved my most impassioned promotion for Evgeniy, it hardly seems my doing that he is still hostless. I stumble through a witless excuse, believing with foreign language on my side, anything is preferable to silence. Ostensibly translating my words, Faith leaves me a shaking, and grateful, beneficiary of her speed on her feet. The worker is not amused, though that doesn’t appear unusual, and I’m rescued for now, and waved from her presence. Needing no second invitation, I bolt out with a little shiver.

As we hightail it back to the car, Faith tells me not to worry, that this worker doesn’t like anyone. Seeing Evgeniy’s cheer, and the curmudgeon who could wrest joy from St. Nicholas, I appreciate him and his irrepressible spirit even more. I want to help him out of here, not to avert her wrath or earn her accolades, but for him: for a good boy, who appreciates those who bring out his best, and who, after six years in this institution, still thinks he can make the world a brighter and happier place.

I LOVE this kid.