The best learning moments seem to come when you least expect it, when you haven’t analyzed or synthesized or otherwise prepared. They occur on a regular basis for me, these humbling moments that dwarf any formal studies. At least they do when I’m paying attention.
While living inArmenia, I knew a homeless-like woman who sold flowers with her children on the street. I say homeless-like, because she appeared to have a place to sleep at night, but women around the world are all-too-frequently put in unsavory situations to secure food and shelter for their children, so I don’t assume that all places to sleep can be considered a home.
One afternoon, I attended a recital at a school for children with disabilities and I saw her son across the room. It was a surprise to see him, because I’d never seen him anywhere but onAbovian Avenuein centralYerevan, so I asked him what he was doing. “My sister is part of their program,” he said, and he introduced me to her, a sparkly girl who loved to sing and dance, but who had severe physical impairments.
Huh, I thought, if the mother only had profit in mind–if she were as lacking in care for her children as people assumed since she didn’t consistently send them to school–she would play on people’s emotions by bringing her daughter on the street. But she didn’t. Instead, she and her able-bodied children spent many of their days walking the streets in order to provide for a child something that resembled a childhood, something akin to joy.
At the market in Vanadzor, Armenia’s second-largest city, I was certain the apple seller was trying to over-charge me. I wasn’t exactly raised to drive hard bargains, let alone a argue about the price of a half a kilogram of apples. I remember a new world opening in my mind when I saw a man pay for a marshutni ride with a fish. The driver protested at first, but gradually realized that his compensation was to be that, or nothing at all.
My flustered attempts to get the price down caught the attention of a large man who appeared to feel my pain. He spoke to me like someone speaks to a person whose last nerve has been hit–kindly and patiently. “How much do you want?” I don’t even recall answering him, I just remember silently taking the bag of apples from him, thanking him, and leaving the market. After that, I noticed that for as many times as people disappoint and take advantage, there are at least that many people who deliver unexpected kindnesses.
I knew another girl on the street. Her name was Nunushik. She was about seven-years-old when I first met her. She treated me like family of sorts, maybe because I never gave her any money, instead trying to engage her in a conversation. If other panhandlers approached me in her presence, she would stamp her foot and tell them to leave me alone. When her mother saw me coming down the street, she would call out to Nunushik that her quyriq (sister) is here.
It wasn’t exactly a joy to see her. She was uneducated, hungry, and in need of a bath. When I picked her up one summer day, a man called down the street, telling me not to hold her–“Keghtot e!” (She’s dirty).
It was heart-breaking. She had heard him. I wanted to tell that man how I once sat next to her on the sidewalk as she ate stale lavash with a vacant look in her eyes. “Hamov e?” (Does it taste good?) I asked. It had been a stupid question to ask a homeless little girl, like when I once complimented a homeless man on his sweater, but it was the only thing that came to mind. A sudden look of concern crossed her little face and she thrust a piece into my hand to eat. She sacrificed more for me than I ever had for her, because she thought I was hungry, too.
It’s best when life happens like this. When one moment you’re walking down the street on a mission, and the next moment you’re startled into a new vision of the world and your place in it. Whether the moments are small ones like a pinch that make me jump, or profound ones that make me distinctly uncomfortable, I know they will teach. And I know I will learn.