When I was a child, I was taught that I could be anything I wanted to be and that it was possible to “change the world,” whatever that means. I had a home-made “save the whales” poster on my bedroom door (with a very small “h” inserted to correct my spelling mistake). My mum joined me up with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund – not the wrestling) and my dad signed me up with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). I agonised over the rainforests and when we learned about recycling in school I went home and convinced my parents that we needed to recycle and they have done so ever since. I flirted with vegetarianism (though I still ate fish).
I entered my teen years with a vague sense that the world was basically a good place and that people really could change the world for the better. Then somewhere along the way I stumbled across things that were wrong with the world that went way beyond deforestation and endangered species. I remember sitting on my stairs and crying my eyes out when I read about Victoria Climbié in the morning paper. I watched with silent horror and mild fascination as the events of September 11th unfolded on my TV screen one afternoon after school. I went on the anti-Iraq War march in London and later watched as President Bush and Tony Blair declared war anyway. I still vaguely worried about the environment, but now I was more horrified by the harm that human beings inflicted on each other. Government-sanctioned, organized, or individual. War or terror. Rape and murder. And of course the general sense of indifference that people in the West seemed to have for the people of the developing and non-white world. When I was a teenager I still vaguely thought that I could change the world somehow, though there now seemed to be so much more that needed changing than I had realised and I felt sad and overwhelmed by it all.
When I was younger, I came to the conclusion that most people’s hunger for change – that spark that sometimes ignites social movements – dies somewhere in adulthood. Somewhere in-between the job and the mortgage and the kids and the school run, it just becomes easier to carry on regardless. I remember watching Hotel Rwanda and the scene where people think that help is coming because now people in the West/the UN know what is happening – only for Don Cheadle’s character to say “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.” That made me cry too. When I was younger I swore that I wouldn’t be like that. I would volunteer in Africa or somewhere and make a difference. But I didn’t.
I left my teen angst behind me when love, marriage, visas, grad school, a mortgage and then children came along (and the dog). If I thought about the horrible things in the world too much I would become paralysed with a sense of hopelessness and sadness (and I seem to be attracted to the news apps like a moth to the flame of the shittiest things that human beings do to other living things). It was easier; it is easier, to just get on with life. I wish the world was a different place, but there are so many bad things, so much wrong in so many places, how would I even start to change it? Adult life is Radiohead’s No Surprises on steroids.
Then I discovered something that brought a chink of light into my online world. As well as all the horrible things in the newspapers (ok, the news apps) I started to follow the Humans of New York blog on Facebook. Like millions of other people I am enthralled by Brandon and the way that he captures individual snippets of humanity with his photographs and questions. This is the world I knew as a child: good people, not perfect, but basically good, getting along as best they can and sometimes, some truly wonderful stories.
This past week I (along with the rest of the world) have been following the story of Vidal and the Mott Hall Bridges Academy. The photograph that started it all was one of a middle-school kid, Vidal, telling Brandon about his Principal, Ms. Lopez, when asked the question: “who’s influenced you the most in your life?” Then Brandon photographed and talked to Ms. Lopez and the other teachers at MHBA and because HONY followers had asked about donating money, he asked them what the school needed. From there, a fundraiser has, at the time of writing, raised over $900,000 for the school. In a week. This will fund trips to look at Harvard, a summer school program, and college scholarships for some of the school’s scholars.
This will not change the whole world. MHBA is a middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC. Apparently a very poor neighbourhood with a lot of housing projects, but still in one of the richest countries on earth. I could be cynical and say that this is all very nice for this particular school, but what about other similar schools, and what about all of the other bad things? This hasn’t helped fix all the bad things.
But I think the point and the lesson (that other people have already learned but I struggle with) is that no one can “change the world.” Not the whole entire world. No one and nothing will make all of the bad things go away but each of us can be a ray of light when and where we can. Brandon and Vidal were little rays of light that started a whole fireworks display that will potentially change the lives of many needy students in Brownsville and who knows what those students will go on to do – what light they will bring to the world. That’s a good thing. That it isn’t going to fix all the bad in the world doesn’t make it less of a good thing.
In the comments on HONY, some people make reference to the “Star Thrower” story, my favourite quotation is:
“Once, on ancient Earth, there was a human boy walking along a beach. There had just been a storm, and starfish had been scattered along the sands. The boy knew the fish would die, so he began to fling the fish to the sea. But every time he threw a starfish, another would wash ashore. An old Earth man happened along and saw what the child was doing. He called out, ‘Boy, what are you doing?’ ‘Saving the starfish!’ replied the boy. ‘But your attempts are useless, child! Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one! You can’t save them all, so why bother trying? Why does it matter, anyway?’ called the old man. The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, ‘Well, it matters to this one.’ And then he flung the starfish into the welcoming sea.” – Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower
I just need to learn to be the boy instead of the old man because “all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”