Luck of the Draw

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It's September, and for teachers, that means back-to-school. Classrooms are filled with students sporting new clothes, just-bought shoes, fresh unused backpacks. And every September, amid the new group of students, I think of a student I met many Septembers ago.

Gab was from a country in Africa. An orphan, he'd been adopted by a couple in San Francisco. And, so Gab began his American education. But, although he could barely read or write, let alone speak English, he did come to my classroom with an education of sorts from a difficult school.

Because I was shocked when his parents told me Gab had been a boy soldier. In a story familiar in parts of the world ripped apart by civil war, he was taken prisoner, given a weapon and forced to join a rebel militia. Somehow he survived, and somehow he had also been given a new life in the United States.

Gab didn't talk about his past, and seemed a happy kid. With a sparkling white smile, he was the fastest runner in the school, beating every other student in races. But one day I asked him about his trip from Africa to America, and his smile disappeared. He told me he came with all the worldly possessions he owned; one ragged t-shirt and the shorts he was wearing. He didn't even have shoes. And, listening, I glanced around at the fashionable footwear I saw on other students, and thought about this random lottery of life, how the luck of our birth - where and when and to whom - determines our destiny.

But mostly, I was amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, how a kid like Gab can make it through a nightmare and back, returning to normal life in this new country where his problems were not escaping a burning village or rummaging through trash for food, but finishing homework. I thought about students whose biggest problem was lacking the coolest pair of sneakers, in a world where some kids have been handed a gun, but never even owned a pair of shoes.


UNICEF - The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund -- estimates there are thousands of forced child soldiers, some as young as eight, in about 25 countries. I never thought I would meet one. But every September, I remember Gab and how he showed me that back-to-school is so much more than a new backpack - for some, it's a brand new life.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.