I ran a column in two small town Montana newspapers from 2008 to 2016, the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney Herald. These two papers were incredibly generous to me. They allowed me to write on just about any topic I chose, with almost no restrictions. This kind of freedom is nearly unheard of in the writing world, particularly for an unknown columnist with no prior published work.
One of my most popular and impactful columns, published in January of 2009, was about the Lost Boys of the Sudan. It remains as timely now (if not moreso) than it was then. I am reprinting it here in it’s entirety. This is an entirely true experience for me. Rereading this brought me to tears of humility and gratitude for the lesson these sweet boys taught me, a spoiled American girl who thought she had it so tough.
During this season of incredible excesses, I think it is important to reflect on what is a need versus what is a want. I hope you learn as much as I did by sharing the Lost Boys’ story…
Count your blessings
Have you ever heard of the Lost Boys of the Sudan? They are orphaned boys from the southern portion of the Sudan who flee persecution by extremist groups who destroy their villages, their families, everything. They were named the Lost Boys by relief workers shocked by what these young men had been through.
In the late 90s, aid organizations began resettling Lost Boys in host cities throughout the United States. For eight years, I lived in one of those cities.
The Lost Boys live with host families, where they are provided clothing and enrolled in public high school. They are given jobs as clerks at a popular superstore chain. Most have never even worn shoes before leaving Africa.
When I first moved to the city, I felt like a stranger in a foreign land. The people had different accents, different clothes, different traffic laws, different rules to live by. I was lonely and afraid.
During my first trip for groceries, I was overwhelmed. This wasn’t just a grocery store! This was an everything you could think of in the world store! You could get your groceries, your hair cut, your future told, your oil changed, and a pet hamster all in one stop.
I learned after just a few visits to this miraculous place that the fastest checkout lanes were those manned by the quiet, smiling African boys. Even when a customer screamed, “Learn to speak English!” in the face of one pleasant boy, he did not stop smiling. I saw these boys, so fearless in the face of new technologies and unfamiliar weather and impatient shoppers, and I felt a little less afraid.
Years passed and I grew accustomed to my surroundings. One slushy spring as I waited in line at the superstore, I found myself feeling homesick for baby calves in the pastures and the greening of the hay fields. My clerk just kept smiling. If he felt homesick for his homeland, you couldn’t tell.
As I pushed my cart away I said, “Have a great day.”
The clerk beamed and blushed and nodded enthusiastically. I didn’t feel homesick anymore.
Several years later I was going through a difficult time in my life and feeling quite sorry for myself. The store was crowded, my baby was fussy, and I was going to have to charge new clothes for him because I didn’t have the cash.
Toddler jeans were on sale, so I loaded up my cart. As I was checking out, I didn’t even notice the Lost Boy ringing up my items. After seven years, in the midst of my own personal crisis, he ceased to be fascinating.
Several pairs of jeans I’d put into my cart were missing a price tag. The clerk reached for the phone to call for customer service, but I stopped him. “I don’t need them,” I said.
For a brief moment, the Lost Boy’s smile faded. “You don’t need them?” he asked with an almost unintelligible accent, truly amazed.
Still stuck in my own muck, I waved it off with a flip of my hand, “No, I was just stocking up. You can put them aside.”
He cocked his head and stared at me. He repeated, “You don’t need them?”
He might as well have punched me in the gut.
I looked at my beautiful, drooling, fussing, well-fed baby boy. I looked at the cart, loaded with food and clothing. I handed the clerk my credit card.
My life was so very easy.
Published December 13, 2018