By Amazon, I mean the jungle, not the online megastore. I was in Peru last week for Roads & Kingdoms, and spent some time in the jungle near the delightfully seedy Amazon outpost of Iquitos.
There were children in the camp where I stayed for three days, preschoolers and kindergarten-aged kids of the workers who took care of the place. The camp was an hour’s walk into the jungle, so the kids lived with grandparents during the week so they could go to school.
They were, in lots of respects, like any other kids. The older boy had some colored pencils and was drawing and doing his homework, writing short sentences. But there was a lot of the stuff you might expect from indigenous people in the Amazon: these weren’t undiscovered tribes or anything of that nature, but they were kids who played with hollowed-out turtles shells and piles of ash from the fire, who helped salt the fatty meat of a giant jungle rat their father had shot in the jungle, kids who lived in a world without strollers, scooters, diapers.
Fast forward a few days, and after a sleepless redeye flight from Lima, I go straight from the airport to a previously scheduled tour of a Universal Pre-K program in the Upper West Side: we are a day away from having to rank schools that we most likely will not get into, so I am trying to make up for my chronic absenteeism with heroic acts of post-flight school visitation.
As people familiar with the process might know, Universal Pre-K tours on the Upper West Side are largely composed of some of the craziest white women on the planet. To whit:
“I don’t like this at all, so chaotic,” whispers one under her breath when we walk into a classroom that was PERFECTLY CALM and NEAT.
“What schools have you been to? I’ve seen PS 165, 163, 84, 92 and oh my god we didn’t get in anywhere last year and here’s the letter I wrote the superintendent of schools explaining why they just HAD to let us in,” upon which she produces said letter from a oversize purse in which, it turns out, she also carries around her two-year-old’s REPORT CARD.
“It’s all black kids in that school, and I didn’t want my daughter to be the only white kid in class, which is why it’s great to find you guys, let’s get together and all put our white kids in class together!” This much was said at a VERY HIGH VOLUME walking to another school tour on Adam Clayton Powell in the middle of Harlem, by a woman I had only just met, within earshot of at least a half-dozen mystified ACTUAL BLACK PEOPLE who must have felt like some new portal had opened up through which they were suddenly witnessing the founding moments of a real-life white-person cabal.
It’s natural to be irritated by all of this foolishness, especially given the lack of sleep and the absolute foolishness of that foolishness. However, my dislocation did not stop at the Pre-K tours. No, instead, I’ve been full of lessons from my (brief) time in the Amazon over the past days here, and it’s gone a bit overboard. Bike helmets? Who needs them? Kids in the Amazon don’t have ‘em. Toys? Just give ‘em a pile of ash and a turtle shell. It’s fine as long as the little bits of meat are scraped off. Dinner? Lots of rats in New York City, where’s my gun?
This, of course, is completely useless to people who are trying to actually raise children in the first world, people like my wife, who I think is sadly getting used to my returning from the developing world with new, inflexible ideas about how kids should be raised. Somehow I see kids surviving in desperate poverty all over the world and then my own kids suddenly have new standards they have to live up to.
I’ll say it so you don’t have to: thinking that I’ve been enlightened by two days in the Amazon and then making everyone suffer my new revelations back home is, as it turns out, just another form of white-person-mental-illness.