Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua. I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings for the following day or just in telling each other life stories. There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them. (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.) But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.
Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie. By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie. Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.
Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance. He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk. Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe. Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence. More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out, was full of questions and observations about almost everything.
Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not. Names? Home country? Where is that? Where is China? Where are you going? Why are you here? Do you know about whales? Where is your hotel? Do you have kids?
He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own: I’m eight years old. My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant). I like football. I go to the school that is right behind your hotel. I like to read. My mom says that I ask a lot of questions. I have a brother but he has a different dad. Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.
Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner. It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return. His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone. The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication. Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.
“I’m very fast. Do you know about airplanes? I have never been on an airplane. What are you eating for dinner?” The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda. We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator. “Is Iowa in Mexico? You are my new friends.”
With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her. She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life. She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur. Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.
I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase. But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les. Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead. In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future. The need is not his alone. We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….