On April 1, 2010, while being driven down a beautiful dirt road in the Sacred Valley of Peru, our car came upon a young boy, no older than 10, walking three donkeys. The sky was clear, the fields all around us were green and lush, the donkeys bore woven striped blankets, and the young boy looked as if he was walking right out of a postcard.
I asked the driver to pull over, and we got out to talk to the young boy. In my best Spanish, which is not very good, we asked if we could take his picture, and he eagerly nodded his head. He showed the donkeys to us, and, after a few minutes, we departed. Before we did, I gave the boy the Peruvian equivalent of ten dollars. I knew he was poor, and I gave him the money, in part, knowing it would be a rich gift to him. His eyes widened when I handed it to him; it was obvious he did not expect any money. After all, he was simply walking down the road. I turned and left, wondering how the money would change his day.
Approximately twenty-five years earlier, I sat anxiously in Ms. Laney’s third grade classroom. It was the day before Christmas break, and I was excited because our classroom Christmas party was about to begin. I don’t know if schools still allow gift exchanges at holiday time, but this was a true school year highlight in my day. Christmas was a week off, but this really kicked off the gift giving season or, in my case, the gift receiving season.
At the time of the party, we randomly drew names for the classmate that would receive the gift we had brought. I’m sure my parents had prepared me with an appropriate gift, but I can’t recall what it was. Again, my mind was on the gift receiving, not the gift giving. Once we had the name of our classmate, we took turns getting out of our seats and delivering our gift. Never was better attention paid in that classroom; we were at DEFCON 1.
It was in that context that I saw Willie ambling up to my desk with a gift. Willie was mentally challenged, poor, and usually dirty. He was overweight and wore ill-fitting clothing most days. Even at eight years old, I knew Willie was different and lived a very different life than me. At that age, you have no concept of money, but you have a concept of want, of poverty, and I knew that Willie lived in that. My selfish childish mind was immediately deflated, knowing I would not be opening the fun, amazing gift I had been hoping for. I don’t know how well I hid my disappointment, but I’m sure I made every effort to do so. I was always a good little boy in that way.
When I opened Willie’s gift, it was a blue and orange plastic toy car. It was old and used, and I could see the dirt on the wheels. I heard the squeals of the other students, lots of murmurs and chatter. The clickety-clack of new wonders against desktops. I could see GI Joes, Hot Wheels cars, yo-yos, Slinkys, and every other variety of fun one can imagine all around me. I sat and held the car in my hands, the gift wrap separating my hands from the dirty car. I never took the car out of the paper. I placed it on my desk and just sat as the party swirled around me. I didn’t look at Willie. I didn’t look at Ms. Laney. I just sat there. I’m sure my brain could not make sense of the juxtaposition between my hopes and my reality.
It’s tempting to romanticize the situation. To conclude that Willie’s family could not afford a gift and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Maybe Willie had given up one of the few toys he had. Maybe. Perhaps even probably. Just as those important considerations didn’t immediately resonate with me in 1984, I imagine the nuances of the exchange didn’t resonate with Willie either.
I’m not sure my gift to the boy with three donkeys was any more right, any more admirable. Was it just a big ego trip for me, parting with a paltry sum to me so I could enjoy the look of wonder from someone for whom the amount was not paltry? There’s something slightly gross about the encounter in hindsight. In the moment, I thought it was a kind gesture; now, I’m not so sure. Did I treat the boy humanely, or was he simply, to me, a prop in a story from my holiday in Peru?
It seems that why you do something should be at least as important as what you do. I gave ten dollars to a boy with three donkeys, but I cannot answer, with any great certainty, why I did it. At least I cannot produce an honest, fully realized answer I am happy with. Willie gave me a gift, and he did so with no motive other than class participation. I assume my gift of ten dollars was more favorably received than Willie’s old car, but whether the gift was better given is less clear. Maybe even doubtful.
I think about Willie from time to time. I wonder what happened to him, where his life took him. I’m sure he never considers our third grade Christmas party, but I do. And, maybe, one day, when I untangle the riddle of why I gave ten dollars to a boy with three donkeys, Willie’s gift will turn out to be one of the best gifts I ever received.