Life lessons from a slum boy and a sampaguita girl

A young girl I assumed was between the ages of 8 to 10 roamed along the streets beside my former high school. Every time I set foot out of my school, happy that I would be free from hours of never-ending lectures about the Pythagorean Theorem, ribosomes, and the role of Real Politik, she was there – waiting to offer me a necklace of flowers for a few pesos, just enough to buy a can of Coke.

She extended her arms and showed me a necklace she had made of white flowers. They were beautiful. They smelled good and looked pristine despite the fact that the shirt she had worn looked like it had not been washed for days. When I had some change left to spare, I extended my own hands and placed P20 on her palm. I was content with my sampaguita flower necklace and thrilled that I had made her happier – or so I thought.

When I entered my first year of college, I would see her again. She sat in front of an office supply store a few blocks from my old high school, holding the same flower necklaces I had been buying years before. I remembered her face but I always wondered if she remembered mine.

Before I opened the door to the store, she approached me and asked if I could buy her some school supplies she badly needed. School supplies? I was surprised, but excited. I was glad that she was going to school despite her sales stint in the area.

I smiled at the thought of sharing with her the gift of education. I spent a week’s allowance on notebooks, pens, crayons, highlighters and all the odd things the material world created for the purpose of learning.

I thought that this could be the last time I would see her on the streets. Maybe next time I would see her as a student in my college, learning the same economic theories on which I was grudgingly spending my time. I could not be more wrong.

The next year I saw her on the same street roaming around, with the sampaguita flower necklace latched across her arms. I never stopped wondering what I had done wrong and why I could not keep her off the streets. I was happy that I bought flowers from her, but was she happy as she received the money that was just spare change to me?

In my second year of college, I was assigned to teach English to public school children. There was a particular student I was fond of – this time I remembered his name – John. He was in fifth grade, and I was thrilled that he loved reading. He would pick up every book at the learning center and spend hours at a time on each book.

HELPING HAND. How do we help end poverty? Illustration by Jessica Lazaro


How do we help end poverty? Illustration by Jessica Lazaro

He learned quickly and I was determined this time to help him out. I negotiated a Kumon education for him. The Kumon principal was glad to offer a discount for students who could not afford the normal rate. I set aside part of my allowance for the remaining balance and I prayed that this time, I could actually do something that mattered.

On one of my days as an instructor, my head teacher invited me to visit the slums where a majority of the students came from. John lived there and I was curious of where my students lived.

When we reached John’s place, I could not believe what I saw. He lived with his parents and his sister in this tiny little room. There were no beds, and barely any furniture. The paint of the room peeled off and graffiti tarnished the walls.

Then, I found John lying down on the floor doing his Kumon homework. He glanced at me and smiled, but I could see he was focused on his work.

Later that evening when I got back home, I cried. I was confused. He looked happy but I was not. What does his poverty mean to my happiness? I never understood the situation. He looked content doing homework on the dirty floor while I felt like I had failed him. 

As my stint as a part-time English teacher came to an end, I contacted John’s mom and told her I wanted to help him review for his math exam. We met at McDonalds early in the morning and John was there holding his school bag, ready to go over the numbers he did not understand.

I bought him some fries and a breakfast meal that he could eat while I went over his math lessons. In between my sloppy calculations and explanation of geometric figures, he told me that his McDonald’s breakfast meal was the most delicious food he has ever tasted. I was stunned.

I remembered John and the sampaguita flower girl every time I attended my development economics class. Between the lectures, we would discuss tons of theories and ideologies on solving poverty and ending inequality.

But in this awkward moment of realization, I epiphanized that maybe John and the sampaguita girl knew something that many of us, well-off students in the class, did not. While all we knew was poverty and theories of how to solve it, they knew of the opposite – they knew what it felt like to be happy and what a world without poverty looked like. And, I realize this is the truth.

Only when one is tired does one know how it feels to be lively. Only when one is saddened does one know what it feels like to be happy. And just like in Albert Camus’ main character in the novel, The Stranger, only when one faces death does one know the meaning of life. 

John and the sampaguita flower girl know how to envision the world, free from hunger, when they pick up a meal we think is just ordinary for us. They know the euphoria from learning new lessons in school that we, as students, hope to always avoid. They know the happiness that we could never feel from our current situation.

After all, how do we end poverty? Is it through pouring millions of aid into poor countries? Is it through building schools in places where people barely have the skills to read? Or is it through giving money to those who roam the streets selling flowers everyday?

Maybe it is the knowledge that poverty comes from the idea that we have more and they have less. But, maybe “more” is not always better. A wise man did say that perfection is not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. If we strive to live in a world without poverty, when can we finally say that less is indeed more?

Today I look back and think about them. I try to imagine them enjoying the majestic scenery across the bay – seeing the glow of a sunset while they listen to an acoustic performance. I try to imagine them feeling bloated from all the delicious seafood they had for dinner and amused at all the crazy jokes their witty friends have told them.

But, the more I try to picture them doing all these fanciful things we usually experience, the more I come to realize that they probably do not need to experience any of these to be happy. But, for some reason, we do.

My only hope is that I have made an impact on their lives. I am not in the same city anymore where the sampaguita flower girl roams. Neither am I still in contact with John or his parents. But I pray that they still feel the same joy I regret I could not give them. After all, maybe it through their experiences that we can learn how it really is to be content. - 

Josh Ahyong, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC majoring in International Relations and Economics, hopes to work for the United Nations or the World Bank and help address issues such as poverty and conflict. He is from Mandaluyong City in Metro Manila.