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That Rascal, Melvin

Jamaica

As I turned the corner into the green, grassy courtyard of the hospital, I saw a small barefoot boy in typical, white ill-fitting hospital shorts and slipover. A handsome boy, about four feet tall with fine features and smooth, closely cut hair, he strutted along with shoulders back. He sang in a strong, screechy voice: "Jesus pon de telefone. Tel him what ya need, tel him wat ya need rite now. I don wan silva. I don wan gol. I just wan Jesus inna me sol."

From that moment, getting to know Melvin was an up-and-down experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to be a teacher/play leader in this pediatric ward of the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. My function was to help lonely, frightened, and bored children adapt to the hospital scene and, I hoped, to stimulate an interest in learning.

On my first day, Melvin jerked away from me as I tried to get him back to the room he shared with six other children. He grabbed my hand and bit the back of it before giving in. The next morning I was concerned about another attack as he ran up to me. But in an excited voice he called out "Teacha, Teacha!" He reached for that same hand and kissed it. I was puzzled and intrigued.

I came under the spell of this five-year-old during my two years there. He was a long-term patient whose parents visited infrequently. They could not afford the bus fare or the time from their endless search for income. Melvin's place of residence was listed as "Railway Premises," some fifteen miles away from Spanish Town. This simply meant he lived in a thrown-up shack in the railway yard. Adequate post-hospitalization care was not possible there. Having mistaken cleaning fluid for a fruit drink at the age of three, Melvin had a severely burned esophagus. The medical treatment was successful, but he had to remain in the hospital, since his eating had to be carefully monitored. Because he was not bedridden, this super-charged young dynamo was on the loose much of the day.

One day a small frightened child was wheeled to the operating teata accompanied by a student nurse, no family member present. I heard Melvin call out to him, "Take care, ya hear?" He was in charge. He tried to control the nurses -- and yes, even me!

This very young boy was an incredible composite: sharp, fearless, shameless, loveable, dishonest, sensitive, irresponsible, charming, disarming, crafty, and amusing. I could see it all in his sparkling eyes.

Working with children of mixed ages, I tried to strengthen an understanding of the alphabet, reading and writing. Melvin was a quick learner -- if I could get him to sit still long enough. My school supplies were limited, but he always tried to walk from the classroom with a fistful of used computer paper, even though my limit was two sheets per child. Deftly folding the paper into the shape of a handgun, he made several for his compatriots. Acutely aware of the prevalence of street crime in Jamaican society, I said, "Melvin, I hate guns! I will not have guns in my classroom!" "Yes, Teacha" was the reply from this face that was suddenly all innocence. But under his mattress was an arsenal of paper weapons to supply all the gunmen out there.

One day a Jamaican clergyman, eyes closed, clutching his Bible to his chest and placing his hand on Melvin's head, prayed for health. Melvin wore his solemn mask -- until he caught sight of me, then his mischievous twinkle returned.

Finally, he was able to go home. About to depart after a nine-month stay, he stood encircled by the doctor and nursing staff as they counseled him to go to school and be very careful about what entered his mouth. His upturned serious face expressed a commitment to living according to their rules. With a hug and a wave, I said "Take care, ya hear." He left an empty spot on the ward -- and in my heart.

A few months later, as I brought a toy to a child in the overcrowded ward, I heard that familiar voice call out raspingly and tearfully, "Teacha." I could not believe it! Melvin was back and he was hurting. He had been eating a genip, a small green sweet fruit with a very large smooth and slippery pit, which he swallowed, tearing his fragile esophagus. He was taken to the teata, where careful surgery repaired the damage.

When he was returned to the ward, subdued as I had never expected to see him, I stood over his bed, which was protected by scarred guard rails. "How many sheets of paper do you want, Melvin?" Although he was not completely free of the control of the anesthetic, he slowly held up five fingers. Melvin was back.

Going on with my life in the States I think of that rascal, Melvin, a teenager by now. If I had the chance to see him again I would grab it, but how would I find him? Does he still reside at the Railway Premises? What kind of mischief might he be into now?

Camilla Griffiths (Jamaica)

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