July 13, 2003
Writing of Nations and Children

Eli Newberger and the squirrel have reached détente. Newberger's role is to weave increasingly elaborate wire barricades around his backyard bird feeders. The squirrel's job is to climb a nearby tree and leap, unerringly finding an unguarded path to food. Smart squirrel: Newberger's a pushover. A pediatrician, teacher, musician, and author of The Men They Will Become, he shrugs, "The squirrel's got to eat, too."

Newberger's entire life work centers on how the smaller, weaker creatures of the world--primarily human ones--can thrive in a world built around adult concerns and conveniences.

"Children are the ones most affected by the choices we make," he says, "like the choices about whom we're going to enrich at the same time that we deprive the government of resources for health care and child care, schools, and social services."

As Newberger points out, every civic choice--whether it is to spend money on war instead of health care or cut tax revenues that support education--has consequences for society's most vulnerable members.

"The most vivd and important single insight for me," says Newberger, " of what children need in order to grow up with a strong sense of themselves is one adult in their lives who is crazy about them, who will always be there for them and always advocate for them."

But Newberger sees social realities that make it difficult, if not impossible.

"Women, who provide much of the nurturing and caring and consistent influence for children, are obliged to navigate between their children's needs and demands and the often dismissive attitude toward that in the workplace. More children are living in poverty, and that's gotten sharply worse in the past few years. The requirements of work are so rigorous, especially in impoverished families, that it puts more pressures on family life. To develop strong character, kids kids need to know who they can count on. Parents don't necessarily have what they need to be able to give children what they need.

"We're losing sight of something that's really really frightening and that's going to have longer term costs. Increasing numbers of children drop out of school and give up hopes for having meaningful productive lives, They are growing up with a kind of emotional barrenness."

An extreme example of an adult world inhospitable to children is in the southern Sudan, with its years of ongoing conflict. The so-called "lost boys" were forced to flee for their lives, wandering over miles and years together trying to stay alive and out of harm's way. William Aleer Mabil is among those who survived. He left his home at about age five and now lives with his foster family in Bedford. He has found a voice for his experiences in poetry.

"I am writing through my life experience of how I see myself to be," says William. "When I see myself as I am now and the things I have lived through I think I'd better do something before I die to show my dreams and what kind of person I am. By writing poetry I can let people know who are the people who are now living here with them. It is one kind of self-expression of the secret life of what you have in your heart and what you have in your mind and what kind of humanity you have."

William is not sure how old he is--somewhere between 18 and 21. The immigration authorities assigned him and all the other Sudanese boys the birthday of January 1.

"Like a twisted life, bitter and sweet--that's how my life was," he says. "Thousands of us lived together through disease and starvation, taking care of each other. We were brain-draining, taking what is good in somebody's mind and then with that you make your own way of living.

"You have to accept pain and disappointment as part of your life. I'm coming out from the bad things. My aim is to do the right thing. I want to let people know I was born on this planet to do something special, to show people what kind of life are we. We are human: that is all.

"People do things according to their own hearts and their own ambition. I want to do right instead of what I have seen. You have to offer yourself and struggle to do your own life."

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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The Urge's Future
by William Aleer Mabil

Active, innocent steaming-egg.
Glittering, shining. The door viewed dimly, barely opened.
Slip easily, break your neck doubtfully.
No torch for your footstep. In the could-be darkness
Neither dreams nor curiosity nor clapping hands
Will do.
Who shall stand on that circle pot?
Well, it is affordable, this ambitious award.
But it requires suffering. Tragedies are its lesson,
Steaming-bubble egg, cooked, fried and served.

The cast-away shell produces minerals.
A caution sign shows the way for a beaten heart.
Love. Integrity. But fail to dig farther and are you there, or not?
Pressing nuts on your hard shield, why do it?
Oily and slippery on your forehead. Obscuring vision.
But amazing. Hold your tongue. Have patience. Discover truth.
Chasing a running animal gives merit twice.
In the pursuit and in the achievement.
Dangerous, yes. Not simple. But the source of your future,
Fundamental cell, born in heat-pot.

Hii! Pave your way
Forwards, backwards, sideways.
Make your own logic.
Brittle-in-heart never reaches his destination.
But the boiling pot cooks nicely.
Find your world among minds. Make it different.

Hee! The nature-computer is haunted!
Discovering life, finding it. Winding it up.
Long lines mark your forehead: smart, keen, intelligent.
Each leads the same way while dropping bits, liquid-salty,
Make you stare toward your future.
Furious, skirting, approaching, reaching.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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