Kashuba was on top of everything at HI, justifying my confidence in him, and impressing Errol and the other executives. They all liked Kashuba, but more importantly, they respected him. He responded to that and grew in confidence as the months passed.
The restoration of Breaker One, including the west and south wings, was complete. The west wing became HI’s headquarters, and we moved our field staff there. The south wing of the building remained empty, as we had no use for it yet.
Kashuba’s boys took on the task of beautifying the building’s surrounds and the courtyard. We hired a landscape designer and under her supervision the boys planted trees and shrubs, laid out and planted garden beds, and learned how to care for the plants. The old chainlink fence along the street was pulled down and the area between the building and the street was turned into a public park. A new fence was erected between Breaker One and the rest of the old factory buildings. We had not yet decided what to do with those.
The medical centre opened quietly. It was soon busy as word of it spread among the scallies and other disadvantaged groups.
Several more scallies packs had accepted help and had made the transition from an underground subsistence economy to a mainstream one where they were either studying or employed. Following the Breaker pattern, many within the other packs were working in one way or another for HI. A number of young people, like Haza, became apprentices with Tian-yun’s building team. Others took on executive and supervisory roles within their areas. Most of the younger scallies decided to try to get an education, usually by enrolling in online courses.
It became apparent, however, that not all of those who wanted to undertake study would be able to do so. These were the kids and young people who had been forced to drop out of school when their families’ circumstances changed so dramatically that they needed to put all of their resources into staying alive. For these kids, their academic education simply stopped abruptly. Naturally, there was no incentive for them to try to continue to learn when all their energy was spent on day-to-day survival. Some of them, I was appalled to discover, lacked even basic reading, writing and maths skills.
We helped the first two or three who came forward by providing tutoring. We used spare offices in the west wing at Breaker One, and employed a tutor for each of the students. Over several months I approved the employment of more tutors, until we had a total of seven. Zed, the first one we engaged, became coordinator. He reported to Kashuba.
One day I received a call from Kashuba asking me to meet with him and the tutors. When I arrived at Breaker One they were all waiting for me. We greeted each other and introductions were made for those I hadn’t met.
Kashuba began. “Echo, we have a problem. The number of people who lack literacy is much higher than we thought. The tutors are overwhelmed with requests for help. There is no way they can cope with the demand.”
“What sort of numbers are we talking about?” I asked, looking around the group.
Zed responded. “Under the present arrangement we each teach one student at a time. We stick with that person until they reach a standard in literacy commensurate with their ability, and they can then either go back to full-time school, take an online course, or—if they’re old enough—seek employment.
“Progress varies, depending on the student, but we have been averaging about twelve weeks of intensive study for each boy or girl to get them up to standard. There are many variables, including the level they reached before they dropped out of school, their degree of enthusiasm, and their intellectual ability to grasp what we’re teaching.
“We were getting so many enquiries that I had to start a waiting list. There are nearly fifty kids and young people on that list now. Most of them dropped out of school around the age of eight to ten, but there are also a few who have never attended school.”
My jaw dropped. “Good grief! I had no idea there would be that many. And there are some who have never been to school at all?”
Zed nodded, and there were murmurs of agreement from the other tutors.
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but stopped to think. The others waited patiently. “Okay,” I began, “I think we need to think sideways here. I assume that hiring more tutors is not necessarily the best solution?”
The others nodded. They were all smiling.
“Right,” I said, chuckling. “I know when I’ve been ambushed. Tell me what you want to do.”
They all laughed, including Kashuba. I joined in. It was Kashuba who spoke.
“The tutors think the best solution would be to start a school for these kids. We have talked it over, and I think their ideas are sound. We wanted to see what you would think, hence this meeting.”
“There are two sets of issues,” Zed said. “First, the practicalities of setting up a school—where, how to staff it, which age groups to cater for, and so on. Second, we believe there are legal requirements that we would need to meet.”
I nodded. “All right, let’s break it down into those components. Do you have a plan for the practical side of things?”
A young lady, Ashlin, responded. “Yes, we have a few ideas that we would like to discuss with you.” She handed a sheet of paper to each of us. “I’ve summarised these under WHERE, HOW, WHO, WHEN and STAFFING.
“First, where? Kashuba tells us that you haven’t yet decided on a use for the south wing of this building. We have looked through it, and we think that, with some alterations, it would be suitable.”
She looked at me. I nodded. “Go on…”
“Second, how? That is more complicated. The present system is working well. It’s just that we can’t help all the people who need it. We think we could streamline it by teaching several students at once, rather than one-on-one as at present. We could carry out preliminary assessments and those should give us an idea of where kids are at academically, as well as showing their potential. We could then put together those of similar standard and aptitude, and teach them in groups.”
She paused and looked at me again. I nodded for her to continue.
“Third, who? Well, we’d like to help everyone who comes to us, so that’s a no-brainer, really.”
“I think that’s a given,” I said. “We shouldn’t turn away anyone who asks for our help.” I looked at Ashlin’s list. “What about when, and staffing?”
“Well, as soon as possible for when,” she said, smiling. “We’d like to get these guys off the waiting list and into classes. As for staffing, all of us here would like to be involved, but we would most likely need to hire additional teachers, and we would certainly need administrative and ancillary staff.”
“Hiring staff won’t be a problem, as long as we can find the right people,” I said. “But, let’s return to these issues later. What about the legalities?”
Mathieu answered that question. “I have done some research and found that there is a body responsible for registering and accrediting private schools. Without accreditation they cannot operate, and they have to be inspected every year to ensure they are maintaining standards. We did have some doubt about needing registration, though, because of HI’s status as a child care agency and orphanage.”
“One moment,” I said. I took out my communicator, called my old orphanage, and asked for the director. When I was put through I explained our problem and asked if she would mind if I put her on speaker so that we could all join in the discussion. She agreed, and a lively conversation took place over the next thirty minutes.
What it boiled down to was that, because HI was already registered as an orphanage, we could set up our own school without additional registration. We would, however, need accreditation. Our curriculum would have to be approved, and our students would need to sit standard exams at the end of each semester.
The director invited our tutors to visit the orphanage so they could see how its school was set up (ours would cover a similar range of ages, and the orphanage school included students with some of the problems we would face) and to have a look at how they managed the necessary regular reports and exams. The director also offered to help with applying for approval for our curriculum.
The tutors were impressed that we were able to find comprehensive answers to their queries so quickly, and they all thanked the director for her help. The visit was arranged for a few days later, and all the tutors would take part.
We moved back to the practicalities. I suggested that Zed and Kashuba get together with Tian-yun to discuss the alterations needed to accommodate the school. If necessary, they should call in an architect.
“Just like that, we have a school?” Ashlin asked, a little incredulously.
Kashuba chuckled. “Echo doesn’t muck around,” he said. “Bring him a good idea, and you might as well consider it done.”
I laughed. “Well, you guys have identified a need that HI can fill. That’s all I need to know.”
“Man!” said Mathieu, “I wish I’d worked for you years ago!”
We ended the meeting there. I arranged to join the tutors when they went to the orphanage.
The visit went well.
Our tutors were able to join remedial classes to watch how the orphanage’s teachers handled the students’ problems, and they came away with an excellent idea of how the orphanage school was structured, and what additional staff we would need. They also obtained copies of the tests the orphanage used to assess new students.
Zed and I met with the director and she ran through the procedures for getting our curriculum approved and setting up the standard exams.
Less than two months later, our school opened with fifteen new students and three new teachers. The idea was that our original tutors would continue to teach their current students, but would move into the school structure as soon as those students graduated. It took a couple more months, but eventually all of our teaching staff were working in the school. Zed was principal, and we had fifty-five students.
The students had access to the courtyard, and we fenced off a large area behind the building to use as a sports arena and playground. For those in a hurry, or who were not sports-minded, we set up a library and a private study room where they had access to computers and could do additional work at their own pace.
I made a point of meeting each of the students personally. For one thing, I was simply interested in meeting them and hearing their stories. For another, I wanted to see whether there was anything further we could do for them.
With the permission of the students I sat in on one day’s classes. By the end of the last class I felt like my upbringing in the orphanage had been privileged. Some of the students were young adults, and it was humbling to see people older than myself learning to read and write. I was so impressed with their determination to succeed that I volunteered to help in whatever practical way I could.
That led to my working with one of the boys. I became his personal coach and spent five hours a week with him—an hour each school day. I sometimes had to work my schedule around his class timetable, but he needed our times together to be regular and consistent, and there was no way I was going to mess that up. Actually, I got so much out of helping Kess that there was no way I could have reneged on our arrangement. I listened to him read, supervised him in writing exercises, and drilled him in stuff he had to learn until he had it down pat. We both cried when he managed to read a simple story book all the way through without making a single mistake. Although he was two years older than me Kess became a firm friend, and we celebrated each milestone in his learning by going out for dinner.
When Kess had progressed enough to work on his own, the teachers asked me to mentor a girl, Leah, who needed help. Like Kess, she was older than me by a couple of years. To begin with, Leah was gruff to the point of verging on rude. She seemed to resent my involvement in her education, and I thought she was going out of her way to try my patience. I had to admire her determination to succeed, though, and decided I would stick it out, no matter how hard it got. Some days I could barely remain civil to her. Gradually—I think as she realised the worth of our times together—her stance softened, and I began to look forward to the times I spent with her each week. She turned out to be intelligent and witty, and had an irreverent sense of humour that really appealed to me. Leah knew that I owned DöhmCorp and headed HI, but treated me like a little brother. I came to really appreciate that.
After observing the gains my volunteering had brought about for Kess and Leah, Zed remarked one day, “I wish I had a volunteer for each student! Your one-on-one time with these guys—as another kid instead of as a teacher—has had a profound effect on them.”
That gave me an idea, which prompted me to arrange a meeting between Zed and the Döhm executives. We started a program whereby DöhmCorp staff could volunteer at the school and be given up to five hours per week without pay to work with students in the same way I’d coached Kess and Leah. I was surprised at the take-up: we ended up with more volunteers than the school needed. As it had for me, the coaching led to many beneficial friendships.
A few months after the school opened I finally allowed myself to rest easy. Everything had come together well, and it was all running smoothly. As a way of saying thank you for all her help, I invited my old orphanage director to inspect our school.
After Zed and I had given her a tour she gave me a huge hug. That surprised me so much I went rigid. Never in all my years at the orphanage had I seen her hug anyone. I must have looked stunned when she released me because she laughed uproariously.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised, young man! It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing with HI.” She paused, then added, “I’m not allowed to hug kids at the orphanage, and that’s something that really bugs me. Kids need hugs. You’re not under my care now, so that rule no longer applies.” She smiled. “There were so many times I wanted to hug you—sometimes to comfort you, but mostly to thank you for something nice you had done for one of the other kids. You were always helping someone.”
My eyes were moist when I hugged her back.
Shortly after the school opened we launched two more new initiatives.
We had been hearing complaints that there were few cheap entertainment facilities on the south side of the harbour, which was where Breaker One and Döhm headquarters were located. After canvassing opinion as widely as we could, we decided a quick fix to this problem would be to open a cinema. We converted one of the old factory buildings into a theatre space and coffee shop-cum-meeting place. Initially the theatre would serve as a cinema but it was designed so that it could also be used to present plays and musicals. As a cinema, it became an instant hit. As a meeting place it attracted people interested in the performing arts, and that led to the establishment of theatre groups as well. Much to our surprise, since the topic hadn’t arisen in our research, the theatre also became a live music and dance venue. HI’s involvement in this enterprise was simply to provide the facility, although we also ran the cinema initially. All the other activities were organised by the groups that formed around the venue.
In response to demand we set up an exhibition space for art and craft. It could handle exhibitions by multiple artists and craft people, or it could be divided into smaller spaces for individuals.
We also discovered that there were no sports facilities on our side of the city that were easily accessible for people on low incomes. There were plenty of places, but their clientele were the more affluent and the cost of membership was out of reach for the people we were helping. I guess our side of the city was ‘the’ side of town for those with money. The central business district was on the south side of the harbour, as were the main government offices. The CBD was where most companies had their offices.
We converted another of the old factory buildings into an indoor sports centre and gymnasium, and employed trainers and facilitators. Membership was free to all of the scallies packs and other groups that now came under HI’s umbrella, and to our school students. There was a modest fee for others who could produce evidence of their low income. We also invited DöhmCorp HQ staff to join, since the centre was sponsored by the company, and we didn’t have a corporate gym for them to use.
Within a few weeks of its opening, however, we had to revise our thinking. Apparently we had created such a high-quality gym facility that others were keen to join. At first we resisted, telling those who enquired that the centre was intended to help low-income earners. Then we began to notice something. The Döhm employees, who were generously paid, found themselves working out alongside, and playing in sporting teams with, people they had previously rather pitied. Although Döhm staff had overwhelmingly shown support for the way we were helping the scallies and other disadvantaged groups, most of them had no real knowledge of the people involved. Their experiences at the centre were an eye-opener for many of them, and they began to realise that these folk were just as worthy of their respect as anyone else. Even the scallies had pride. They had ambitions, too, although those had been severely curtailed by their straitened circumstances.
When the Döhm people realised that the scallies and other groups had been victims of events outside their control, their attitudes changed. They began befriending and encouraging their teammates and workout colleagues. The demand to open up the membership to a wider clientele mostly came from these people and their friends and relatives.
One day in the Döhm HQ cafeteria I was accosted by several young programmers from the computer lab.
“Echo!” Dom demanded, “when are you going to open up membership to the sports centre?”
Caught unawares, and reacting to his aggressive tone, I responded sharply, “Why do you think I should?”
That set him back a little, and he had to stop to think. One of the others, a young woman named Ruth, jumped in. “Can we at least discuss it over lunch, please?”
I relented. Dom’s attitude was more than countered by her gentle request. “Sure,” I said, “just let me get my lunch. Can you guys find us a table?”
Dom told me he was frustrated because he felt that no one was listening when they asked for the membership rules to be relaxed. He felt that they had provided good reasons, yet nothing had changed.
I admitted I was dubious about the idea, but told him I didn’t remember seeing or hearing any formulated arguments. All I had picked up was that some people wanted their friends and families to be admitted.
Dom looked at the others. “Didn’t we write up something to pass on to the HI guys?” he asked. “I know we talked about it.”
“Yes, we talked about it,” Heidi, the other girl, said, “but we didn’t actually do anything as far as I recall.”
Dom looked distressed. “Oh, man, I’m sorry, Echo. I was sure we had put in a submission.”
I grinned. “Don’t worry about it. How about you give me your arguments now, and I’ll take that as a submission? But, you know, you really shouldn’t need to submit anything. You do know you can just bail me up in the cafeteria, right?”
They all looked stunned for a moment, then burst out laughing. They all gave me high-fives.
After that we had a productive discussion. My four lunch companions had joined the sports centre as soon as it opened. They had made some good friends among the scallies and other ‘less well-off people’ as Dom put it. They had been rather surprised to find that those people were just ordinary folk like themselves; the only real difference was that they had not received the breaks in life that the staff members had.
“Those scallies are super-competitive,” Adrien, the other young man, said. “They give us a run for our money in everything we do together.”
“And they’re all so appreciative of what HI has done for them,” Heidi said.
“Yeah,” I said, “they tell me that often, and they’ve paid back over and over again everything we’ve done for them. I’m just rapt to see them contributing—at least, most of them do—to society. The results I see justify a hundredfold my confidence in them.”
“Ah, you see, that’s the thing,” Dom said, “you trusted them, and you had confidence that they would respond in a positive way. And it worked. Massively!”
“And that’s where our idea comes in,” Adrien said.
“We would like to help,” Ruth added.
“And we’ve told our friends and our families, and they want to help, too,” said Heidi.
“Okay.” I grinned. “I’ll bite, what sort of help do you want to provide?”
Dom chuckled. “We thought we could each take a scally and mentor her or him. We could coach them in social skills, we could share gifts or talents we have, we could share our interests and hobbies with them, or we could encourage them to develop their natural abilities. Perhaps we could give them something to strive for. Heaven knows, most of those kids have a severely limited outlook, but that’s mostly due to the breaks life gave them.” He paused. “Actually, I put that the wrong way. They didn’t get breaks, they got broken. But I reckon we could help turn that around.” He gave me a sober stare. “We would really like to try, Echo.”
“It wouldn’t be an intensive sort of arrangement, as if they were in school,” Ruth said. “We thought of it more like simply nurturing friendships and taking it from there.” She paused, thinking. “Come to think of it, we’re probably already doing that to some extent. I’ve been teaching one of the girls to sew. When she found out I love to make my own clothes, she asked me to teach her how. She’s really keen!”
“It wouldn’t be a one-way street, either,” Heidi said. “We think our friends and families would benefit from the relationship, just as we have.”
“So, you can see family and friends joining in this?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Adrien said. “I’ve had one of my scally friends visit my home a few times, and he’s been a hit with my family. They love him to bits.”
That made my eyes moist. “Adrien, that might well be the nicest thing anyone has done for him in his life. I think many of the kids just need someone to care about them and make them feel that they are real people, not the dregs of society.”
Ruth noticed the moistness, put her arm around my shoulder and hugged me to her side. “You really care about them, don’t you?”
I nodded. “I love every one of those kids.”
“Hey, Ruth, that’s the boss you’re manhandling, there!” Adrien said.
I pretended to swoon. “Oh, Ruth, you can manhandle me any time you like.”
We all laughed.
“Echo,” said Dom, “has anyone ever told you you’re the least boss-like person in the whole of DöhmCorp?”
I laughed. “Well, growing up in the orphanage probably did that. Besides, I’m only a kid.”
“And I, for one, am glad you are,” Ruth said. “How many other corporate bosses would allow a level one computer programmer to give them a hug?”
“Or have a serious discussion with us over lunch in the staff canteen?” Heidi added.
I rolled my eyes. “Hey, I’m gonna get a swelled head if you carry on like this. Gimme a break!”
That gave us all another laugh.
I looked at my watch. “Crikey, lunch is almost over. Can someone call your boss and tell her you’ll be late getting back to work? We should finish our discussion so that it doesn’t get swept under the carpet and forgotten.”
While Dom called their supervisor, the rest of us took the lunch dishes to the washing up station, then we sat back down to complete the discussion. It didn’t take much longer, and I ended up with an excellent proposal for HI. I told the others I would probably also talk with some of the scallies to get their input before I made a decision.
When I took the suggestion to Kashuba and Errol they both thought it had merit, so I began talking to scallies to get their perspective. I also took to turning up at the sports centre at different times and observing what was taking place there. I saw people working out, with scallies and Döhm employees spotting for each other. I watched matches between sports teams made up of mixtures of scallies, other disadvantaged people, and Döhm staff. Invariably they got along well and they obviously respected each other. Some of the teams even tried to persuade me to join them. Given my ineptitude for sport of all kinds I had to decline, but one team persisted until I gave in and joined a game. My participation ended with the others rolling on the floor laughing, and never again did anyone try to persuade me to join them other than as a spectator. I may have exaggerated my lack of skill, but they didn’t know that!
Satisfied that the ideas put forward by Dom and his friends had a chance of working, we opened up membership to people outside HI and Döhm. We didn’t publicise it, so, rather than an immediate influx of new members, there was a gradual buildup as the news slowly spread.
The results were spectacular. New friendships were forged and existing ones grew deeper. I think many of the mentors were surprised because they had assumed that the mentees would receive the most benefit. That wasn’t what happened, though, because, in most cases both sides reaped the benefits. The outcome was that we had many young people who became more confident and more outgoing, their self-esteem and their social skills boosted by the contact with their mentors. In turn, the experience of watching another person respond to their encouragement and enabling was humbling in ways that reshaped many lives.
That wasn’t the only positive result. The teams the centre put together excelled in their respective competitions. The centre soon had a collection of trophies.
Around the time I was dealing with the sports centre, two small personal gestures gave me much pleasure. One involved Rey, the other Yoso.
Not long after we first met, Masoko told me that the Breaker kids always celebrated birthdays, even going to the trouble of making a gift that each person would appreciate. “It helps us feel like we really are a family,” she said. “There has never been much to celebrate in our way of life, so we always look forward to birthdays.” Now that life was easier for them, they actually put on a party for each person. I was touched that they invited Darm and me every time.
When it was Rey’s turn, Darm and I bought him a new guitar, after checking that we wouldn’t duplicate someone else’s gift. I knew, from things he had said at various times, that the instrument his parents had given him was an acoustic one, so that’s what we bought. When Rey opened the box his mouth dropped open and he burst into tears. For a few seconds, he just sat, staring into the box. Then he lifted the guitar out reverently and ran his hands over it. For a while I was afraid he was going to reject it. Then he leapt up and grabbed Darm and me and hugged us so hard I could barely breathe.
“I think he likes it,” Darm said, drily.
When Masoko had insisted that we give our present first, I wondered what was up. Now I understood. She and Kashuba gave Rey a case for the guitar. Some of the other boys had banded together and bought a shoulder strap and other accessories. Tyras gave Rey a manuscript book so he could write down his songs.
The next time I visited Breaker One, Rey sat me down and began to play a piece of music he had written. He played it through once and then began again. It was a haunting tune and I listened, enraptured. There was a surprise, though, as I realised when a voice begin to sing. I’d been staring at Rey’s fingers as they plucked the strings, but I looked up and saw that the person singing was Tyras. My eyes filled with tears when I realised that he was singing ‘Gone’, his poem about the loss of his family.
Much later, Masoko told me that no one ever saw Rey with his crossbow after Darm and I gave him the guitar. In time, Rey himself told me that when he picked up the guitar his anger at the world dissipated. “I guess I was using the bow to work off some of my aggression,” he said. “I don’t need it anymore.” In fact, he taught one of the younger boys to use the bow, and ended up giving it to him.
* * *
Yoso’s fifteenth birthday was approaching and I didn’t know what to get him. He didn’t need anything music- or art-related, and I was in a quandary. One day I was browsing in a small second-hand bookshop, trying to find something to read. A small kid-bound book caught my eye, purely because it looked and felt attractive. The brown cover was soft and smooth. I fell in love with the book, and bought it without really even opening it. Darm laughed at me later when I told him that.
“You bought a book without even looking to see what it was about?” he said, shaking his head.
“Hey, I like nice books, what can I say?”
He went off, muttering to himself.
The book was titled For The Quiet Hour, and when I opened it I found that it was more than 250 years old. The Foreword included this statement: “It is difficult in the rush and hurry of every-day life to get time for rest and quiet…” I wondered how rushed and hurried life had been when the little book was published in 1911. That was before both world wars and before the technological revolution. Intrigued, I began leafing through it, occasionally reading the gems of wisdom and inspiration it contained. On the second-last page I found a quote that gave me an idea for Yoso’s gift. I rushed over to Darm’s study and showed him what I’d found. I told him of my idea, and asked if he would like to join me in giving it to Yoso. He was enthusiastic, because he hadn’t been able to think of a suitable gift either.
The next day I located an artist who was willing to create an illuminated leaf of the quote, and a workshop that would make a suitable frame for it. Two weeks later, just in time for Yoso’s birthday, it was done. Darm and I were thrilled at the way the page almost glowed under its glass. It was beautifully set off in its frame. We wrapped it carefully and presented it to Yoso when we visited him on his birthday.
“Oh, my word!” he exclaimed when he spied the iridescent colours as he tore off the gift wrapping. “It’s beautiful!” Darm and I watched as he read it through, aloud:
Music is the universal language.
Where speech fails, then music begins.
It is the natural medium for the
expression of our emotions—the art that
expresses in tones our feelings which are
too strong and deep to be expressed in words.
Yoso looked at me, then Darm, then back at the picture. Obviously, he was reading it through again, silently this time. When he looked up again his eyes were shining. He put the gift down carefully and, next thing I knew, I was almost strangled as he hugged me. When he released me he tried to strangle Darm.
“Thank you, guys. Oh, my, it’s gorgeous. I’ll find a place in my studio for it, somewhere I’ll see it every day.” He hugged us again. “Thank you!”
“Look on the back,” I said. The same artist had created a fancy inscription that I’d glued to the backing paper. It said, simply,
Happy fifteenth birthday from Echo and Darm
That got us yet another hug.
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