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Delaney: Failing The Children

A few weeks ago, while engaged in a true 21st Century activity - waiting for a connecting flight in an airport - I picked up a New York Times at a kiosk. A front page color photo, above the fold, caught my eye. The photo was a hard-focus look at what we humans often do to children. It stunned me – and left a memory I don’t want but can’t seem to let go of.

I looked into the eyes of a teenage boy from the Meghalaya state in India. His lightless eyes were as dark as his face, a face smeared with black coal dust. The set of his mouth spoke of the hurt that so many of the earth’s children know from birth, and from which they cannot escape. Translated: We, the children are used; and no one cares.

The boy’s name is Suresh Thapa. He’s 17 and one of an estimated 70,000 children, some as young as five – and many are orphans - who work deep in the mines, digging coal and, and according to the New York Times story, “staring death in the face.”

Exploitation of children is nothing new however. In the 19th Century, the great Russian writer Dostoevsky needed a whole vocabulary of bleakness to describe how Russia devalued its children. Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, comes to doubt his faith in God because of the suffering of children. He tells Alyosha, for example, about a child working for shepherds who was denied even the mash fed to pigs.

For Dostoevsky, it is innocence enslaved which induces his despair, but another great writer, Antoine de St.-Exupéry, takes another tack. He mourns the death of possibility in children deprived.

St.-Exupéry was a dashing World War II pilot,  a raconteur of courage and daring, yet he once described in the starkest language, language kept real by his disciplined imagination, an impoverished baby riding with its parents in a third class railway car. That child, he writes, is the face of life’s beautiful promise. Then, in a cosmic metaphor, he laments that mankind has no “gardener,” a force in nature, he thinks, that would nurture possibility. And so the beautiful child he contemplates, instead of becoming, say, a Mozart, will only be a fast-fading shadow of such.

An article in the French weekly Le Point reports on a recent gathering of 11 Nobel laureates, at which they shared their visions of the world in 2050. Each and everyone was fascinating – but disappointing too in a way since no mention was made  of the world’s children, like those in the Meghalaya coal mines. It leaves me to wonder if the world’s children will be any better off in 37 years.

I think the world needs an eleventh commandment – one that reads: Thou shalt honor and nurture the earth’s children, all of them.

Dennis Delaney is a former Republican State Senator.
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