I have visited fifteen schools in the past week and a half. Each one is certainly unique, but schools in rural Guatemala are bound to share some characteristics. For example, students are fascinated by us Americans (I am pretty exotic), and are curious about our visiting their village. The more outgoing children follow us around. Some ask questions. Others lean over our shoulders to see what we’re photographing. Our visit to Rio Mactzul today initially included these aspects, but the moment someone whipped out a soccer ball, visitors were no longer the most intriguing option for the students.
All eyes were on the tattered ball and players searched for a breakaway opportunity to the wooden goal posts. These children, like so many others across the globe—myself included—couldn’t get enough of the fun, healthy, challenging game. They played in the morning, before the bell rang; they played during physical education, dressed all-white athletic uniforms; and they played during recess, narrowly dodging the uninvolved.
The kids have so much fun that they hardly realize the benefits of this play. They are improving their motor skills and learning to interact appropriately with other players. They practice teamwork and sportsmanship, footwork and determination, health and joyeux de vivre. It was wonderful to see these kids experiencing personal growth. Moreover, it was wonderful to see these kids so purely happy, the way all children should be.
Through stories I have heard and conditions I have seen, I know that children here lead difficult lives. They spend chunks of time working with families to bring in a few extra quetzals—some weave, others shine shoes, still others sew, sell goods in the market, or work in the fields. They aren’t properly fed, eating mostly starchy foods, so daily activities become even more difficult. They don’t anticipate improving their situation or that of their lineage, considering most will end school upon completing sixth grade and have children before their twentieth birthdays.
And yet, despite such difficult circumstances, these children can be happy. When they play soccer, nothing else matters. Not their visitors or their future. Soccer and general play give children many important gifts. Above all, they give children childhoods.