Keynote Address, International Korczak Conference, Aug. 6, 2010, Tokyo Japan
To be here today, of course I had to ask permission from all our children in our Janusz Korczak School in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, especially the ones in their early teens, both boys and girls; because in many ways, they are more fragile and vulnerable, and bruise more easily than the smallest and youngest. The younger ones hurt for the moment, the older ones hurt for a lifetime.
I come before you from Bangkok with a nearly impossible task.
To imagine that Dr. Janusz Korczak is sitting here in the front row, listening to what all of us are saying.
And of course, he is here in spirit.
I am here to give you a message from our children: the Janusz Korczak children of the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok.
And if my message rings true and clear – and you can hear the voices of our children - then I know Dr. Janusz approves, and more important, our children approve. And if our children approve, then the children of the whole world approve.
Our Children: (slide show)
These are our children, formerly street kids, used and abused thow-aways who live with us as family.
Our children have several messages:
First, they wish to say, “We the Janusz Korczak children of Klong Toey are okay. Not perfect. Not 100%, but doing okay – and we hope that you are okay.” And from the younger ones… they ask, “Do you know how to play ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’ and how many times can you skip rope without missing a step?”
And so the children ask you, do your children do this?
I do not come bringing a magical formula for protecting children – only a message from our children. But maybe it is magic:
Our Children’s Message:
The essence is … every child has an absolute right to protection from each and every adult they meet. All children (EVERY SINGLE ONE)… when they see ANY adult anywhere – on the street, in school, especially at home - can look at that adult and know they will be protected. Loved. Looked after. No matter what. That they will not be harmed. They are safe.
That’s why I am here today, to bring you this message from the Janusz Korczak Children of Bangkok.
I hope that you have a message for me to take back to our kids in Bangkok. That’s the stipulation our children gave me. I have fulfilled my part of the bargain, and our children would be honored if you can send them your kind wishes. And if you ever pass through Bangkok, better still, please visit our Mercy Centre. Our children would insist.
We have 200 kids who live with us at our Mercy Centre in Klong Toey, including our Janusz Korczak kid’s in our homes and our school. But allow me to explain:
At our Mercy Centre, Janusz Korczak is not just about a school building we named in his honor. Nor is Korczak just about the street children who attend this school – children who have no other place to go to learn to read and write and make friends. Korczak is about much more than a school that opens each day, Monday through Friday, from eight in the morning until three-thirty in the afternoon.
Janusz Korcak is a part of every child we meet on the streets, twenty-four hours every day. He is a part of everything in the lives of these children – he is the way these children live on the streets and in school, the way they play and grow up, mature, and lead lives raising their own families.
We teach and feed another three thousand Janusz Korczak kindergarten kids each day in thirty slums in Bangkok and almost a thousand Sea Gypsy kids down in middle-south of Thailand. Plus seventy kids with HIV in Bangkok who live with their parents and grannies in shacks. Plus hundreds more kids, rag-pickers kids, kids living under bridges. They are all our Korczak children.
We have one important rule that we ask each of our Korczak children to follow: that is, if they see a poor kid in their neighborhood who is NOT going to school, they must tell us, and let us help. We need to teach our children that the first rule of caring for themselves is to care for others.
That is our one hard-and-fast rule – it’s the only one we ask of our children.
But what are their rules? What rules do Bangkok’s poorest children live and play by to survive?
Here are the rules we’ve distilled from 40 years of listening to them, being guided by them. These children are our teachers in the world of human rights.
First, the primary rule of living on the streets: this is what the experienced street children tell the new ones on their first day on the street:
FIND AN ADULT YOU CAN TRUST. YOU CANNOT MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN.
BUT YOU MIGHT NOT FIND ONE. IT’S NOT THAT EASY. YOUR PROBLEMS ARE TOO BIG TO HANDLE BY YOURSELF.
Besides, if you are alone and something happens… there will not be anyone to tell your Granny AND THEN NO ONE TO PRAY FOR YOU at the Temple or at the Church or Mosque.
Please allow me to digress: A Granny’s rights, at least in our Klong Toey slum, are equally important in understanding children’s rights. Their rights are inextricably bound together as it is often the Granny who is raising the child. They live together and, most bluntly, keep each other alive.
Granny’s Rights include:
- Right to chew Betel Nut. That includes the right to live and teach granny’s traditions and folkways to her grandkids.
- Right to own a cat, a dog, and a python snake under the shack to get the rats.
- Right to fair play from the police.
- Right to fair play from the schoolteachers who teach their grandchildren.
- Right to a bowl of rice (that is, to eat regularly, most of the time).
And the street kids – their rights include:
The Right to “own” a puppy dog, or at least have one around, and to clean up after its poop – to feed and care for it. Every children, even street children, need to feel responsible for someone or something.
Usually, as I mentioned, a street kid is responsible for his granny who raised him in the shack.
More children’s rights:
- Right to be listened to, talked to and heard out.
- Right not to be given up on… always to have another chance.
- Right to be stubborn. (Usually kids will not change their minds, and that’s ok.)
- Right to a better education – to make choices.
Every slum kid knows how to count by the time he’s three or four. They count money, count cards, count the number of times they skip a rope. There are future poets, scholars, professors, judges, leaders of industries and the arts among the kids we meet on the street. They just need a safe place to live and the chance to go to school.
We at our Mercy Centre and everywhere in the world must re-look and re-examine the way we see children, and realize the honor and privilege of having children trust you, especially abused and abandoned kids, and what a great honor it is to allow them to be our teachers.
- Right to make mistakes and to be forgiven for them.
- Right to get into fights and resolve conflicts according to children’s rules, not adult rules.
- Right to a daddy who comes home most nights, and not drunk.
- Right to a momma who lives with daddy in a home where neither momma nor granny get beat up physically or verbally by daddy.
- Right to daddy’s salary, so he gives it to momma or granny to buy food and not spend it all on booze and cigarettes.
- Right NOT to see men/boys/cops beating up girls and women, calling them horrible names that are not true… or even if they are true.
- Right to go to school with rice in your tummy.
- Right to look nice – to have your hair combed and to be bathed with clean water, not smelly canal water from Bangkok’s klongs - which makes all the other kids and, worst of all, the teachers, tell you that you stink.
- Right to wash your clothes… and to have clothes to wash.
- Right to have someone love you and hold you.
- Right to know and understand what you can and cannot do.
- Right to make everyday choices (to choose your own school bag and everyday things that are meaningful perhaps only to yourself)
- Finally, most importantly, the right to have as much fun as you can every day!
We borrow the name Janusz Korczak for our school because – well… in modern language: “He was Cool. So cool that he didn’t even have to try to be cool.”
He knew what kids are about. (And lots of big dumb adult folks who forgot everything their mommas ever taught them wanted to change the rules.)
Our Korczak kids wake up early in the a.m. and say, I’m going to have as much fun as I possibly can all day today.
Might have to go to school. That’s okay. I shall make that fun too.
So… back to our children and the deal I made with them before I left for this conference: I had to bribe them with ice cream. Of course, we all know bribes are wrong, but Ice Cream?!! That’s different!
“WHY are you going?” they asked; and most of all, they wanted to know, “Will you come back? Will you return to Mercy? We have been abandoned before. We kind of trust you … but you can never be sure about adults. They break their word often, especially when they promise to do something for us or say they will give us something.”
My Brothers and Sisters – Relatives, Cousins, Aunts and Uncles, Members of our Janusz Korczak Family, I, one of your relatives, come before you from Bangkok. To speak in the name of our 200 children who live with us here at Mercy Centre in Klong Toey and of our teachers and kids of our Janusz Korczak School of S.E. Asia.
Thus, it is an honor for me to be here.
An honor that the children allowed me to come.
An honor that you ask me to come.
It is also a fearsome – an awesome - responsibility…for me – a Western born, Irish-American Catholic Priest living 40 years in Bangkok, Thailand – to speak in the name of Thai children.
So how did I convince the children from our school in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, named The Janusz Korczak School of S.E. Asia???
Of course I told them the truth: that I wanted to talk about the Rights of the Child.
And some of the older ones said, “By the way, we have been wanting to talk to you about the Rights of the Child.”
“And what are these rights,” I asked them.
They said, “We have the right to go to school,” and remarked that it is what they thought Head Master Janusz Korczak would say, too.
I prefer to name him Head Master, as that is the way our children see him. And, really, if that’s how our children wish to respect him, what else matters?
Our kids told me, they wish to follow Head Master Korczak’s principles of going to school, but also to follow the rules on the streets and in the slums.
This is quite difficult, because they seem to be two distinctly different sets of rules. Can our children follow street-survival rules and still go to school? Are they contradictory?
So the child and the teacher and all of us have to change…we have to listen.
We try to make everyone listen, and have even translated into Thai the Korczak’s Rights of the Child, as listed at the end of B.J. Lifton’s wonderful biography, and we give them to every policeman and judge and lawyer we meet when we defend children involved in the judicial system. That is, in over 80 local police stations and all Children’s Courts in Bangkok.
Our children know and want to believe in the rights of the child.
Except that many of them don’t, or aren’t able to, because a lot of bad teachers have taught them otherwise, just as they have been taught to feel hate and prejudice.
So what we do… we dress up in Doctoral Robes and our children wear caps and gowns at our Mercy Kindergarten graduation day…
and we tell them:
Go to school.
Go to school.
Momma plays card, loses all the money: go to school.
Dad drinks, beats up on momma: go to school
It’s raining and your shack is flooded: go to school
It’s a sunny beautiful day: go to school
No shoes to wear: go to school
No breakfast, no porridge, there’s a deep hunger in your belly: go to school
No matter what: GO TO SCHOOL.
It’s your right. It’s every poor kid’s right.
And it’s the only chance in life you’ll ever get.