La Flor, Costa Rica - Esteban distinguished himself from his unfailingly cheerful and endearing classmates from the very beginning. He was one of the first children I met upon my arrival in La Flor, a tiny village of 200 nestled in the mountains of Costa Rica’s Limón province, where I recently spent 10 days working at a local school with 13 other American teenagers. While his schoolmates were content to spend their afternoons kicking around a soccer ball, Esteban — who turned 11 the day before we arrived — preferred the company of the young men who worked on the cilantro plantation surrounding the town and spent most nights loitering at the public phones, cigarettes in hand.
Esteban had no qualms harassing any animal that crossed his path as he led us on afternoon adventures through miles of jungle and backcountry. In fact, one of his favorite pranks involved throwing giant purple grasshoppers at our backs in the hopes of generating hysteria. We learned quickly not to trust Esteban with our secrets or our digital cameras, but the caused of his devilish behavior was not so apparent.
One afternoon, after a particularly grueling day of work, I waited out the line for the shower by talking to Santiago, the local school teacher. We ended up chatting for hours, debating religion, discussing the importance of education, marveling at the beauty and simplicity of life in La Flor, and talking about Esteban.
Santiago told me that Esteban lives with his aunt and uncle, and while they give him a home, they certainly do not provide him with a family. Esteban’s father is a nonentity in the boy’s life, and his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, does not live in La Flor. Santiago believes Esteban, an undeniably clever and astute child, struggles in school not for lack of intelligence, but rather due to a severe lack of interest. Santiago understands that Esteban may be growing up too fast. Those teens hanging around by the public phones are just as willing to share their cigarettes with Esteban as his classmates are willing to share their crayons. But Santiago refuses to give up on him — he has come to love this boy like a son, and eventually, I came to understand why.
One night after dinner, I was doing dishes in the kitchen adjacent to the school when I felt eyes on me. I looked up to find Esteban peering in through the window, cradling his head in his hands and watching me intently.
“¿Quieres ayudar? [You want to help?]” I asked half-jokingly, soliciting his help with the mountain of dirty plates and silverware.
“Sí,” he responded with a smile.
Esteban ran around to the kitchen door and reappeared at my side. Plucking the dishrag out of my hands, he proceeded to scrub every last pot, plate, fork, spoon and serving utensil, blocking my every attempt at assistance.
From that moment on, my friendship with Esteban began to grow.
When school was finished for the day, he would stay to help us paint or sand or sweep the classroom. In the later hours of the afternoon, we would go off together and explore the densely foliated paths extending outward from the village. On the return trip from one particularly muddy expedition, Esteban stripped off his shoes in frustration. Poking his finger through a gaping hole in the left shoe, he announced plans to trek up into town the coming weekend — a good two hours by foot — to buy himself a new pair. Esteban sighed and dropped the shoes by the soccer field, walking away in disgust.
The next afternoon, Esteban’s mother showed up. We put down our paintbrushes and stared as she stumbled down La Flor’s one dirt road, beer bottle in hand. She walked right by her son, seemingly without even recognizing him. Seeing his dysfunctional mother, we finally understood the source of Esteban’s rebellious behavior. Realizing he deserved much more support than he had been given, we decided we had to do something.
On our last full day in La Flor, we threw Esteban a surprise birthday party. Everyone chipped in a few hundred colones, and Santiago hitched a ride out to town to buy balloons, ice cream and a double-decker cake. A few hours after school let out, we transformed the classroom, stringing up decorations from wall to wall and writing cheerful messages in colored chalk on the chalkboard. All of Esteban’s classmates showed up in their cleanest clothes and laughed together at the squeakiness of their patent leather shoes.
When everything was in place and everyone had arrived, we turned off the music and waited in anxious silence for the guest of honor. After a few fidgety minutes, Esteban walked in the door and stopped cold. Everyone yelled, “¡Sopresa!” Esteban sprinted into Santiago’s waiting arms and burst into tears. Santiago ushered the crying boy over to an empty chair, then returned to the front of the class. Wiping tears from his own eyes, Santiago began to speak.
Santiago explained to us that nobody had ever celebrated Esteban’s birthday before, much less thrown him a party. In a low but lyrical voice, he repeated his favorite lines about the importance of love and family: “Todos nosotros somos la familia de Esteban [We are all Esteban’s family].
When it was finally time for the party to begin, we turned up the music and cut up the cake, before presenting Esteban with a new pair of sneakers. Esteban led us all out to the soccer field, where we played soccer and Frisbee until it was too dark to see.
We left La Flor the next morning. I held back and waited as long as I could, so that I could say the last of my goodbyes to Esteban. I walked up to Esteban and hugged him close. After a moment, I told him, “Esteban, te voy a extrañar muchísimo [I will miss you so much].” He repeated the sentiment.
“Te amaré siempre [I will always love you]”, I said.
“Y yo también,” he agreed.
We squeaked out a few final parting words, and then it was time to leave. Out of the bus window, I watched as the boy who was growing up so fast became so, so small. And then he was gone.