Friday, October 01, 2004

The Protector of All Things Plastic

One p.m. on a sweaty Tuesday afternoon, and I emerged, triumphant, from the jungle that is the bush allotment behind the youth center in Tonga where my husband Cliff and I work. A pace or two behind me was Afu, Cliff’s Tongan counterpart and a fellow coworker at the youth center. With him, walking reluctantly, easily distracted by the moths or weeds that crossed his path, was Sateki. He carried two plastic bottles, empty and with their labels torn off and caps missing, and a branch from a small coconut tree.

Cliff stood on the porch beside a broken chair, peering into the footpath. His eyes registered me, then Afu, then Sateki, and then his eyes relaxed.

Sateki is one of the students who comes to the youth center’s weekly class for the developmentally disabled, the only such class offered on our island of 10,000 people. I don’t know the name of the disability that has stunted his growth and development; neither do his parents. (Tongans, we have observed, have a great compassion for people with disabilities but little knowledge or training in the area.) Whatever the name of the glitch Sateki carries in his genes, the effects are clear. Though he has reached adulthood, Sateki is shorter than I, and I’ve never been accused of being tall. He walks with a mild affectation; not a limp, really, more of a lilt that seems to pull him just slightly to the right. He has dark hair, a thin, patchy beard, and a smile that in a child would be called mischievous.

Mischievous is a good word for Sateki. He is slow to follow verbal directions, though, to be fair, this might be because Cliff and I speak less than perfect Tongan. Still, it always seems to me that Sateki fully understands the directions, and would just rather go his own way. He’d rather walk the porch while his classmates watch a video. He’d rather sit in the corner than color a poster or sing a song. He’d rather dunk his bread and butter sandwich in his juice than finish his plate quickly and neatly.

But Sateki is not simple; he has one strong purpose in his life, an irresistible temptation that pulls him in all the subtle, physical ways the desire for a drink pulls an alcoholic. Sateki loves plastic. Any form of plastic will do, but his desire is most often fed by the 1-liter soda bottles that lie discarded along roadsides, in trashcans, on corner tables. He can spot a plastic bottle a mile away and he collects them protectively and brings them with him to his corner of the classroom. Once inside, he sits down, stretches his legs out, and puts the bottles at his side, between him and the wall where no one else can reach them.

Sateki the collector is not usually a disruption to our class time. We guide him gently, repeat our requests two or three times, and loudly praise each good behavior. And somedays he seems to really enjoy being with us. Other days, some deep internal desire pulls him out of the classroom and onto a hunt for plastic bottles and other objects of desire.

One Tuesday afternoon Cliff was alone with the eight students who come to our class to practice their alphabet, talk about hygiene, and enjoy a few hours away from their homes. The Tongan instructor had needed to leave early, and I was working in the office. So when Sateki decided to break out of Alcatraz, he only had one guard watching the door. Cliff has a leg injury that prevents him from running, so he shouted for me to come. There are playful “come here” shouts and panicked “come here” shouts. I knew Cliff wasn’t being playful.

A small bush plot borders our youth center, and a dirt road runs through it, barely visible to the casual observer because waist-high weeds have grown to cover the tire tracks. The road is so invisible, that despite spending 40 hours a week on this piece of land, I had never noticed it. It was down this road that Cliff pointed. Sateki was already out of site.

We wear skirts and flip flops here in Tonga. There’s a reason why you never see a marathon runner in sandals and an ankle-length skirt. With weeds brushing my knees and burrs catching my skirt, I hitched up my hem and ran as best I could down the blind path I thought Sateki might have followed. Within seconds I was out of sight of the youth center and surrounded completely by overgrown grass and coconut trees. Sateki was no where to be found. After ten minutes of bush-whacking through the trail I found myself approaching someone’s back yard. There was a decrepit pig lot (which is actually surprising, since in general no one pins their pigs here in Tonga) with a dirty looking tree, under which Sateki sat sulking.

And now the hard part of the day had begun: convincing Sateki to return with me to the center. No amount of garbled pleas in Tongan could convince him to leave his post at the pig pen. He was happy there – or rather, he was extremely sad and seemed to want to be left alone.

Now I was at a loss. I couldn’t leave him to return for help because he might run further. And I couldn’t stay and wait for him to change his mind, because he might sit there all day.

And then, looking like Superman to the rescue, came our coworker Afu, running as fast as his skirt would allow. (The day is memorable for this alone, as except on the rugby field I can’t recall seeing a Tongan run on any other occasion.) Within a few minutes Afu had negotiated Sateki’s return, which involved getting Sateki a palm frond he wanted terribly, and assisting Sateki with the transport of several plastic bottles he had accumulated along the way.

Together, and at a much slower pace, we followed the overgrown road back to the youth center where Cliff was anxiously waiting for us. Sateki returned to the classroom, arranged his plastic bottles in the corner, and spent the rest of the day playing with his palm frond. I spent the rest of the day picking burrs from my skirt.

We’ve watched Sateki pretty closely since then, and on only one other occasion has he made a run for it (in this case, “it” being plastic bottles and palm or coconut fronds). He still looks a little sad, a little angry, a lot mischievous. But we can’t help but love our little protector of all things plastic, for his single-minded devotion to the object of his affection, for the little smiles he offers when he’s pleased with himself, for the good laugh he provided us after we found him and were no longer scared.