EDITORs NOTE: Caitlin Burnside was the 12th-grade winner of the Laws of Life Essay Contest at Thomson High School. Below is her essay.
The callous, indifferent roughness surprised me. The dark air was cool, as I recall. Back in Georgia, the sticky air would have exaggerated that familiar June heat. But here, in places that maps never illustrated and where people sparsely traveled, the air hovered delicately like a crisp October morning over dry lands of the African savanna. Again, the hands like sandpaper immersed my feet in the cool bath. As she sat on the ground, never looking up, she washed my feet with the gentlest care possible out of sheer gratitude. I could see the glitter of hope surface in her dark eyes as her dormant dreams awoke.
Earlier that day long before any coolness could be found, the ladies of the village enlisted my knowledge in teaching them to make "smashed" potatoes. After one successful batch, I stepped out of the smoky hut and saw her. Though the sun assaulted everything in its reaches like the blazing spears of Zeus himself, she was perched on a bench right in front of the cabin. She was young, though the wrinkles had started to form -- not from worries or fears, but from years of genuine hard labor. She had a pair of shoes resting in her lap and frustration engulfing her attempts at the laces. I sat down and asked if she needed help. Answering my question, she placed a tiny shoe in my grasp. I laced the shoes, her eyes examining the threading and weaving with each eyelet. Without a word, she picked up the other shoe and began to retrace every turn she had just studied. She smiled with furrowed brows, questioning my actions. Hoping I had not offended her, I left to wash my hands for supper. After all the "smashed" potatoes were eaten, dusk beckoned everyone, Americans and Zambians alike, to retreat to the pavilion for worship.
We Americans lounged in the coolness of the dark night. Buckets and basins began to appear, and as this night was our first night in the village of Kazemba, we did not yet understand what was to come. I prayed in the silent stillness of the night, closing my eyes to let my mind wander wherever the African countryside carried my drifting dreams. A tug at my shoe startled me. I opened my eyes to find the lace lady kneeling on the ground before me. This woman, with few possessions and even fewer blessings, removed my shoes and washed my feet. I could not fathom what realms compelled her to such an act of genuine service. She finished, moved the basin, grabbed my hands, and looked directly in to my eyes. As the tears began to stream from her eyes, I witnessed all her anger and anguish, her hurt and her hardships, her pain pour from her heart, leaving a sparkle holding lost dreams and hopes. She smiled, then slowly and steadily she left the ground and returned to the cool darkness with her basin.
John Lennon's infamous words still linger in our culture today: "All you need is love." I never knew that woman's name, nor did she know mine; she never said a single word to me. However, her overwhelming flood of emotions exclaimed more lessons and personal connections than I could ever derive from knowing her name. For her, taking five minutes to teach her how to tie shoes showed her that someone cares about her and wants to help her, that someone loves her. No matter what this woman did or did not have, she found love in the compassion of a total stranger, leading her to hope and dream again. Love -- selfless, compassionate, merciful love -- defies all preconceptions, breaks every boundary, and lights every darkness. When love is not obligated or expected, when love flows free and boundless, change comes. Love can change the world, even one person's world at a time. All that person needs is love.