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Talking With Water Balloons

Cheryl Ma, St. Louis, MO.


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Breathing heavily with sweat dripping down my face, I look around in trepidation and brace myself for the dreaded chaos that I had long apprehended, but knew was now upon me: Water balloon time. The sound of my heartbeat rings in my eardrums as the eighteen Mexican toddlers flood the playground, feverishly throwing pre-filled latex bags at each others’ faces, screaming in fast Spanish, faces bright with shrill enjoyment. A four year old girl runs towards me and yells the three words I would learn to dread: “Aquí, toma esto!” In the moments before the water balloon hits my arm and explodes on my shirt, I realize that the only thing worse than being in charge of a group of children throwing water at each other is being the victim of a group of children throwing water at each other.

An important distinction must be made here: aside from the occasional Taco Bell order, I do not understand a word of Spanish. Hours earlier, I had been approached by a friend who said he was supposed to babysit a group of children from his church that night but could no longer make it. As I jumped at the opportunity to play with a bunch of kids for an evening, it did not cross my mind to ask my friend if the children at his Spanish church spoke a language other than Spanish. Unable to communicate with the eighteen children that were entrusted under my supervision, common expressions like "use your words" and "I’ll give them a talking to" became rather useless.

Frustrated with my friend for not clarifying and with myself for being in the situation, I lingered on the English essays and Math problems I could have spent the night on. Thus, in an attempt to appease the children that I had absolutely nothing linguistically in common with, discipline was minimal- reduced to the universal language of promised piggy back rides and Hershey’s kisses. As the adults sit in the basement listening to the sermon in a hushed circle, their children chase each other outside, shrieking in pure ecstasy. I wipe the water from my face with a damp rag and quickly google translate aquí toma esto (“here, take this”), making a mental note to duck whenever I hear the phrase.

The youngest boy, Antonio, attempts to throw a bulging green balloon, only to see it pop above his head right as it leaves his hand. Selena, the girl he was targeting, laughs and pops a balloon above her head as well. Suddenly, all of the children are grabbing water balloons and popping them over their heads, giggling as the water explodes and splashes onto their dark skin. Then- silently, as if it were an unspoken secret- every child grabs another balloon and charges at me. They chase me and knock me down, my clothes now wet and covered in mud. In the moments that our differences in age, culture, and language are stripped off layer by layer, I think that there is nothing better than being here- with a group of children, throwing water at each other.

As the night pushes on and the playground falls cold, I huddle with my newly made friends, wrapping them tightly in towels and pushing them inside the building to where it was warmer. For a while we lay on the floor, with the younger ones asleep on their older sibling's laps. When it is time for them to leave and for me to drive home, Antonio runs up to me, eyes heavy and worn out. He presses a Hershey's kiss into the palm of my hand and whispers, “Aquí, toma esto.” I promise him I will visit again soon, and I desperately hope that he understands.

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