On Saturday, my friend Ysmaille takes me and some other friends to Life is Good.
He’s tried to explain it to me before. Inspired by some friends he met from the Life is Good Foundation, home of the famous Life is Good t-shirts, Ysmaille runs his own sort of playmaking franchise in a tent camp near his home in Delmas. He and a bunch of kids in his area sing and dance and play games, and eat croissants. That’s what he said, anyway.
The other day, Ysmaille and I were driving in his car. It was dusk, and as he managed his SUV over small boulders and through potholes, kids jumped out of their houses and bounded into the streets. “Life is good!” They shouted after him, waving their hands in the air. It was one of the few times Ysmaille received more attention than me, the foreigner next to him. But attention is truly a gross understatement. In this area, Ysmaille is absolutely famous among all children under the age of ten.
I was intrigued to see Life is Good, and perhaps cautious as well. Should we really be teaching children that “life is good” (a phrase that they may not even understand, in a language they don’t speak)? Are we teaching them to ignore everything around them? Should Americans really be traveling to Haiti to teach children the “right” way to sing and dance and have fun, and should people like Ysmaille really be franchising this model? Is the Life is Good Foundation some sort of weird American cult that tells kids to just man up and be thankful for the world around them, even when their lives, for lack of a better word, suck? I can proudly say that I had actively thought all these things before going to a Life is Good class. Call me a cynic, but I don’t like just anyone that wants to “help Haiti”.
On Saturday, small building in a tent camp near Ysmaille’s house fills with music. 75 kids cram themselves into a single room. Ysmaille, Rudy and Peter are three men that run the show, singing and dancing and playing the guitar and leading the kids in song. The kids sing about staying clean, using good manners, being happy. After they sing, they eat croissants and juice, possibly the only meal they will eat all weekend. The people in this tent camp used to be middle-class Haitians before they lost everything.
I sat down on a bench and the kids gathered around me in awe, like kids do. One little girl was looking for a place to sit. She was being pushed around by the little kids as she hunted for a place. “Chita isit nan janm mwen,” I said to her in Haitian Kreyol. “Sit here on my leg.” The kids howled, in absolute delight that I spoke some level of their language. Their faces warmed.
Five minutes later I was balancing two girls on my knees and holding Ysmaille’s son’s hand as he sat next to me. The girl on my right leg was light as a feather. I touched her wrist and was afraid to break it, it was so thin. The girl on my left leg was pudgy with big shiny cheeks and eyes that glowed. Inside her mouth was a wealth of brown, rotted teeth. The latter danced with everyone, jumping up and down. The former was quiet, taking in everything with her big eyes. They were dim and motionless as she watched the kids in front of her. I lightly clapped her hands together, singing along with the music, trying to get her to smile.
It was with this child that I understood the purpose of “life is good.” I had misunderstood its target from the beginning. Life is Good, at least in Ysmaille’s program, focuses on the kids who have essentially forgotten how to have fun. Even many of the kids who seemed to be moving and grooving from far away had eerie looks on their faces. Through their smiles were grayed-over eyes. Eyes of curiosity, of discomfort, of memory loss. Deeply buried in post-traumatic stress disorder, the children had simply forgotten what children are supposed to do. Play.
Once a week, the children in the tent camp by Ysmaille’s house eat croissants and juice and dance and remember what it is to be kids again. They sing songs and play games, and for a moment are temporarily able to forget the pain that has stabbed at them throughout the past year since Haiti’s earthquake, laid on thick like icing on their pre-existing poverty.
Life is Good is not about making kids feel like they are not being thankful for what they have. It’s not about rubbing a very American ideal into their faces. It’s about reminding these kids that life can be good. That it’s okay to let life be good to you, even when it has been bad to you in the past. It’s about remembering to love yourself and the future as much as you loved what you may have had before. It’s about dancing and singing and playing games and eating croissants. It was exactly what Ysmaille said it was.