Decisions at 19

Paula sat in front of the television set. She had put the video tape
that Carlos the History teacher had lent her and a middle aged man was
talking about the perils of a career in journalism. It was all about the
immediacy of the news story, having to write really quickly, to deliver
a story that had been demanded at 3am that morning, when his boss had
called him at home because an incident was happening right then and he
had to go and cover it.
That was enough for Paula.
Her boyfriend had already asked her to marry him, and Paula was
absolutely sure he would not be happy at all with a wife running out
of the house at three in the morning to cover some news. Besides, to
study journalism she would have to stay in university for five years,
and that if she successfully passed all exams in time. Her boyfriend had
already expressed annoyance at the length of Paula’s studies.
Paula was not so much in a hurry to marry her boyfriend as she was to
move out of home. In any case, a course that would take five years to
finish would not fit her needs. That left out almost all university
possibilities. Of those remaining, only two seemed attractive enough for
her: teaching and business studies.
“There are fewer and fewer children all the time, you know?”, Said Laura
on the phone, when Paula commented these possibilities. “There are
already too many teachers. You’ll just be unemployed when you finish”.
Voila, decision made. Business studies it would be.

She actually did like the prospect of going for business studies. She
had the feeling that it was business and world economics that were the
culprit of all those starving children her Granma kept talking about
every time there was potatoes for lunch. Now she would learn how it all
worked, and that way she would try to fix it all. Or at least she would
understand why every one who had tried before her had failed so miserably.
The paperwork for University began right after all the students got the
results for the final 10 or so exams that they had to take in two days.
One exam after the other is what Paula and a million or two other youth
in Spain that year – like many other years anyway – for two full days.
The results of these exams were decisive for the path they would be
allowed to choose. Of course more desirable courses would require a
higher result. Paula got good enough results for all her choices, even
the more “difficult” ones. To the dismay of her teachers and her own
mother, she stuck with the decision she had made in June: Business
Studies, three years.
“You are only going to study half a course”, Mum kept repeating. Yep.
That’s the idea. Get the hell out of here as soon as possible.
Paula liked to stick to her decisions, even if these were unpopular. “Especially” if these were unpopular.
Continuing to be a Christian, also known in catholic circles as “taking
up confirmation” was one of these decisions, although, unlike her
studies, this did please Paula’s mother.
Being a Christian in Paula’s parish was no small deal. Especially
because young people taking up confirmation had to also “take up a
commitment”, which in more lay terms meant to volunteering for some kind
of social (or religious) service.
Most of the confirmed people in Paula’s parish took on groups of younger
people who would eventually be confirmed as well. It was a matter of
pupils taking on teaching. It seemed the easiest option and priests and
older committed parishioners would not demand more. Then, against every
one’s wishes, including the Priest and her own mother, Paula took on
volunteering in the local drug-addict-help centre. She was nineteen.

Decisions at 18

Paula sat on her desk looking at the forms. Carlos, the History teacher, had given out auto-help forms that were supposed to “tell” the pupils what university course best suited their personalities and capabilities. The test assumed things like, in order to do social work, it was required a lesser intellectual capacity than to be an economist.
Paula was not too sure about this assumption, and she was even less sure about her own personal results. The test told her she had enough capacity to be an economist, but not enough to be a doctor, certainly more than enough to be a social worker. It encouraged her, however, to pursue a career as a social worker, as she had shown so much compassion and care for others.
Paula was certain of just one thing, and she hadn’t needed the test to find out. She agreed with most of her classmates that 17 is far too young an age to make a decision that will mark the rest of your life.
Carlos, the History teacher, looked at her. The whole class was drawn in group conversations, every one seemed to be talking at the same time.
Some students were outraged at the results, some where excited. Paula just sat there looking at the forms in silence.
“Can’t make up your mind?”
“I wanted to study Journalism. It hasn’t even turned up as a possibility.”
“Well, this is only a test that is supposed to help you. At the end, it is your decision.”
Paula made a face that expressed “What you have just said doesn’t help me much”.
“Have you seen the videos about careers?” It was a rhetorical question.
“What videos?” Carlos, the History teacher, was kind of used to pupils not listening to his explanations, so he ignored the question and handed one of the videos to Paula.
“Here, a video about Journalism. It has journalists talking about their work. It may help.”

Paula said thanks to the teacher, but this posed yet another challenge. Her parents had refused to acquire a video player and they were not going to buy one just so that she could watch this video.
Of course in those times, there were not video players available to students at school. She hoped to watch it at her boyfriend’s.

On her way home, Paula decided to disregard the tests and make her decision based on whatever the video would tell her her about journalism, whatever facts she could find about economics and social work, and whatever her boyfriend would say.

Beans and Potatoes

The potatoes stayed still on the plate, together with the untouched beans. Steam had been coming out of them, but by now they were no longer
so hot. Paula stared at them, completely
immobile, for so long, her mother asked:
“What’s wrong with the potatoes.”
“I don’t like them”.

In fact she did not dislike them; it was the beans that were more of a problem. Paula thought they were tasteless and paper-like, but even she would not say such a harsh thing to the cooks. And she was not allowed to put more salt on them. Not that her ten years of age would have granted her the ability to think of such possibility.
“What do you mean, you don’t like them!” roared Grandma. “If we had had them during the war! That’s when we had truly needed them, no one would even think of saying they didn’t like them then. That was proper hunger.”
“More hunger in the post-war, there was”, said Mum. “We were more hungry after the war than during the war itself.”
“Have I ever told you about this man”, continued Grandma, “who was caught eating potato peelings from a bin? From a bin!”
Mum and Grandma interchanged stories from the war once more , about how there was not a single fat person in the city, about the ration cards and the food black market. In the meantime, Paula thought: “if the potato peelings were all right for that guy, why are they not good enough for us now, why do we have to peel them?”
“May there not be another one”, said Mum. That was her ending phrase.
All the way, Paula’s food remained untouched.
“Come on, please eat”, said Grandma, now addressing Paula. “Do it for the starving children in Africa, who have nothing to eat”.

The scene described so far repeated itself pretty regularly well into Paula’s teens. In fact, it would be repeated every time there were potatoes with beans for lunch in Paula’s home, so the whole business of starvation during war, and even more so during post-war, of people having to eat potato peelings from bins, of rationing and black markets, was properly ingrained in Paula’s brain for the rest of her life.

There was another event, however, in Paula’s early life, that left a similar print, even though it only happened once. It was in school. Every year, the nuns in charge of the girls brought a missionary to the all-girl school where Paula spent the first ten of her education. This missionary would spend about an hour speaking to each class in the school. Every year the stories would be similar. Children having to walk bare foot all day, also having to walk for hours and hours in order to go to their school, which consisted of a bare building with no benches if they were lucky, or some benches under the trees if they were not, and which happened to be at the other side of the jungle. Parents who could not afford to send their children to school, but who, thanks to the miracles performed by missionaries like the one talking to them now, now they could. Then at the end of the talk, the missionary would ask for small donations. Of course children Paula’s age were not allowed to carry money around with them in those days. So they would ask their parents for money that evening and they would bring some coins the following day, for the nuns to give to these missionaries.
One year, the nun in charge of Paula’s class had a brilliant idea, and said a brilliant phrase that would stay ingravited in Paula’s head for the rest of her youth. The nun observed that some of the girls gave quite big amounts of money for their age. She thanked them but scorned them for doing this only when moved by the missionary’s stories. “From now and in a few days, you will forget all about those poor children. You thought a lot about them yesterday, and will probably think about them today. But you will have forgotten by tomorrow. We should not forget. We should think about those children every day.”
It was far more a rebellious determination, the desire to simply prove that old witch wrong, than pious feeling, what made Paula decide to “think about those children every day”.