Kao Klang (per child protection policy standards a fake name has been used here to protect the identity of our beneficiary) and I arrived at Urban Light at nearly the same time and immediately hit it off. The connection was simple – Kao Klang wanted to learn and I wanted to teach. The rest of the Urban Light staff also quickly took to Kao Klang, whose shy and gentle demeanor made him easy to love. He was one of the younger boys and had no family. His skinny frame walked with a steady limp that caused him to move through life at a pace far slower than most and his voice projected with an unusual but endearing pitch. But Kao Klang’s most prominent feature was the big bright smile that rarely left his face. When we first sat down together, Kao Klang proudly showed me his Thai to English vocabulary book. It included very few phrases or sentences but did cover nearly 100 pages of useful vocabulary - animals, colors, food, household items, etc. He eagerly flipped through the pages to chapter eight and began speaking the English words to me. It was clear he had been studying the vocabulary but hadn't had the opportunity to try out the words he'd learned. Now he had his very own English tutor and his eyes lit up with the genuine excitement only someone of his age could project. When I corrected his pronunciation Kao Klang reached into his pouch and pulled out a small notepad and pen. He asked me to repeat the word several times and slowly wrote down the Thai letters that would show him how to pronounce it. Kao Klang was serious about learning English.

One day Kao Klang came to the center with bandages on his head and face. When I asked what happened, that same big smile spread across his face as he re-enacted that he had been punched multiple times. I didn’t let him see it but I was pretty horrified. Kao Klang, as gentle a person as anyone I’d ever met, was clearly incapable of starting trouble. I felt angry and wanted to know who had done this to him. I wanted to fix it. The incident was a glaring reminder of the realities that the boys face outside of the center. Unfortunately, Kao Klang wasn’t just the boy ecstatic about learning English that I knew from the Urban Light Youth Center – he had another life, one where he was alone and with a very different set of circumstances that those of us fortunate enough to be reading this likely can’t even begin to imagine.

Despite Kao Klang’s difficulties outside the center he showed up every day ready to learn. He was a happy and gifted boy. He would often impress me by showing up with a number of new vocabulary words he had learned on his own time. Kao Klang impressed me even more during one of the Art Workshops put on by Art Relief International (ARI). ARI hosts weekly workshops that allow the boys to develop self-expression and other important life skills through art. I noticed Kao Klang, who is as shy as they come, hovering around one of the ARI volunteers. Eventually she looked at him and he was courageous enough to ask her, “What color you like?” After she answered she asked him the same question and he nailed his response. The interaction was amazing to watch. Kao Klang approached someone and had a real exchange in English. I didn’t want to embarrass him so I used all of my willpower not to jump up and give him the epic high five that he deserved (although the high five was definitely delivered later that day).

Kao Klang continued to take English and the various other workshops Urban Light offered seriously. We hadn’t discussed it, but Kao Klang and I both knew he was bound for greater things. He would continue to improve himself at Urban Light, continue to learn English, and in no time he would land a job far away from Chiang Mai’s red light district. Then one Monday Kao Klang didn’t show up. I wasn’t concerned because it was common for the boys to miss an occasional day at the center. But when Kao Klang didn’t show up the second day I knew something was wrong. One of the Urban Light staff members sat me down and told me Kao Klang had been arrested. He was caught stealing over the weekend and would spend at least four months in jail. I was in shock. The thought of gentle Kao Klang in jail was devastating. In my short time at Urban Light I’ve already experienced a taste of the heartache that the Urban Light staff feels on a regular basis. This was a powerful lesson in privilege. Kao Klang did not belong in jail. Kao Klang didn’t even belong in detention. If you dropped Kao Klang into a different set of circumstances he would be the kid who sat in the front of the class hoping to get called on. He would be the kid who took pride in finishing his homework - a straight-A student who fantasized about studying at a University. This wasn’t fair. Kao Klang had been dealt a bad hand from the start and now there was nothing I could do about it. A hidden network of policies and systems had kept Kao Klang from the opportunities that most of us take for granted. Perhaps Kao Klang and his lived experiences are the real teachers in this scenario.

One of the staff members was able to speak with Kao Klang before he was sent away. I was told that Kao Klang was arrested for stealing when he was even younger, but at the time it didn’t bother him because they gave him shelter and fed him every day. Kao Klang said that this time is different because he feels like he is a part of something. He now has warmth and love in his life. He found a family through Urban Light. And this time he doesn’t want to go to jail; he wants to keep learning and improving himself. I was also told that an Urban Light staff member became Kao Klang’s guardian in order to have his sentence reduced. I thought maybe “guardian” was some sort of informal process where someone would write a recommendation on Kao Klang’s behalf but I was wrong. To reduce Kao Klang’s sentence the amazing staff member became his full and legal guardian. And apparently this is something that happens on a regular basis to help the boys. The staff’s willingness to go all-in on their commitment to the boys is truly inspiring. It makes me proud to be a part of their mission and excited to see what the boys, and Kao Klang upon his return, are able to accomplish in the future.