"As food grows scarce, schools have reported dozens of cafeteria robberies. This month, thieves beat a security guard to death at one school so they could make off with the cafeteria's food. That leaves children with nothing to eat at home or in school. A quarter of Venezuelan children missed class this year because of hunger, according to the national research group Foundation Bengoa.
"I have one student who missed the whole year," earth sciences teacher Berli Jaspe said. "We're going to pass her anyway. It's not these kids' fault the country is falling apart." Maria's teachers rarely see her on Thursdays, her government-assigned grocery shopping day. One recent morning, her mother asked her to leave art class because a store across town was selling flour. By the time Maria arrived, the stock already had run out. She raced back to school to make her afternoon math exam. But when she got there, the math teacher hadn't shown up. It was his shopping day, too. That night, Maria remarked bitterly that the metro is the cheapest thing you can buy in Caracas; if you pay for one ticket and throw yourself in front of a train, all your problems are over.
Parents say they struggle to guide teenagers through situations they find hard to accept themselves.
Maria's classmate Roberly Bernal wanted to drop out after a group of seniors threatened to stab her. Her father began walking her to class every morning to protect her. Then, in April, he was murdered by a mob that accused him of stealing $5. Now, Roberly is at a loss. Her mother would like her to talk to a therapist, but the school's two counselors retired last year. Maria's mother Aracelis knows her children's grades have fallen this year, though she isn't sure how much. The school has not had supplies to print up report cards.
"I dropped out my freshman year and it set me back," she said. "Maria goes almost every day, but I don't know if she's doing much better. Venezuela must have done something very terrible to be punished like this." When the school day ended, Maria put off returning home and lingered in the hall with friends. A classmate showed them a baby sparrow he'd grabbed out of a tree in the yard. "We should eat it," he said. The girls crowded in, examining the fluffy bird. Maria squealed with delight when it opened its wings. It was the first time she had laughed all day."