I am very excited about this post. Not only is this my first one from India…it is my 200th post on this little blog. Almost two years ago, I realized I was in a personal rut: lacking motivation, starved for creativity, and desperate for focus. Having never been a big blog person, I surprised myself when I started consistently following food blogs (because I was slowly learning how to cook) and then began branching out into blogs that were personal. I enjoyed reading others’ thoughts on life, hearing their stories, watching as their lives unfolded and even experiencing emotional parallels with them. Writing had always been a part of my life and while I wasn’t sure what stories I had to tell yet, I figured I would find out eventually and could have fun with a project along the way.
I didn’t think it would last (cleaning out my room before I left and throwing away handfuls of two-entry-deep diaries really hammered this home) and I am still trying to find my voice, an objective for my writing, some consistency to my posting, and grappling with the decision to invest more time into learning about photography and web design. Those things are important to me because I’ve found that I truly enjoy writing here….but am often unmotivated because I know that this is not a professional endeavor. As a personal hobby, I feel the liberty to come and go as I please, put this baby on the back-burner until I feel I have the time and energy to sit down and write. Writing and stories (both reading and telling) are a large part of my life, though, and I do intend on making it a consistent and ever-developing endeavor. I’m just not sure exactly how.
But for now–I am in India! My job comes first and I am already realizing that it will be more difficult to write than I previously thought (we are at school by 6:30 and leave school—hopefully—around 10:30). I guess I will have to work on the short-but-sweet posts and suppress the novel writer inside who wants to spend hours typing away into the night.
I arrived at Shanti Bhavan at 4:30 in the morning, after two egregiously long flights (10 hours to Frankfurt, 8 hours to Bangalore) and a two-hour car ride through rural India. I read, I watched movies, I slept (but not really), and did everything I could to calm my nerves. It wasn’t travel jitters. Flight jitters en route to a new destination for a trip are always eager anticipation. This was a more dangerous mixture of excitement and nervousness. I have never traveled to another country for work before, so on top of the typical nerves involved in moving someplace I have never been for a job different than any other I have ever had….I had 21 hours to think about it. Will I be a good teacher? Will I be a good leader? How will I adapt to a new country, a new environment?
For the first day and a half I felt like I was at camp: shacking up in a little room with unfamiliar furniture, letting myself get a little grimier than normal, constantly being surrounded by kids, starting my day with the sun and ending too close to midnight.
The kids were curious about me, but very shy. Except, of course, for the kindergarteners that immediately held my hand and knelt down to touch my toes because they were painted. At dinner the music alternated between Hindi songs and American top 40 tunes. One little boy—who told me to call him Peanut Butter—said his favorite song was Payphone by Maroon 5 and requested that I sing it. The 10th grade girls and I discussed our favorite Disney princesses and they told me they want to watch She’s The Man for Saturday movie night. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is obsessed with Despicable Me minions.
The second day, however, I was harshly reminded that I was in India. We drove into one of the nearby villages—a trip they take with every new teacher (they don’t use the word ‘foreigner’ at the school, believing that it creates boundaries) who comes to the school so that they can see where the children are coming from—and I couldn’t believe that the kids I laughed with, the kids who were so happy, loquacious, loved Disney movies, and knew all of the words to the songs I listened to at home, had been born here. Some homes were nicer–colored walls, floors, and doors. Some were only concrete and scrap.
All eyes were unabashedly on me. One woman followed as we walked, her spine so contorted the top of her head reached just my elbow. Even if she could stand to my height and meet my gaze, her eyes were milky white with cataracts. I had never been so self-conscious. About everything. My skin, my clothes, my nails, my watch. We walked around briefly, either ignored or gawked at by the villagers. Even as we left, they stood and watched. Maybe they were laughing at us—hoity foreigners in Indian clothing. Maybe they were curious. Maybe—and most likely—they could care less. We weren’t the first ones to drive though and we wouldn’t be the last.
Driving away, gripping the dusty seat of the jeep as we bounced, I wondered how the kids must feel when they go home. Are they ever excited? Do they miss their parents when at school? What must it be like to, after a certain age, surpass the intellectual capacity of everyone around you? Is there resentment from their siblings who cannot attend Shanti Bhavan?
The magnitude of their daily routines—announcing the news to the entire school, selecting topics of their choices and giving speeches and debates, practicing piano, guitar, and drums—didn’t hit me until I saw the village. I didn’t realize how miraculous it was that the pre-schoolers were so talkative until I learned that six weeks earlier they didn’t know a single word of English. I saw the school, with its clean facilities and technological capabilities, in a completely different light.
Later that evening, the school’s founder—Dr. George—actually addressed what I had been thinking about earlier. He talked about the choices the children have to make every time they return home, to places where the values that are instilled in them at school might not exist. They have to choose who they are and how they relate to their parents and siblings. Dr. George was so honest with them that I was a bit taken aback. They can’t watch movies where people kiss, but he is honest with them about things like alcoholism, domestic abuse, child marriage, and poverty. Not that he needed to sugarcoat it—many have already experienced these things. One girl—a graduate of Shanti Bhavan—has plans to write a book about her life, her truth.
A little over a year ago, for my 100th post, I was in Northfield, Minnesota listening to people’s stories and marveling at how people can surprise you if you listen. Now I am in India, constantly bombarded by stories (the kids never stop talking). They are my favorite things about this place so far and some of them have difficult stories to tell. I thought about what Dr. George said to me at lunch yesterday, that their goal is to break the children out of the poverty cycle, but that their ultimate goal is not to produce virtueless brianiacs.
“We may not make Einsteins, but the children are good human beings.”
Einsteins or not, it has only been a week, and I know I am going to learn a lot from them.