About a week ago I went back to Carleton, my alma mater, for the first time in two years – the second time since I graduated in 2013. I had been asked to give a speech at an event called Honor’s Convocation – an event that happens a week before commencement that celebrates the student achievement of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. My senior year of college was actually the first year that recent alums began delivering the keynote speech. Professors had typically been the ones to speak, but Carleton decided it would be better to have someone closer in age and experience to speak about their Carleton story and the reality of life post-college. To remind students who had a few years left to make the most of their time at Carleton and, perhaps, to assuage some anxieties of the students who would be graduating one week later. What were the first few years like? Where did you struggle? How did your experience at Carleton help you? What did you learn?
I had only ever once stood on the stage of the Carleton chapel. It was for my best friend’s fake wedding (you find creative ways to have fun when you are surrounded by corn-fields) when I was the maid of honor. I cried during that speech, but thankfully I didn’t during this one. Maybe it was the academic robe that made me feel like a wizard, the welcoming smiles of old professors, or the friends and family who had flown and drove in to support me, but I wasn’t nervous. I was honored, humbled, and excited to be there and, if you would like to read it, I’ve copied the transcript of my speech below. You could also watch it here.
Good afternoon, Carleton students. This is my first visit to Carleton in two years and it feels very good to be home. It is a little strange to be here and not recognize the majority of faces, but I’m sure I’ll see you again in about 12 hours for the first pitch at Rotblatt. I was asked to tell you about my Carleton story and what I have learned about the “real world” since I graduated three years ago. The first thing I noticed is that life is less of a goal-oriented plan than it is a series of decisions that will lead you in many different directions. And I think I made the decision that brought me here during my junior year.
Four years ago I realized I really needed some work experience related to my major – political science. Up until that point, I had only ever been a camp counselor and making peanut butter pinecone bird feeders was not going to get me a job in academia or government. It was fall term and that winter I was going to go to Guatemala with the SOAN department, but something was pulling me in a different direction. Instead, I made a decision that arguably determined the trajectory of my life so far – I decided to apply for Carleton’s Washington D.C. program. I envisioned myself attending every open panel discussion I could and reveling in the rush you get when you casually stroll past the IMF, World Bank, or White House. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I was not disappointed.
On the very first day of my first internship in D.C., a research position with the National Defense University, I was introduced to a large man in full military dress named Captain Chan Swallow who was the head of the Afghanistan/Pakistan program. By chance, he needed an intern and I was free. Ten minutes in he put a 500 page book about Pakistan in my hands and told me to read it by the end of the week and decide which chapters he should teach in his grad school classes. While my friends were stapling and copying and answering phones, I was making a syllabus for the head of a graduate school program. I told him I wasn’t sure I was qualified because I had never read anything more substantial than the news about Pakistan before. He told me that if I could read, write, and think then I was qualified. So I did all three. I read the book, wrote an outline of each chapter, and presented him with my rationale of which chapters seemed most important. He nodded, suggested one or two changes, and handed me another book. This process repeated itself 6 times and each time he was patient as I treaded through new territory and increasingly challenging as my knowledge base and confidence grew. I learned that I loved reading about South Asia and that one of the greatest determiners of success is having a mentor who believes in your abilities – sometimes more than you do.
The joy I had found in learning about South Asia during those months led me to apply for the Carnegie Junior Fellowship – a position with a prominent think tank in D.C. I was told not to get my hopes up – that no Carl had ever gotten the Fellowship before. Past failure did not deter Liz Ciner from editing my essays, or Kathy Evertz from writing my recommendation, or Greg Marfleet from grilling me for two hours on regional political dynamics to prepare me for my interview. I ran up the steps of Willis when I got the offer and breathlessly burst into Dev Gupta’s office to tell her the good news. My future seemed set – fancy fellowship, maybe grad school or a Fulbright, and then I’d work my way up the government ladder and be the first female director of the CIA. But I had another big decision to make.
In applying for jobs I had not forgotten how much I loved to work with children. So exactly one year after reading my first book about Pakistan, I was faced with a choice: be a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or an Elementary School Teacher with Teach For America. These were the only two jobs offers I received and they could not have better represented my dilemma: research or teaching?
I was torn. It was more complicated than “do I follow my head or my heart?” because my heart was also in my work and my head was also telling me that I should teach. Ultimately, I chose research because it seemed right for me at the time. And so I moved to Washington. Something you should know is that when I originally applied to Carnegie, I thought my work would primarily focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan – mostly foreign affairs and security issues. I had an internship and multiple books on these countries under my belt, no problem. If you didn’t know, I’ll tell you now – never expect things to go exactly as you planned. Turns out I would be researching domestic Indian politics. The first day at work I just nodded my head, pretending I knew all about this Narendra Modi guy. I panicked. I was out of my comfort zone and in over my head.
But I remembered Capt. Swallow’s words: if you can read, write, and think then you are qualified. So I woke up early to read, absorbing as much as I could about political parties, economic history, social changes, current events, anything and everything India. I felt like I was kicking every day, barely keeping my head above water. But then one day, I remember reading some news article and I understood the historical context of the author’s argument even though it was not explicitly mentioned. I could keep up with the names and acronyms in meetings and suddenly I found myself looking at my name (and my face) in the magazine ‘India Today’ next to an article my boss and I had co-published.
The tricky thing about one-year jobs though, is that as soon as you finally figure out what you are doing, you have to leave. New people were being flown in, just as I had been a year before. In one conversation, my boss asked me what I thought about a candidate and somehow we started talking about my interview a year before. He told me that it had come down to me and another guy. He told me that I was not the most qualified candidate – the other finalist had a stronger regional background and more experience manipulating quantitative data. But, they could tell how passionate I was about the material. They clearly saw how much I loved to learn.
So I had gotten the job. And I was happy. I was essentially doing work that was easier than Carleton all day and I was getting paid for it. My new friends were insanely smart, but humble. They were talented and accomplished, but really dorky. They were authentically and unapologetically themselves and they were kind. They reminded me of Carls.
But something was missing and I realized that I truly missed working with children. I missed their energy, their optimism. I had worked with kids my entire life and at Carleton I babysat professors’ children, worked for the Northfield YMCA, spent time in a classroom every week doing Kids for Conservation. I even got to write stories and poems with a 10-year-old boy through my job as a writing assistant. One time when he was really upset about school and I was pretty stressed about comps, we yelled and threw old doughnuts at the Academic Support Center building.
Even though I realized research wasn’t for me – I had thought about India every single day for almost a year and you can’t become that invested in a country and not see it for yourself. So I remembered a woman my dad had introduced me to a year before who had volunteered at a small school in Southern India called Shanti Bhavan. That sounds cool, I thought. I’ll go volunteer and teach for a few months and then figure out what I want to do with myself. It was exhilarating and overwhelming to realize that all of my belongings fit in my car and that nothing – not even a goldfish – was holding me back from going wherever I wanted in the world. I could leave for India and stay for one month, six months. I could follow my gut and follow opportunity in a way I never had.
So halfway through my interview to be a volunteer teacher at Shanti Bhavan, my interviewer told me that she wanted to “change gears”. She said that I sounded like a good fit for a different position they were currently trying to fill, the position of the On-Site Administrator. This person works with the principal to make sure the school runs efficiently and also manages the team of volunteer teachers. So in the middle of my interview to be a volunteer, I was suddenly being asked to be the boss of the volunteers.
In shock I blurted, “Really? But I’m only 23 and I’ve never managed anyone before I’ve never even been to India and are you sure what?” She said, and I quote, she liked my “energy”. The flight to India is very long and it is even longer when you are terrified that you had just been hired for a job you were completely and utterly unqualified for. I had no idea what to do to prepare so I read a book on management tactics for introverts and I honestly couldn’t tell you a thing about it now.
So, I hope you see the trend here. I was not the most qualified candidate for any of my first few work experiences, but I got them because people took a chance on me. They could tell that I was pursuing something I knew I was passionate about and that I would do the job to the best of my ability, using the fundamental skills I had learned at Carleton: breaking down information, expressing myself clearly, paying close attention to detail, cooperating instead of competing with my peers, and embracing each task as an opportunity to learn something new. Because you, Carleton students, you have something that goes beyond intellect – you are passionate, genuinely kind, and endlessly curious.
That is how I arrived in India. Wide-eyed. Introspective. Eager to find my place. And I found it in a small beautiful boarding school two hours outside the city of Bangalore. Shanti Bhavan is a school founded by Dr. Abraham George – a man who was born in Kerala, made his millions on Wall Street, and returned to India with the belief that every child can succeed with the proper education and the dream to build such a place, a place that would break the cycle of poverty in a single generation. The children arrive at SB when they are four and they are supported through college. It is a school unlike any other in the world and when I sat down to write this speech, I thought – how am I going to condense this experience into a couple of paragraphs? What anecdotes should make it into the speech? Should I tell a funny travel story about how I was on a train for 47 hours and five minutes after my first shower, a monkey peed on me? Should I be serious and talk about what it was like being a racial minority for the first time, the poverty I saw, or the children who have experienced more hardships than any tiny shoulders should have to carry?
I could tell you that I found myself in the foothills of the Himalayas and became a local by forging cross-cultural relationships. The truth is I worked from 6am to 10pm seven days a week because when you work at a boarding school, you become more of a parent than a teacher. At first when I couldn’t regale people with stories about mountains I climbed, I felt inadequate. Like I hadn’t ‘traveled’ the way the internet told me I should. The truth is that I saw so little of India, but have also developed an unbreakable connection to a part of India so few get to see.
When I tried to put those feelings into a paragraph – all I could see were the kids’ faces. And I think that is accurate. They were the ones who made it the best year of my life, who taught me to piece together the little moments. Like when a 12th grade girl and I got trapped in the school building during a torrential downpour. The power went out and we decided, stuck in the dark, to color. As soon as I suggested it she squealed with delight and poured all of the colored pencils and markers out on my desk. We listened to music. We talked about college and sat in comfortable silence. And without warning, she burst into uncontrollable laughter. “Ms. D! Life is just so great and exciting. This is my favorite moment, right now. Coloring in the dark, listening to the rain, listening to music….you know what? I think the key to all of the best moments in life are friends, music, and food.” Without a word, I pulled a bag of biscuits out of my drawer and smiled. We now had the missing piece. Slowly a knowing smile spread across her face and throughout her entire body until she shouted, “I just love being human!”
I didn’t succeed at my job in India because I am a natural leader or because I never made mistakes. I made plenty. I think it became the greatest year of my life because I genuinely cared about the small things. Because like Mother Theresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. The kids loved to read, so I bought them used books and wrote notes to them on the inside cover. I smiled often (even though the second graders would sometimes look at my face and go “Uh oh, Ms. Daniel is mad”). I did my best to never make them feel like a burden when they needed something – no matter how busy I was. I let them teach me how to dance bhangra and bharatnatyam and didn’t mind one bit when they said I looked like an alien. I tried to be humble and own when I was wrong.
It is funny to be here speaking of things I’ve done on the other side of the world because now I live in Boston and my life as a 5th grade teacher is very small. I make worksheets, pass out milk cartons, grade essays, try to avoid doing laundry because I never have quarters, and I go to bed at 9:30. I don’t mind that my life is small because in its smallness, it is infinitely meaningful. I’m thinking of one student in particular – a student who has really struggled this year. For a while, he frequently accused me of not caring about him, he yelled at me in class, and he said that he was never going to be good at school. When we did our unit on mammals he told me his spirit animal was a tiger and he laughed at me when I said mine was an orangutan. But two weeks ago, he sent me a picture. It was a picture of an orangutan holding a tiger cub with a caption that read: “We are in this together, pal”. I have no idea where he found that picture, but it brought tears to my eyes and still does when I think about it now. Because even if all I taught him this year was the difference between to, too, and two – and trust me, they all know the difference – the most important part is that he knows I am there for him. That I am going to show up, day after day to teach him whether he likes it or not. On the days when I question myself, I think of that picture and remind myself to do what I can in the time I am given.
So that’s my life. Too many children, too few cups of coffee, new books, old friends, failing, getting hurt, forgiveness, long car rides, small victories, and too much time watching reruns of Parks & Rec. We all stumble, but some of us have an easier time getting back up and pushing through the loneliness, the confusion, the routine to find meaning. The key, I think, is to focus on the small things. To remember that they matter.
My face isn’t in magazines anymore, and I no longer aspire to be a spy (even though some of my students think I am secretly undercover). I still don’t know where my life is heading, but I have found a place with school children and I think this is where I am supposed to be. It took me a couple of years to get here, but if I had chosen to become a teacher three years ago, I might not have been ready. And I never would have gone to Shanti Bhavan. There is a concept in teaching called Wait Time. Wait Time is when you pause after asking a question – somewhere between thirty seconds to a minute to give your students time to think. You don’t call right away on the first student with their hand raised because they might realize their original answer was wrong and because you want to give other students a chance, and they may take 20 seconds longer to find the answer. Because, when you think about it, it is pretty unreasonable to expect a child, or anyone, to have an answer the moment you ask a question. We need to give ourselves time to think – Where am I going? What kind of person am I? Where is my place? Am I doing what makes me happy? Am I doing what makes me feel whole? Not only should we free ourselves of the expectation to figure out the answers to the most important questions within ten seconds of being asked, but the hidden value in Wait Time is that nothing beats the satisfaction of coming up with the answer on your own. And that takes time.
So that is my wish for all of you. I hope that you joyfully live your questions and that you give yourself all the time you need to find your answers. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors – I wish you luck in your remaining years at Carleton. And to you, Class of 2016 – congratulations. I cannot wait to see where you go. Thank you.
I’ve decided to stay in Boston next year, and it feels good to break the trend of moving every 12 months. I’ll be teaching 5th grade with Match Next Charter School again as well as getting my Master’s in Teaching through the Sposato Graduate School of Education. A couple of times this year I’ve thought, I wish I had started my ‘teaching career’ three years ago. If this is where I was meant to end up, I wish I could have started earlier. I guess it is natural to think about what could have been and the experience I could have gained, the kind of teacher I could have been by now. But to wish the past away disregards the value of all previous experience – personal and professional, struggles and victories. I wouldn’t be the same person and I wouldn’t have met the most wonderful humans I am privileged to call colleagues and friends. No. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change a thing.