Crossing Oceans

After settling a few internet-connectivity issues and a classroom of rowdy second graders, we were ready to connect my laptop to the smart board so the whole class could see another herd of expectant, smiling faces. Through an organization called She’s The First, our second graders were about to speak to a second grade classroom in North Carolina. Many of the American students had never left the small town of Asheville and the majority of the Shanti Bhavan students had never left their homes cities and villages.

Getting the skype session set up took longer than we anticipated and the day’s power outage had not yet been fixed. It was getting dark and we had maybe 20 more minutes of twilight until our classroom would be completely dark. Watching the American second graders on the screen, seeing the familiar sights of the backpack-cubbies in the background and brightly decorated walls, I was a little nervous about the stereotypical image—a classroom in the United States talking to a classroom in India and the Indian school has no power. Would they think that, even though we have technology capable of communicating across oceans, we always have class using lantern-light? Thankfully, about 15 minutes into our conversation, the lights came back on.

The first thing we did was have the students introduce themselves. Each group of students mispronounced the others’ names with equal enthusiasm as they greeted each other. It didn’t matter what anyone’s names were—they were talking to each other and hanging onto every single word that was said.

We kicked it off by having Ms. Wertheim read The Hungry Caterpillar while her students acted it out in the background. The SB students then took turns reading a fable from their class textbook. I don’t know how well Ms. Wertheim’s classroom could hear the words over the background noise from the hallway, our second grader’s tiny voices, or the quality of the connection, but they seemed entranced.

Afterwards we selected kids to ask and answer questions that are essential parts of second grade conversation. What subjects do you like in school? What is your favorite food? What is your favorite color? What sports do you like? Animals? Movies? Books? All are questions that seem so commonplace and trivial that adults often dismiss them as superficial.

But to the kids, they were groundbreaking. How else would they know that kids in India love chocolate chip pancakes and that kids in America also love swimming? Turns out—Barbie, Harry Potter, Legos and Star Wars are universal. Every question that yielded a familiar result was met with ecstatic screeches, wondrous ‘whoa’s’ and exclamations of ‘They like soccer? We LOVE soccer! They like tigers? We LOVE tigers!”

Unfortunately our conversation was cut short because the elementary school in North Carolina decided to have a surprise fire drill. After explaining to the kids that the alarm is used to alert the school of a fire, but assuring them that there was no actual fire, we made a goodbye video to their new American friends.

 

Goodbye

 

The second graders told me at breakfast the next morning that the skype was so fun and that they learned a lot about kids in America. The 7th graders (whose classroom we stole for the smart board) said that they also wanted to skype with a 7th grade classroom in the U.S.

Hopefully many more cross-cultural conversations happen soon. Racial and national prejudices still exist—no matter how ‘globalized’, ‘progressive’, or ‘developed’ a community. Any conversation–no matter how small, no matter at what age–makes a difference in breaking those barriers down. I’m glad Shanti Bhavan second graders got to be a part of it.

 

To see some pictures from the American end, check out Ms. Wertheim’s blog post about it!

To Be Brave

This post was originally published by Everyday Ambassador, a global team of people devoted to making human connections in a digital world.


 

A strange, but predictable, thing happened when I told people I was moving to India. Some people rose their eyebrows, some smiled politely, and a lot of people—almost everyone, in fact—told me that I was brave. That they are proud of me. That I am adventurous.

I guess those things are true. It does take bravery to move somewhere new, but people do that every day. Maybe not to India, but they do it. All of my closest friends are making life-changing choices and moving to new places, some to places may have never been before and may know no one.

I guess it was adventurous of me, to move so far away and live so differently than I ever have before. Most people were pretty fixated on the bucket-shower aspect of my new life. They would grimace and, like I did, probably thought ‘Those poor people who bathe out of buckets’. A few days in and I realized – no – poor me for being so dependent on luxuries the majority of the world lives without.

In the circle of privilege I have grown up in—in both childhood and college—I don’t feel adventurous. The majority of my friends have already lived abroad (some multiple times) in a variety of ‘adventurous’ conditions. So in a twisted way, I feel like I am playing catch-up. I realize I can’t compare my travels to those of my friends because it is a very skewed sample. The majority of the population does not live this way. The majority of people do not have these opportunities.

Which is why I don’t feel very brave or special. I feel lucky.

I applied for a volunteer position and received an even better opportunity to have a job that is paid. Lucky.

I have the means to travel around the world for said job because of the privilege I grew up with, the education I was fortunate enough to receive (without student loans to pay off afterwards), and the job I had last year that allowed me to live comfortably in D.C. and save money. Lucky.

Yes, there was hard work involved. I worked hard in high school to get into college, I worked hard in college to get a job afterwards, and I worked hard at that job to build my resume and so on and so on.

But the lottery of birth is random and I did nothing to deserve the upbringing that has been responsible for the majority of the opportunities I have received throughout my lifetime.

Not all, but the majority of the volunteers the children see are people who can afford to fly to India and work for no pay. Some have found external sponsors to pay for airfare and make up for lost income, but it is still a rare form of privilege to be able to spend a summer volunteering instead of working. Volunteers who come here have likely traveled a great deal before coming and will continue to have adventures after they leave.

Yes, it takes bravery and a sense of adventure to make a move like this. Yes, working with children is a good thing to do because education is important. But other teachers, who may not have the time or money to travel across the world, make more of a difference than I do every single day. Every moment—even the difficult ones—I feel so fortunate to be here with these kids. It is cliché, but true: I am learning so much more from them than they are from me.

So perhaps I am brave, but what I know for certain is that I am lucky.


 

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Ashwini

My heart is hurting and I’m not exactly sure why.

News about the Frenchman who was recently beheaded in Algeria made my eyes water. Emma Watson’s speech on feminism made my chin quiver. Hearing about the man who broke into the White House—weapons in hand—left imprints of clenched anger on my palms.

Every time I help students prepare the morning news (every week a group of four high school students is responsible for presenting global news to their classmates), I feel like retreating into a sleep deep enough to forget the fighting. To not think about the pain of the people who have been fighting fights that no one should have to for far too long.

Maybe it is because I am so tired I could fall asleep on my feet. With so few volunteers the past few weeks, we have been overstretching ourselves to make sure all the classes and extracurricular activities are covered. During last week’s arts camp (pictures soon), I thought I would have a chance to sleep and lesson plan, but at the last minute I was put in charge of 6th and 7th grade grammar boot camp (because the students did not perform very well on their English term exams it was decided they needed remedial help). So instead of sleeping, I got to teach 30 middle schoolers grammar every day by myself. And if that doesn’t already sound fun, imagine doing that while arts camp is going on. You know how many kids would rather learn grammar than paint, dance, and play music? The answer, universally, is zero. I did get some laughs out of them though, so that’s a win.

Maybe it is because I am far from home and miss my country more than I thought I would. I never considered myself a patriot until a few years ago and, while I am certainly not blind to the many areas of America’s backwardness, I have never been more certain that it is home. It is where the people dearest to me are and—though I am not done traveling—I cannot wait to go back.

Maybe it is because my heart is stretching in ways I never thought it could. Can I really love 230 students this much after six weeks? They talk during class, sneak out of prep time, come up with terrible excuses for being late, and even steal stickers…but they also have more empathy than I thought possible to have at their age, they stay positive and unwavering in the face of situations that would have turned me bitter, and they approach life and education as gifts. They inspire me.

Maybe it is because last week, one of these precious children died. The story is not mine to tell, but you can read it here. Ashwini is the first child Shanti Bhavan has ever lost, which is kind of miraculous when you consider how many children have passed through these halls in the last 18 years. Still, it is one too many.

Maybe I feel guilty grieving the way that I did because I had only known her for three weeks before she went into a coma. The news was tragic, as is any sudden loss of such a young life, but what right did I have to cry and take part in her funeral service the way the students did?

Maybe it is because Ashwini is the sixth young life lost this year that I feel connected to in some way. Selfishly, I am grateful that all of the losses have been tangential—I knew or knew of every individual, but we weren’t close. Other than the lingering reminder that life is short and unfair, I have no tangible reminders of them.

I thought the same was true of Ashwini, but then I found this note while cleaning out my desk.


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I am angry. I am angry and sad and confused and numb. How can I protect my students from things like this? How can I help them stay positive and strong when I am so frustrated with the world? How am I supposed to teach them and help them find themselves when I myself am still learning how to teach and how to grow up? One of the 6th grade girls and I share the same birthday. She will be turning 12 next year and I will be 24. How did that happen?

Maybe I just have to keep holding second grade hands when they tell me stories about their lost classmate, encouraging the seniors when they are exhausted and confused about life, and watching FRIENDS while eating as much nutella out of the jar as needed. And, when in doubt, I think the best solution is just to spend ten minutes with these kids outside of the classroom. Let them be kids and be a kid with them. Then everything makes sense.


Side-note: I wrote this yesterday when I was in a funk, but after going to the farm with the kids to chase butterflies and eat baby carrots and a night of popcorn and Remember The Titans (I love watching movies with these kids because they all cheer when exciting things happen) I feel much better. Starting next week, a few more volunteers will be coming and taking several of my classes. Hopefully more time will equal more time to blog that doesn’t interfere with sleep. So many wonderful things have been happening alongside the sad and stressful ones and I hope I get the chance to share them all with you soon.

A Small Piece of India

I have been in India for just over two weeks. The time has flown by and I am thrilled to report that my homesickness has (for the most part) subsided. I teared up a little when some of the grads came back to campus and were telling us about their experiences in college and I would kill for a raspberry. But overall, I am finding so much joy in every exhausting day and am far too busy to be homesick. When I first arrived, I was placed in a temporary room until a volunteer left. Knowing I would soon be moving, I didn’t unpack anything except for some of my clothing. The room was fine–comfortable enough–but it was far away from my co-workers and something about it didn’t feel quite like home. This past weekend, though, I switched rooms, unpacked and organized all of my belongings, and finally started to feel settled. Plus…my room has hot water. Not just warm water–HOT water. I am still showering out of a bucket, but at least bathing doesn’t feel like the ice-bucket challenge every single time. Little things.

With exams, lesson planning, and a drastic shortage of teachers, I have only left the school once (and only for a few hours to the nearby city Hosur to get some clothes and snacks). While I certainly don’t feel rushed to travel and I value every moment spent getting to know these kids, I am itching to see more of this country (hopefully I will be able to take a trip up to Bangalore in about a week and a half). Here is what my experience in India looks like so far:

  • A class full of 8th graders asking me to play a mixture of Tamil songs, One Direction, and Frozen during prep time.
  • Eating spaghetti for breakfast (sometimes it’s dosas, today we had pancakes, but most often its rice) with instant coffee in my chai.
  • Rice and curry, rice and curry, rice and curry. Oh…and rice and curry.
  • Watching She’s The Man in the school courtyard for movie night, using recycled pieces of paper to make cones for popcorn and putting my hand in front of the projector every time there is a kissing scene.
  • A cow outside my window, a frog friend on my door, and a gecko in my shower. If these are my only critter friends (the neighbor on my left found a scorpion the size of her hand in her bathroom and the neighbor on my right has a mouse roommate), I’ll be a happy camper.
  • Staying up late into the night trying to figure out how to explain William Blake and make grammar interesting. Any thoughts?
  • Handing out a million band-aids every day. The little kids come in with bloodless scrapes and demand a bandage, while the older boys come in with gaping gashes and nonchalantly refuse antiseptic cream. Kids.
  • A piano 20 feet from my office that the (amazingly talented) kids are always playing. They also somehow happen to know all of my favorite songs and have started teaching me to play River Flows in You.
  • Explaining the components of an argument to 12th graders and getting giddy when they started debating amongst themselves, delving into complex arguments after an initial spark from me. I physically couldn’t contain my excitement. I think they were endeared.
  • Grading stories for the school-wide writing competition while eating oreos and peanut butter. We didn’t have spoons, so we used highlighters as peanut-butter scooping devices. Who says college habits die after graduation?
  • A million different colors of kurtas with matching leggings (that was an exaggeration…I only have a few, but I plan on buying handfuls more). I feel like I get to wear jammies every day and feel beautiful while I’m at it.
  • Crisp mornings that feel like fall if I close my eyes, sunsets that are orange and purple, and the kind of stars you only see when the nearest urban center is two hours away.

So many teachers have come here before me and so many will come after me, so I feel no unique claim to this school. But–just like them–I already feel the imprint of Shanti Bhavan engraving itself on my heart.


 

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