Friday, February 25, 2011

a taste of goodbye

This post was written on February 24.

In my last post I mentioned the upcoming 10th grade sendoff, which took place yesterday (Wednesday). The majority of the program was song/dance performances that were participated in/enjoyed by the entire school. At the end of the day, however, was the 10th grade social, which was exclusively for the 10th graders and teachers. A couple of the 10th graders gave speeches to their peers, and some teachers spoke, as well.

Then, the candlelight ceremony. Suja Teacher, the headmistress, lit a candle, which was used to light candles that had been distributed to all of the girls. The teachers then formed a line, and the girls, candle in hand, walked past each teacher, saying goodbye.

The atmosphere was bittersweet and emotionally charged; the majority of the girls were crying, and many of the teachers, too. The emotions were contagious as I could all-too-easily remember what it was like to be in those girls’ shoes, most recently, graduating college, and five years ago, graduating high school. To say goodbye to formative and inspiring teachers; to part ways with the friends who have been an integral part of a distinct and wonderful phase of one’s life.

On even more immediate level, I couldn’t help but think about my own departure from Buchanan, next Tuesday. I’m going to my summer YAV placement, the Mandiram Society, which includes a hospital, an old age home, and an orphanage. While I’m excited about moving to Mandiram for a variety of reasons, enniku vishamam aane (I’m sad), too. It’s not so much about leaving Buchanan—I’ll be back in June, when the new school year begins, after all. It’s more so because of the people who won’t be here when I come back. While I haven’t had a whole lot of interaction with the 10th grade class, there are a handful of them who I have gotten to know and who I will miss dearly.

First and foremost is Jinta, who has been like a little sister to me. She’s the one who I can ask any question, whether cultural in nature, or simply having to do with the daily goings-on of Buchanan, without fear of sounding silly or otherwise. She has been my fashion advisor, my translator, my co-conspirator, and my friend from day one. Like the rest of the 10th grade students, she’ll be starting at a new school in June.

In addition to the 10th grade class, there are a few other individuals who I won’t be seeing after summer vacation:

Aleena: Although Jinta was certainly my friend from day one, Aleena, 10 years old, was my friend from minute one. Like Jinta, Aleena boards at the hostel. She is gregarious, spontaneous, and a drama queen in the best sense of the phrase. She has been a faithful Zumba attendee, a voracious reader of any book of mine that she can get her hands on, and someone who I am always happy to see. She has also been a huge blessing to me in that she speaks better English than probably anyone at Buchanan, and while that might sound selfish, sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone ramble on in your own language…even if it’s about how boys have cooties and how she’s never going to get married. I have a feeling she’ll change her mind one day ;) After March, Aleena and her family are leaving Kerala permanently and moving to north India. Mainly what I’m wondering is: who else is going to walk around campus and sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with me??

The 2nd year TTC students: As the Teacher Training Course (TTC) program is only a 2-year program, the appropriately-titled ‘second years’ are approaching their final weeks on Buchanan’s campus. These girls are my roommates. They played a HUGE role in my successful assimilation to life at Buchanan, and have been a true community of love, friendship, support, and laughter for me. I remember like it was yesterday when Hari and Renju showed up at my door at 7AM to teach me how to do laundry by hand. The countless times that Ancy and Merlin have patiently dressed me in a saree, a feat that I am still unable to master on my own. The day that Sruthy, attempting to explain to me some of the nuances of the Muslim faith, accidently called a mosque a mosquito, earning her the nickname of ‘mosquito’ ever since. Jinsha’s beautiful singing at prayer time; Leethu’s comical antics. The day-to-day memories I have with all of these girls are indelible.

As much as I’m so sad knowing that I will probably never see Jinta, Aleena, or the 2nd year TTC students again…I’m so excited for them. I’m excited for Jinta to go on to higher secondary school; to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. To learn by experience, as I told the rest of the 10th graders at their candlelight ceremony, that the best is yet to come. I’m excited for Aleena because I know that her spunk and charm are going to take her so far in life—I would love more than anything to know what she’s doing in ten years. Twenty-year-old Aleena is pretty hard for me to imagine at this point…maybe by then she will be reconsidering the cootie-status of boys. And I’m excited for the TTC second years, because I know that they will all be fantastic teachers. They are each so spirited, unique, and gifted; they have brought me so much joy, and I know they will continue to do that for others.

The finality of goodbye is just hard. And it’s definitely quite final when none of them are very internet-literate and they don’t use email. But, as the title of this post suggests, this is really only a taste of goodbye. The real goodbye will come in July when it’s me who’s leaving, and not just for the summer. On the bright side, there’s a lot to look forward to between now and then, and after, of course. Most importantly, I have four days left with Jinta, Aleena, and the 2nd years…and you know what? We’re gonna make the best of them!

"Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift—that’s why it’s called the present." -Unknown

a Sunday of the optimal sort

This post was written on February 20.

Today was a good Sunday; the best I’ve had in a while.

Not that my Sundays are ever bad, per se—today was just exceptionally good! It started like any other with 6:30AM prayer. Then I read the newspaper and had breakfast—egg curry and bread. Yay protein! (Protein is something to get excited about when you mainly subsist on rice, trust me). Then, the BIGHS/TTC boarding students and I headed off to church. Nothing really noteworthy to report there except the service was two and a HALF hours long, rather than the usual two. However, K.T. Kurian Achen did use a greater-than-usual amount of English, so perhaps that makes up for it.

Upon returning from church, I found two of the TTC students, Sruthy and Hari, working on an art project that’s due this week. As the only two Hindu students at my hostel, they take advantage of Sunday mornings to get ahead on their class work while everyone else is away at church. Sitting in the shade and enjoying the breeze, it turned into an impromptu conversation about which crops are grown in the US, where we get our rice from, world geography, the concept of women shaving their legs, and the absence of caste, dowry, and arranged marriages in US society. The taught me about the craft they were making: puppets from a mixture of water, shredded newspaper, and parrotha (an Indian bread)-making flour. I admired Hari’s caloose; she took it off her ankle and put it on mine. (A caloose (no idea how to spell that, by the way) is what we would think of as an anklet, except it has small bells on it. So you kind of jingle when you walk. It’s actually kind of fun, I think I’ll venture out and buy one one of these days!).

After lunch, some of the girls and I played Uno, which has been a big craze around here recently. They always confuse the word ‘skip’ with ‘slip’, so every time one of the girls puts down a skip card, they yell ‘SLIP YOU!’

I tried chacca (jackfruit) for the first time today—delish! And mango season is fast-approaching. Two words: can’t wait. 

With our afternoon tea, we had my favorite snack: etekya appam (banana fry—similar to fried plantains). Afterward I watched/helped some of the girls with the dance they’re choreographing for the 10th grade send-off, which is taking place this Wednesday. In India, ‘high school’ goes to 10th grade; for Plus One and Plus Two (what we would think of as 11th and 12th grade), you go to a different, ‘higher secondary’ school. The ‘send-off’ is the 10th graders’ formal farewell celebration, as they will have study leave for the first part of March, SSLC exams during the second half, and then summer vacation for April and May, after which they’ll begin the new school year at a new school in June. They are assigned to a higher secondary school based on their scores on the aforementioned exams.

Dance practice was followed by evening prayer, and now here I am writing this post, listening to my new favorite Malayalam film song, Manassil.

Today was a good Sunday; the best I’ve had in a while :)

"If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?" -Stephen Levine

Saturday, February 19, 2011

we belong to each other

A few weeks ago, I came home to find two tiny children on the front porch of my hostel with the rest of the boarding students. “Two new boarding students,” I was informed. I thought maybe I misheard, or something was lost in translation. There was no way the two timid faces before me could be new boarding students. They were so small.

I quickly learned, however, that I had heard correctly; Kesiya, 10, and her younger sister, Hannah, 4, would indeed be staying at the hostel. Even though Kesiya looks like she could be several years younger, there are two other fifth graders that live at the hostel, so her joining us wasn’t all that shocking. But I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘who sends their four-year-old to live at a boarding hostel???’

I think the answer is that most people wouldn’t. Then again, as I later began to piece together, Kesiya and Hannah have a background that is atypical of ‘most people.’

Even now I’m not sure that I know all the details, but what the other students have managed to convey to me is that Kesiya, Hannah, their two brothers, and their father were abandoned by their mother a year and a half ago, when she left Kerala for a different state and a new life. As hard as he tried, their father could not support the four children, and was forced to find help wherever he could. The two boys are being kept at a boys hostel, and Kesiya and Hannah were taken in by the Buchanan Boarding Hostel. Their expenses are being paid for by one of the teachers. They are parent-less and at the mercy of the charity of those around them.

But given their circumstances…I’m not sure they could be in a better place. I am overwhelmed daily at how the Buchanan boarding students ‘mother’ these children in ways that are far beyond their years and maturity. Ansu, a 10th grader, helps feed Hannah and give her baths; Renju and the other TTC students always go out of their way to hug them and give them extra love and attention. Earlier today, a teacher who sometimes stays here overnight brought Kesiya some clothes.

All of these gestures, large and small, toward these children who have basically been orphaned, make me thankful for this community every day. In spite of this, and no matter how well taken care of I know they will be here…can you imagine what it’s like to be Kesiya, who, unlike carefree fellow-5th graders Aleena and Praseela, is responsible for not only herself, but also her younger sister? Can you imagine being 4 and not having a mom to kiss you goodnight? To not be picked up and squeezed by the strong arms of your father? To wander around from person to person and not to have your own person?

Kids are so resilient. Even though she has every reason not to be, Kesiya is one of the most spunky, vivacious girls at the hostel. Hannah is so sweet; it never fails to melt my heart when I pick her up and she holds on to me so tightly, resting her head on my chest. They always seem to be smiling. I don’t know if they necessarily understand their circumstances—Hannah certainly doesn’t—but I do think that in many respects, they are simply thrilled to have been thrust into this bustling environment with a whole lot of new friends and love surrounding them.

Although sometimes, my heart just breaks for them. It breaks when the sorrow that Kesiya hides inevitably surfaces and she cries. When the 8th grade students, often futilely, do their best to pacify her. When all I can do is invite her to play Uno, hoping that it will distract her from thoughts of a family who has left her and Hannah behind. It breaks when Kesiya knows she can’t explain to me why she is crying, but wanting to make me understand, looks up at me with tears spilling down her face and says the simplest Malayalam word that she knows is enough to convey to me the reason for her sadness: ‘amma.’ Mother.

“We may wonder
Whom can I love and serve?
Where is the face of God
To whom I can pray?

The answer is simple.
That naked one. That lonely one.
That unwanted one is my brother and my sister.

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” –Mother Teresa

everything you think you don't

What do you consider to be basic necessities? Things that, without which, it might be hard, or uncomfortable, at least, to get through the average day?

A washing machine…running water…consistent electricity…air conditioning…toilet paper….silverware—if you had asked me 6 months ago, those would have all been on my list. And yet, as a YAV in India, I go through each and every day without those things. But really, it’s not so bad. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything at all.

Of course, I go without because I don’t have an alternative. It would be considerably more difficult to give up comfort by choice. I find it hard, for example, to imagine myself foregoing AC in the 95-degree summer heat in Florida. But it’s just as hot here, and aren’t I doing just fine?

Truly, my life in Kerala isn’t all that different from yours, even without all of the above amenities. Instead of a washing machine, we wash by hand. When there is running water, we fill up buckets for use throughout the day. And of course, the well is always just a short walk away. Knowing that the power might go out at any time, we do things that require light (like bathing) before the sun goes down; after dark, there is always a candle nearby, just in case. Schools, businesses, etc. are equipped to carry on as usual even without power. During evening prayer, when we are often suddenly plunged into darkness in the middle of a song, no one skips a beat. In lieu of toilet paper, we wash with water. Instead of using forks and knives, we eat with our (right) hand.

It’s a different lifestyle, to be sure, than the one I knew in the US, but it’s still that—a lifestyle. And it’s in no way sub-par to ours in the West, where we have a tendency to think that our way is the ‘right,’ or ‘best’ way.

Don’t be mistaken—there are times when I would love to have a washer. Or to easily run water from the tap, rather than drawing bucket after bucket from the well. But still, it’s a little disconcerting, on a certain level, to realize that everything you think you need, you don’t. That everything you think you need, the majority of the world goes without.

And you know what? So can I :)

“The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, "I was wrong". –Sydney J. Harris

Monday, February 14, 2011

cracking crackers

I asked my 8th grade students to respond in writing to the question “What did you do during Christmas vacation?” Here are a few of the unedited replies:

“I engoy the Christmas vecatian. And celebrate the Christmas. Many guest’s are come my house. And cut with cake. And arrange The Christmas tree And get The Christmas stars and LED bulbs. And 24th December night crackers are cracking That’s A big sound. And 25th night repeat the cracking. The Christmas was very good. And I go to the church and I pray and celebrate carol. And I celebrate The New year The New year is very good. My chistmas vecation is very good And I engoy with very happy. "

“I went friends house I was play fottball cricket cach and cach hide and see we fire firework then be a good boy then I lisent my class techer and my preance happy chrimas and happy new year for Madison techer thank you”

“I am go to my Christmas vacation in my mothers house. Mother’s house I play with my friends. And eat cake with my brothers and sisters. 23 and 24 my brothers and sister’s go to houses in the Christmas carol. This Christmas vacation was very beatiful and intresting. My mother’s house I crack the cracker’s at night. Very beatutiful and intresting ‘x’ mas vacation. “

“I am very happy. I am enjoy in the Christmas day. My relitives come my house. Make a Christmas tree. Make a cattle shed. My aunty give a gift. I enjoy in the Christmas day. My life is a best Christmas. “

As I was correcting piles of papers, I immediately knew the boy who wrote the second response you see above. He’s a total class clown and teacher suck up, but I would be lying if I said that after reading monotonous paper after paper that his didn’t make me laugh.

I have since handed these papers back, and I’m sure you can imagine that a long lesson on usage of the past and present tense followed. That’s something we’ll be working on for a while….!

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

being present

People often ask me, teachers, especially, what exactly it is that I do after the bell rings at 3:25 every day. It’s kind of a hard question to answer, because to some, it may sound like ‘nothing. ‘ But part of the YAV year, you see, is the concept of ‘ministry of presence,’ meaning that while I may not always have a specific task, my overarching, always-present task is simply to be with people; to be part of the community.

So this ‘ministry of presence’ thing takes many forms. It’s when I accompany Jinta to the doctor; when I sing songs with Reshmi while washing clothes; when I play hide and seek with the girls on the playground. It’s when Gracy Kochamma shows me decades-old photos of her life and loved ones; when the TTC students and I talk about our ideal husbands (trust me, THEY brought this topic up, not me); when Veena, a 7th grader, Praseela, a 5th grader—neither of whom speak English—and I walk around aimlessly, hand in hand, as happy as can be. 

Of course, the unique, hoped-for outcome specific to my placement is that through this ‘ministry of presence,’ all of the children’s English skills will improve. Which they have. There are usually 1 or 2 of the boarding students in any given class that I teach. They are often the first to understand my instructions, and regularly clarify for the other children.

During times when I wonder, “am I really doing any good?” it’s moments like those that remind me why I’m here. If I can break Aleena’s habit of saying ‘sawn’ instead of ‘seen,’ then you know what? That’s enough.

The other day, Anu asked me, in Malayalam, to push her on the swing. I was experiencing a tired moment, having already done quite a bit of pushing, and came so close to telling her to ask one of the other children. But then, an idea. I told her I would push her…if she asked in English. So, with a little coaxing and help from yours truly, she managed to say, “will you push me on the swing?”

With the smile of a proud parent, and the energy I had been lacking the instant before: “Of course, Anu. I would love to.”

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.” –Mother Teresa

Aksa Digital Studio, how I love thee

So, there’s this internet café down the road. Okay, it’s not really an internet café—it’s actual name is 'Aksa Digital Studio.' Only a 2-minute walk away, I LOVE this place and am pretty sure I’m their biggest customer. Well, probably not, but close to it. They do everything from photography to photocopies to wedding album designing and more. And they have one little ancient computer that has internet, that I tend to visit once or twice a week. Hence the designation, ‘internet café.’

I tell ya, 'Aksa Digital Studio' is a little piece of heaven. After a long day filled with chattering children, sweating constantly in the heat…there is, every now and then, nothing better than sitting in the quiet of that little room with, yes—even air conditioning (cue singing angels). Not to mention the inherent joy obtained from a few minutes of internet time. Reading my facebook newsfeed actually makes me feel like I know what’s going on in the outside world sometimes, and is a nice reminder that a place called America and all the people I love there still exist.

Jim has wireless in his room. Lucky duck. But Maggie and I both have limited internet at our sites, so it’s funny how we’ve both come to revere ‘internet time’, as we call it, as sacred. If I call Maggie, ask what she’s doing, and she replies “I’m at the internet café,” the immediate response is “oh okay, I’ll call you back later.” And vice versa. No explanation needed.

‘Internet time,’ when we can get it, is one way we practice ‘good self care’—a term coined at YAV orientation that refers to any activity that contributes to your emotional/mental well-being, and enables you to be recharged. Because it is only when you care for yourself that you can care for others.

One of the best parts of my little vacations to ‘Aksa Digital Studio’ has been getting to know the family that owns it—a married couple and their two small children. The husband and I have more of a non-verbal friendship—he gives me a small smile whenever I walk in, and has been very helpful whenever I’ve needed to make copies for a class or print photos. 

His wife is SO nice. It was a couple of months, at least, before she ever timidly ventured to speak to me, but I then learned that her name is Jessy. She invited me to come to church with them some time, and during a later visit asked how much I would charge to tutor her eldest daughter, who is in 3rd grade. My first thought was “you don’t have to pay me—I’ll do it for free” but then I had to give myself a little reality check and remember that with everything I have going on at Buchanan, there was no way that adding yet another commitment to my weekly schedule would be a good idea. I felt kind of bad because I’m not sure if she understood the reason why I declined (both she and her husband speak very little English)—as much as I would like to tutor her daughter (and really, I would do it for free), I just don’t have time.

Kids are funny. The aforementioned 3rd grader, at first, was too shy to even come out from behind her mother’s legs to talk to me. But throughout the week and months, she has gotten more brazen and will even come and look over my shoulder while I am at the computer.

I have no doubt that 'Aska Digital Studio’ will continue to be patroned by YAVs for years to come. I’m happy for Buchanan's next YAV, and the YAV after that, that they’ll have this little oasis—that they will have glorious internet time!—and that they’ll get to know this wonderful, hardworking family, like I have.

Just a few weeks ago, Jessy brought out her adorable youngest daughter, who is about three years old, for me to meet.

Her name is Aksa.

"The art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things." -Henry Ward Beecher