Monday, June 27, 2011


Ayyo: What does it mean?

I suppose it's our equivalent of 'oops,' 'ouch,' 'oh my gosh,' or any small exclamation used to express shock, disapproval/displeasure, surprise, etc.

In the beginning months, it felt so unnatural to say it. Even if I tried to say it at appropriate moments, it just felt...weird.

So I couldn't help but laugh at myself earlier today when I realized that I've been using the word involuntarily for a while. I was in my room, and had just accidentally dropped my comb in the toilet. "Ayyoo," I muttered to myself.

When did I start saying that? I wondered. And then I started thinking of all the other little Indian mannerisms I do involuntarily now. The head wobble...saying 'ah' repeatedly when someone is talking to me, to show active listening...making intentional blinks at people as a way to say hi...answering a question negatively with a shrug of my shoulders and a strong blink.

Those are just a few that I can think of at the moment. I don't know when I started doing all of that...maybe seven months ago...maybe six, maybe five...but what I do know is that until I can break myself of these mannerisms, after arriving home to the US, I'm gonna get some strange looks from people, that's for sure. ...Ayyo!

"Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars." -Henry Van Dyke

appreciating the small moments

It is Saturday morning; I am visiting Mandiram for the first time since leaving. Manna is as precious as ever, and, I am happy to say, remembers my name. She asks in her sweet little Manna voice, "Maggie chechi evide a?" (Where is Maggie chechi?). "Innu free alla," I tell her. "Program unde." (She's not free today, she has a program). I tickle her and then put her on the ground, off to search for Mathew Uncle.

I find him in his room, as expected. He is cradling his paralyzed right arm in his lap, as he always does. His face lights up--"I thought you had gone back to America already," Mathew Uncle says. "No, not for another three weeks." I remind him that I've been back at Buchanan for the past month, and tell him what I've been doing there. Our topic of conversation then begins to meander every which way, and Mathew Uncle honors his reputation of being able to philosophize about any subject, and at length. I ask him about his opinion on women in the ministry, not because I am expecting or wanting a certain answer but because I genuinely like to know what people think, why they think the way they think, and how their experiences have shaped their unique opinions--not just about that subject, but any subject in general.

"That's an interesting question," Mathew Uncle says. "I might have to consult George." "Who is George?" I ask, puzzled. He smiles and his face shows that he is searching for an explanation. "George is my alter other personality, you could say. Sometimes I don't know what I think about something, so I have to ask George." I am thoroughly amused by this information and the conversation continues on; after about thirty minutes, I take my leave of Mathew Uncle. And George, too, of course.

I visit more of the appachens and amachees, lastly going to see Babu Kochamma, one of the paying residents. She laughs more than she speaks, as usual, and I find myself remembering the last time I visited with her like this. It was both Maggie's and my last day at Mandiram, and we gave a photo of the two of us to several of the appachens and amachees with whom we had become especially close, each one with a personal message on the back. Sitting in Babu Kochamma's room now, I notice that photo displayed above her TV. Eventually I tell her that I must go; she follows me out to her porch and, tightly gripping my arm and looking up into my face, exhorts me to "please remember me; I am a widow and have no children of my own." I promise her that I will, always.

It is Saturday afternoon; I am standing with Jim in front of Jaimol Kochamma's front door. We have just come from partaking in one of our favorite treats, after having departed from Mandiram: coffee and a donut at Ann's Bakery. Before leaving the bakery, which is near Kochamma's house, I thought, you know, this might be the last time I can visit Jaimol Kochamma. Why don't I stop by and bring her and her family some donuts? Now that we are standing in front of her door, however, I wonder if this is a good idea. "Jim, what if they are sleeping??" It is around 3pm, not an unlikely nap time, and the house is quiet.

Getting no encouragement or helpful advice from Jim (thanks a lot, Jim!), I take my chances and ring the doorbell. I breathe a sigh of relief as it is promptly answered by Jaimol Kochamma's husband, M.P. Joseph Achen. "Hi, Achen!" I say. "We came to visit." He graciously shows us in, and we find Jaimol Kochamma there, too. I hand her the box of donuts, accidentally with my left hand. Achen gently points out my error, but not in a reproachful way--they lived in the US for several years and know that differentiating between which hand you use to give someone something is not a practice there. I laugh at myself, thinking that after ten months I would remember not to do that. Like Earth Kitt, "I am learning all the time--the tombstone will be my diploma."

We spend a few minutes chatting with Achen and Kochamma; Kochamma and I discuss next Saturday's farewell meeting. It will be a chance for the three volunteers, our supervisors, and the YAV India Program Coordinator, Thomas John Achen, to come together and have a formal 'sendoff' meeting, during which time we reflect on the positives of the year and talk about how to move forward and pave the way for the next volunteers. Sitting in Jaimol Kochamma's living room, however, we decide that there is no need for her and I to attend the meeting, as I am not leaving. Thomas John Achen, you have hereby been informed ;-)

It is Saturday evening; the power is out. I am sitting on the front steps of my hostel, taking advantage of what little daylight remains in the company of several of the TTC and Buchanan boarding students. There is the excited talk and laughter of which only teenage girls are capable, and I feel complete contentment as I enjoy the uncommonly cool breeze, a downpour on the horizon. I listen to the chatter and with astonishment realize, I actually know what they're saying.

Eighth grade Shanu runs up to us, a piece of twine wrapped around her head, adorned with a hibiscus flower. She dramatically stops in front of the group and in her most bellowing, theatrical voice, proclaims, "I AM QUEEN SHANU. MADI CHECHI, YOU COME WITH ME!"

I decide to defy Her Majesty. "Venda!" (no!), I yell back. Queen Shanu jumps up and down, stomps her feet, and shakes her head in rage, the hibiscus flower flying out of her crown in the process.

Anu, Athira, and Vava decide I need a new hairstyle and set to work without delay. Joshmi takes the earrings out of her ears and puts them in mine. Shiva Renjini sticks a pottu on my forehead; with this finishing touch, I am pronounced sunthari (beautiful). A princess in Queen Shanu's court.  

"Love builds up the broken wall
and straightens the crooked path.
Love keeps the stars in the firmament
and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides.
Each of us is created of it
and I suspect
each of us was created for it."
-Maya Angelou

Sunday, June 26, 2011

a picture's worth a thousand words...

This post was written on June 21.  

In many ways, this year has been an experience of sharing. In many ways…so many ways. The least impressive way, but the way that I’m going to comment on now, is regarding material possessions. I brought with me to India, for example, my laptop and digital camera. There inevitably came a day, perhaps last October, when one of the boarding students asked, "Can you show me how to use your laptop? Can I take some photos with your camera?"

It may not seem like it, but that was a defining moment. It was a moment when I could have said, justifiably, "no, no students are allowed to use my laptop or camera." I could have even blamed it on someone else, and said "no, I’m not supposed to let students use my laptop or camera." But instead, I said "sure—what’s mine is yours."

Maybe not the most responsible decision. I am well aware of the value (monetary, that is) of what I would have lost if something had happened to either item. But I chose that risk over fostering barriers. Saying "no, you can’t use my camera or laptop," might not seem like it would have constructed a big ‘barrier’ to you, but the barrier hides in the sentiment behind the words, not in the words themselves. Saying "no, you can’t use my camera or laptop" would have been to say "no, you can’t use my camera or laptop, and these are just two out of many things that I have that you will probably never have—they are two more things that remind us all of why I’m different from you; why I’m more privileged than you. There is something special about me and my possessions, more valuable than you and yours, that requires you to keep your distance."

So in that defining moment, it didn’t take me long to decide. I’ve never been very possessive over my belongings, anyway, and when the deck is already stacked against you, in terms of people treating you specially or as if you were superior, you do what you can to level the playing field. For me, showing the girls how to use my camera and laptop was a way to do just that.

It's worth mentioning that allowing the boarding students such freedom with my stuff would have been impossible at a site like Maggie's, Nicholson School, where there are hundreds of girls. Being that I live with only about fifty, I know every girl well individually. I might've felt a little uneasy ten months ago, but I would now trust any of them with anything.  

Of course, if I left my laptop with students, I was always bound to be nearby. My camera, however, was a different story—being that it’s waterproof, shockproof, etc (thanks, Mom!), I figured there wasn’t much that anyone could do to hurt it. So letting them play with it, have never-ending photoshoots, and unleash their inner photographers is something that has been fun to watch. I think they have taken more photos with my camera this year than I have!

The girls were funny with my laptop. Many of them were at first afraid to touch it, as if it would break or self-destruct by a mere touch of their hand. Given that none of them even knew how to turn it on—to open a program—to play a song—to save a document—it’s really rewarding, now, to see all the things they can do. And I think it was kind of empowering for them. It was a way to show them that they are just as capable of using technology as I am, or anyone else is. Why would I have lorded over itunes, or my photo software, as if the girls would indeed hurt my laptop, when I could just as easily teach them how to use the programs themselves?

You know all those photoshoots I just mentioned that they like to have? The photos end up on my computer…the girls look at themselves in picture form with nothing less than delight…they pick out their favorites, I save them to my USB drive, and take them to be printed. I made a trip to my beloved Aska Digital Studio yesterday for just that purpose.

I occasionally get tired of all of the work this photo printing stuff takes. Consider: about 50 students who all want different photos…having to figure out which photos, exactly; making a list; collecting 8 rupees per photo, etc. 

But then I remember what it was like to be a teenager and have a digital camera. I remember myspace photos, which turned into facebook photos. I think of the hundreds and hundreds of photos I have saved on my computer, or my external harddrive, all of which document pretty much every year and phase of my life. And I remember that these girls don’t have any of that. Why shouldn’t I give them a piece of it if I can?

Letting them use my camera—coordinating the effort to organize and print a few photos for them—dealing with the hassle and confusion that sometimes arises out of it—is all worth it when I remember that when Merlin is thirty and has kids of her own, these ten or fifteen photos will be all she has of this chapter of her life. Maybe, when Libiya is in her forties, she will look at the photo that was taken of her last week and think, 'was I ever really that skinny??' …It’s all worth it when I remember that when Lintu, the most narcissistic of them all, finishes her degree and moves somewhere new, she might have a couple photos of her friends back home to show her new friends and neighbors. That, ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when these girls have many years of teaching under their belts, they can pull out a few photos and remember this time and the friends they had, during their education as teachers-in-training that seemed like it would never end.

‘Cause here’s the thing: it does end. And I hope that one day, these photos will help them to remember this year in their life; what a wonderful time it was.

"Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose." -Kevin Arnold

Thursday, June 16, 2011

a note to Paul Dombey

The following passage is taken from Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, in which Paul’s views toward leaving his school (permanently, one later learns) are narrated.

“[Mrs Blimber] touched the child upon a tender point. He had secretly become more and more solicitous from day to day, as the time of his departure drew more near, that all the house should like him. From some hidden reason, very imperfectly understood by himself—if he understood at all—he felt a gradually increasing impulse of affection, towards almost everything and everybody in the place. He could not bear to think that they would be quite indifferent to him when he was gone. He wanted them to remember him kindly; and he had made it his business even to conciliate a great, hoarse, shaggy dog, chained up at the back of the house, who had previously been the terror of his life: that even he might miss him when he was no longer there" (Dickens 175).

Oh little Paul, I know how you feel. I’ve tried befriending the dogs, too. Unfortunately they are stray and wary of people….but maybe after a month's time they’ll wonder at the absence of the madama who used to call to them sometimes during her morning walks with the children.

unfinished business

This post was written on June 14.

On my wall in my bedroom, I have two lists: one is entitled “ongoing projects”; the other, “long term goals.” Both were created about ten months ago, now, as a way to remind myself of the things I needed to keep on my mind on a daily basis, as well as in the long view. With one month left in Kerala, now seems like a good time to evaluate how well I’ve done.

The “ongoing projects” list reads:
            1. Class lesson plans
            2. KNH Hostel
            3. Writing project
            4. Zumba
            5. Blog

How well did I keep up with all of those, you ask? Well, teaching up to 5 periods a day, it would have been impossible to function without lesson plans. So I’ve been good about being prepared. My weekly visits with the girls of the KNH Hostel have gone well, although there has been a week or two here and there that I haven’t been able to meet with them due to scheduling conflicts on both of our parts. The ‘writing project’ refers to an English ‘magazine’ that I was supervising/editing for about half of the year—it got 1st place in a local competition! Exercise class, Zumba, has continued on, even if it’s occasionally just me and Aleena (which doesn’t bother either of us a bit :)). And I’ve been blogging as frequently as I hoped to, which makes me happy for the sake of keeping all of you informed, and for having my own record of the most memorable people/places/events of this year.

The “long term projects” list reads:
            1. Learn Malayalam
            2. Lose 5kg
            3. Be accepted to Seminary
            4. “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle
            unknown to you”
            5. …be the best YAV ever!

Now, I certainly did not learn Malayalam. Fluently, I mean. But I can read and write, understand a fair amount, and have a decent sized vocabulary/speaking ability of my own. I think if I were here for another year, I’d be in business! And I did lose 5 kg (although, I gained it before I lost it...but who’s counting?). I was accepted to Seminary, and I’ll speak on the 4th task in the next paragraph. With regard to the 5th, I may not have been the best YAV ever, but I was the best YAV that I could be, and if you ask me, that’s a better measure, anyway.

On to the 4th task: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle unknown to you.” This is one point where I may have, at times, fallen short. I was reminded of this task on my list today as I was walking from school to my bedroom, where I wanted to drop a few things off. I had just taught 3 classes in a row, was muddy after walking around campus in the rain all day, and just wanted a moment of quiet. So I may not have been very friendly as girl after girl stopped or approached me in the hallway with cries of “HI MADISON MISS!” “Madison Miss, how are you??” “Madison miss, chor undo?” (Did you have lunch?). “Madison Miss, evide pokuka?” (Where are you going?). “Madison Miss, those are beautiful earrings!” “Madison Miss, HI!!!!!!” I wanted to get through the throng, FAST, and gave rushed answers that didn’t invite conversation to all of the girls as I passed by. Just as I thought I was home free, I heard another “MADISON MISS!” behind me, accompanied by running footsteps. I momentarily considered continuing walking as if I hadn’t heard, but looked over my shoulder to at least give a “hi” back and wave.

Who did I see but little 6th grade Roopa running up to me, with something in her hand. “Madison Miss, a present for you!” It was a card, wrapped in a handmade envelope that had a red ribbon pinned on it. The annoyance I had been feeling the moment earlier melted away as I accepted Roopa’s card and told her thank you, with a huge, genuine smile that had been missing from my face just prior.

I finally made it to my room and opened Roopa’s handmade card. The front has a border of flowers and butterflies, a bear, and my name encircled by a heart. The inside says “Dear Miss, I wish you a happy birthday! God bless you with my blessing! By, Roopa G. Nath,” accompanied by swirls, stars, bows, and the like. The back of the card is decorated with a house surrounded by green trees, a lake with a duck, and a smiley-faced sun who says “Good morning Madison Miss!”

Roopa, how could you have possibly known exactly how to brighten my day? I wondered. And I thought of the quote on my list: “be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle unknown to you.” Roopa=success. Madison=fail. All those girls who spoke to me in the hallway…what if I had taken a moment to talk to them, rather than hurrying by, inwardly annoyed? What if that would have made them smile? What might they face at home after they leave school at 3:25 every day?

So it seems there’s at least one thing on my ‘to do’ lists that I can’t yet check off—but from now on, I’ll be working on it a little more conscientiously. Thanks for the reminder, Roopa :)

"I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." -William Penn

Sunday, June 12, 2011

a quiet weekend and looking ahead

Well, I take back any negative thoughts I ever had about the new warden, Mariyamma Kochamma. She’s old school, for sure, but I really respect and like her now. All but 3 of the TTC students—Tincy, Sanu, and Deepa—went home this weekend, so it was the three of them, me, and Mariyamma Kochamma alone in our hostel. It was great to have some quality hang out time with them, Kochamma included.

I had a little ‘writing assignment’ given to me by Sanila Teacher (to write something for the diocesan women’s magazine about my time at Buchanan), so I camped out with Sanu, Tincy, and Deepa on the floor of their room, them surrounded by all of their papers/work, and me with my laptop, typing away. They intermittently asked me for help, and of course we randomly chatted. They are really wonderful girls.

What else, what else…this upcoming Thursday, Maggie, Jim, and I are heading to Thomas John Achen’s house for our final retreat. CRAZY. We’ll be together until Sunday, when the three of us are giving the message at a church in Achen’s area. Then, we’ll return to our sites. On July 2nd we have our formal farewell meeting with Achen and our supervisors. And two weeks later, on July 15, we’ll leave our sites for good and go to Thomas John Achen’s house to enjoy each other’s company for the last time, boarding our flight home on July 18.

If I had to choose one word to describe how all of this feels it would be: surreal. I just re-read the above paragraph, and it feels like it’s written about someone else, not me. Can it be that I will be seeing much-missed friends and family in just over a month? Can it be that I’m going to have to say goodbye to the people I love, and all the things I love about my life in Kerala, so soon?

Surreal, that’s what it is.

"We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams." -Jeremy Irons

Friday, June 10, 2011

rain days, shopping, singing-along, pretending to study, and more!

This post was written on June 8.

Today it didn’t rain ONCE. However due to yesterday’s frequent and copious rain spells, school today was cancelled because of flooding. I guess in Kerala we have ‘rain days’ instead of ‘snow days’?

At first I was kind of bummed. I had been looking forward to my classes and had a good lesson plan, darn it! But it’s funny how the days you expect to be the worst can turn out to be the best, and vice versa. Today was one of those days. So was yesterday.

Yesterday was one of those surprising days in that I expected it to be good but it ended up being sort of…blah. No one’s fault, really, I just found myself very much in the background amidst the chaos of the new school year. I only had 4 classes to teach, 2 of which ended up being cancelled, and all the teachers are so busy with class rosters, more new admissions, myriad lists, and the like, that it was a little lonely. But after-school ended up being better than school itself.

Although today more than made up for yesterday. It was, as I mentioned, a surprising day in that my first thought of the morning, upon finding out school was cancelled due to flooding, was, ‘oh great, another day of nothing.’ But then, I resolved to make it something.

I went walking/jogging with a pack of children, we played on the playground, and I took a shower (or, a bucket, as Maggie, Jim, and I affectionately call the act)—all before breakfast. Breakfast was one of my other favorites (next to uppu mav, which I mentioned in my last post)—pal appam and kadala curry. I spent more time with the younger children and then read some of my latest book—Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Then I kept one of the TTC students company in the study hall while she was working on some homework, and before we knew it, it was lunchtime.

Okay, so maybe the morning doesn’t sound all that exciting. But it was enjoyable—a good mix of fun and rest. The afternoon got more interesting, though; after lunch, I went with the Speechly College students to Chingavanam. (Speechly College is a college (surprise!) located on the Buchanan campus. There are a handful of Speechly students who live in the boarding hostel where the TTC (teacher training course) students and I live. Chingavanam is the nearest town).

It was great to hang out with the Speechly girls. I don’t spend a whole lot of time with them regularly as they speak English fluently and were I to be super friendly with them, it would probably attract some animosity from the TTC students, etc, and look like I was showing favoritism just because the Speechly girls speak English. So it was really nice to get out with them and not feel bad for socializing with them in front of other people, for once.

We got ice cream and checked items off the LONG shopping list that had been given to us by the TTC students (they aren’t allowed to leave the Buchanan campus). We arrived back to Buchanan just in time for me to make it to my engagement with the KNH Hostel (a hostel located on Buchanan’s campus that is funded by a charity in Germany. It houses girls who are orphaned or from underprivileged families). Jim came, too, guitar in hand, and we taught them a few English songs. We also performed a couple—isn’t that a funny thought? ME, singing, for a crowd?? As if I actually had some sort of vocal talent?? …haha!

It went really well—for most of the girls, it was probably their first time seeing/hearing a guitar played in person. The favorite song was ‘Kumbaya’; the fun, fast-paced version, that is. By the end of our hour with them, they could sing it by themselves!

From the guitar/singing program I went straight to exercise class. The girls who were ‘regulars’ last year still come, as well as many of the boarding students who are new as of this year. The new students, especially, make it really fun and keep me laughing with their goofy dance moves.

Not too long after exercise class there was a knock on my door. It was Joshmi, one of the TTC students. She asked if I was free, to which I replied yes, and she then asked me to come to her room. It kind of seemed like something might be wrong, and after the two of us sat down on her bed, she said “Madi chechi, we are really sad. Last year we got to talk to you all the time but now with the new Kochamma (warden), we don’t talk as much.” I said, “Joshmi, I know! I miss you guys a lot. With your new schedule and all of your study time I’m afraid to interrupt and get you in trouble with Kochamma.” Part of the problem is also that, due to the new study schedule, rule of absolute quiet, etc, most of the girls now stay confined in their rooms, with the doors closed, rather than roaming around the hostel like they used to. Anyway I thought it was really cute that they had obviously made a group decision to call me into their room (there were other students present, too—Deepa, Merlin, and Tincy) so we could have some intentional hang out time. I ended up staying for about an hour and a half—it’s amazing how a closed door and quiet talking can make it seem as though those inside are actually studying ;) And we decided that such visits would happen more often from now on. Before, I just felt bad interrupting, and I really missed the girls, even during just the past week—but now I know they’ve missed me, too.

One very terrifying detail of my otherwise good day that I’ve forgotten to mention is that a monstrous, impossibly big cockroach jumped down the back of my churidar while I was with the Speechly students shopping in Chingavanam…TRAUMATIZING.

“Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning.” –Mahatma Ghandi

just posting for the sake of posting

This post was written on June 4.

Reasons to love monsoon season:
-It’s not miserably hot!
-who doesn’t love a good heavy rain?
-Plenty of water supply (days of no running water and having to draw it from the well are OVER!)
-It’s not miserably hot!

Yep, I’m loving monsoon season. And the fact that it’s not miserably hot DOES deserve to be mentioned twice. That, combined with all the fruits that are in season, might make this my favorite time of year in Kerala. Mangoes fresh off the tree? Yes, please!

The new warden is proving to put her money where her mouth is. The TTC girls have been following a strict schedule and things are a LOT quieter around here than they used to be. However she is a genuinely nice, caring person, and has shown a lot of emotional care and concern for the TTC students and their worries over their classes, etc. Now that I have been around her for a few days, I have no doubt that the girls will come to love and appreciate her in spite of her strict rules. (Now if only she would stop knocking on my door to wake me up (15 minutes too early, I might add) for morning prayer! I managed to somehow get myself there every morning for the past nine months, didn’t I??)

Today was an average Saturday. The rain stopped long enough to make it a good idea to hurry up and do some laundry, so that was an accomplishment. I tried to play Uno with the younger girls but the new warden insisted that they should study, instead. I took advantage of that time to take a little nap (by that time it was raining—perfect nap time!). Later I spent some time with the TTC students, and we had our first exercise class (zumba) of the new school year.

Did I mention we had one of my favorite breakfasts this morning?? Uppu mav!

"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing." -Camille Pissarro

Thursday, June 2, 2011

transitioning back, and party's over, folks

Well, this post isn’t going to be nearly as negative as the title sounds.

With regard to the first part, I’m back at Buchanan! Leaving Mandiram was a lot sadder than I ever imagined it would be, but I guess I should count it a blessing that I was able to spend time there at all, especially given that it was a much, much more positive experience than I ever dreamed it would be. I had to fight back the tears (not entirely successfully) as I left on Tuesday morning and sincerely meant it when I told everyone I would come back to visit before going home to the US in July. There’s no way I’m leaving without seeing Raju, the balika girls, the wardens, or all the other people I’ve come to love there one last time!

Upon arriving to Buchanan I found only the headmistress, Omana Teacher, and Mariyamma Kochamma, who were all registering new students. It was so good to see them but after just a minute or two I had to look on in amusement as the two aforementioned teachers debated about whether I’ve gotten ‘more fat’ or ‘more slim’ during summer vacation (the first view argued by Omana Teacher; the second by Mariyamma Kochamma). In reality I don’t think my weight has changed at all—in fact I know it hasn’t because I have a scale. By now I am unsurprised by such comments, and have never taken them offensively, but I couldn’t help think of Mandiram, where no one ever made remarks, positive or negative, about my appearance, what I was wearing, etc. It was refreshing to spend 3 months not being scrutinized!

Nevertheless I really was happy to be back at Buchanan, especially the next day, which was the first day of school. Getting to reconnect with all of the teachers, students, and especially the boarding students was just as fun as I imagined it would be. It ended up being a somewhat tedious morning, though, because even though all the students came for the first day, it was really just continued registration and sorting out the divisions—there was no actual class. Thankful when lunchtime rolled around, I went back to the hostel to wash my hands and who did I find but ALEENA!

You may remember that before summer vacation, I blogged about the students who would not be coming back for the new school year; Aleena was one of them. Her mother’s job was being transferred to somewhere in North India, so her family was moving there. Aleena might have the wild imagination of a fifth grader, but is not one to make things like that up, so I was resigned to the reality that the new school year at Buchanan would be sans-Aleena. Imagine my delight, then, to see that boisterous little (now) 6th-grader standing on the front porch of the hostel!

After the initial ‘oh-my-gosh,-what-are-you-doing-here?!?!?’ (she explained that her mother’s transfer got delayed a year), I gave her a hug and quite honestly said “Aleena, seeing you is the best surprise of my day.” And off we walked to lunch.

The other unforeseen development of the day was the arrival of a new warden. I had heard whispers of it among the teachers in the staff room, but it wasn’t clear if Gracy Kochamma, the current warden, was leaving (which would have been really sad; she has come to be my Kerala ‘grandmother figure’—I love her dearly!) or if there would be two wardens (which didn’t make sense, as there are only about 15 Buchanan boarding students). Turns out that there are, in fact, now two wardens—Gracy Kochamma will continue to be responsible for the Buchanan boarding students, and the new warden, a retired, long time teacher, is in charge of the TTC (teacher training course) students.

I’ve probably mentioned in the past that I live with the TTC students. As young as 18 or as old as 23, they are my friends and my peers. Our hostel is located right next to a smaller building that houses Gracy Kochamma and the Buchanan boarding students. In the past, everyone answered to Gracy Kochamma, who could be strict at times and whose word was always the last but was/is very much loved and respected by all of the children, the Buchanan boarding students and TTC students included.

The TTC students have always had a lot of freedom. After dinner, especially, we would lock the doors of our hostel and be on our own until morning, Gracy Kochamma in the next building over should we ever need anything. The TTC girls were diligent with their studies but also took ample time for socializing; they lived according to their own schedules. Sure, they would sometimes spend the evening hanging out or listening to music, rushing to finish their homework in the morning before class, but part of being independent is learning to manage oneself, one’s balance between work and play, and being responsible for the consequences of one’s actions, whether good or bad.

Well…party’s over, folks. The new warden is not only directly in charge of the TTC students…she lives IN our hostel. Right across the hall from me. She made it quite clear on the first day that things were going to be changing around here: now the girls will have a daily schedule, which begins at and includes plenty of study time at various intervals during the day, and two small windows of limited ‘personal time.’ During ‘personal time’ they are allowed to talk, but during study time there should be complete silence. Their rooms will be inspected regularly for neatness/cleanliness. ‘Lights out’ is at . This is a HUGE change from the study-when/how-much-you-want, stay-up-as-late-as-you-want, do-whatever-you-want-(within reason) way of life before.

I have mixed feelings about the new military regime; on the one hand, it doesn’t really affect me or my daily comings and goings at all. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the value and lessons of independence—being self-reliant, reaping what one sows, whether positive or negative, and learning from it all in the process—and dislike the idea of treating the TTC students like mindless children who have to have every action and behavior dictated to them. A third point of view is the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger route; perhaps they will in the long-term benefit from the disciplined environment and routine.

In any case, it will be a difficult adjustment for them. I, for one, am just so happy to be back with all of my friends, from 6th grade Aleena and Praseela to 9th grade Athira to 23-year-old TTC student Sanu—I have missed them all so much! I even got a big welcome from Amamma, the cook. She speaks zero English and is one example of many from this year of the bonds and friendship that can be formed even with little to no verbal communication.

In the staffroom today Manju Teacher observed with delight that I had a birthday over summer vacation and am now 23—‘prime marriageable age!’ She and the other teachers then started talk of finding me a ‘tall and beautiful’ Malayalee husband in the next 6 weeks so that I can stay. They are so funny—I just love them :)

As time dwindles, it becomes more precious. May Maggie, Jim, and all the YAVs all over the world continue to make the best of our last 6 weeks. We’ve come along way, haven’t we?

“I have been very happy with my homes, but homes really are no more than the people who live in them.” –Nancy Reagan