These Days in My Life

0640 The alarm beeps faster and faster. I hit the snooze button and manage to return to my dream before my four minute respite expires. I push off my layers of blankets and wind through my cluttered room to brush my teeth.

0640 The alarm beeps faster and faster. I hit the snooze button and manage to return to my dream before my four minute respite expires. I shift aside my thin sheet and tug my way through the mosquito net. Grabbing my yellow water bottle and toothbrush, I walk around the corner to brush my teeth, then return to trade the toiletries for my towel and take a fast shower.

0645 Back in my room, I pull my drawers open and grab jeans, tshirt, and a sweatshirt.

0650 Back in my room, I turn to the wooden table across from my bed and pick out a salvar kurta dupatta set. I pack up my backpack and bookbag with textbooks, papers, craft supplies, and journal, and close my door behind me. On the second floor landing I lace up my shoes and wrap my dupatta over my arm to keep it from trailing on the stairs. My homestay mother, sitting on the window seat, gives me a small smile as I say “I am going. I will come back this afternoon. Bye.”

0650 I slice a piece of bread and start the toaster. Two slices of turkey bacon provide extra protein.

0700 Turning a couple corners, I walk out to the slightly larger street and up to the blue tarp-ed front of the neighborhood yogurt shop. “Bada walla,” I tell the man, and he pulls one of the larger clay pots down from the shelf and scoops white spoonfuls into the pot until it balances with the one kg weight.

0710 While finishing my breakfast, I check my email and two of my favorite websites.

0715 Upstairs at our program house, I take out a metal skillet and start toasting bread on it. I peel an apple and scoop out a small bowl of yogurt.

0730 I leave for work.

0745 I leave for work.

0800 I arrive at the park and drive up the hill to our camp’s center. I pull my boxes of supplies and craft ideas out of the trunk and carry them over to my camp’s picnic table. This week I’m teaching a physics camp, so I need a few extra pieces of equipment for our experiments and projects. Glancing at the day’s plan in my notebook, I go into the “craft closet,” a small room full of various equipment and materials, and take out colored paper, plastic cups, string, toilet paper tubes, and bendy straws.

0800 I arrive at Southpoint school’s city campus after a cycle rickshaw ride and a walk down the last street, still under construction. I sign in and pick up the ten sheets of paper I issued from the school’s cupboards yesterday afternoon. As soon as the other teacher who commutes to the village school is ready, we get in the car and drive out.

8:30 The aide assigned to help me with my camp arrives and we set up the days activities (all related to sound) on the table.

9:00 The warm air and bumpy roads have made me fairly sleepy by the time we reach Southpoint school’s village campus. I look through the windshield at the trees framing the Ganga river, so pristine here upstream from the city, and smile to wake myself up. As I walk to my classroom, students call out “Good morning, ma’am!” I take my shoes off at the door and put my bag behind the small table that serves at my desk.

9:00 Campers come up to the table at their parents sign them in. Those who can remember it greet me by my first name. My aide and I pin on the kids’ nametags and get them started on their first activity.

9:05 My 1st to 4th grade students start their day with one minute of silence, then split into their three reading groups (cobra, tiger, and peacock) for English. The students in the peacock group, with the lowest-level English skills, go to the next room to work with Sunita ma’am on the ‘o’ sounds. I give the tiger group spelling exercises to work on and lead the cobra group through the second section of the Goldilocks story we’re looking at this week. As each student finishes their work, they bring it to me to check.

9:05 As soon as everyone arrives, I have them line up and play with string and a slinky as I talk about sound waves. They sit at the table and make a simple straw instrument before we grab our bags and go on a hike.

10:30 The English period ends, my peacock group students come back into our room, and we switch over to science. We’ve covered different types of animals throughout my time here, so now they’re working on a final mini-research project on one animal of their choice. I hand out the picture books about horses, dogs, and alligators and write the next group of questions on the board. Two of the fourth-graders are ahead of the rest, so I give them some guidelines to find extra information.

10:30 I pass out worksheets to talk about the different parts of the ear, and use a balloon stretched over a plastic cup to show how the eardrum works. Later the campers sit quietly for five minutes and draw on a paper the different sounds they hear around them.

11:15 One student tries to take another’s book, and I cross the classroom to pull them apart. Two of the youngest children are playing the game where you draw lines to make squares, and I take the paper away and make them return to the task at hand.

11:45 We sit in a circle on a blue tarp under an oak tree to eat lunch. I pull my red lunchbox out of my backpack and finish my pita sandwich and berries in five minutes. When the kids ask, I open water bottles, plastic packaging, and listen to stories.

11:45 I go to the kitchen to get my lunch from Usha didi, the school’s cook. She puts rice, daal (lentils), a potato and tomato sabji (cooked vegetable dish), and two rotis (flat round breads) on a rectangular metal plate. I eat in the teacher’s room, talking a little with the other teachers in a broken mix of Hindi and English. Students come in to get board games and balls to play with. I eat as quickly as I can, but it still takes me almost the whole 30 minute lunch period to finish the meal. I return to the kitchen to wash my plate and carry my books over to the 5th and 7th grade classroom.

12:15 We talk some about the physics behind different kinds of instruments, and then I lead the campers through making a “glove-o-phone.” My camp aide and I circle the table, handing out pieces of tape and helping with assembly.

12:15 The older students finish their games of tag and run to get a drink of water before class starts. The 5th graders work on word order for questions and I sit with the 7th grader students to review the half-chapter of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe they read last night. One of them understood it completely, and another got most of the plot and ideas. They help out the other two, and then all four write about what they read as I switch over to read the last chapter of The Magic Treehouse with the 5th grade. After English time is over, I help them their social studies units from the beginning of the year.

1:00 Camp ends and parents come to pick up their kids. I answer questions, hand back crafts, and wave goodbye. Once all the campers have left, my aide and I start collecting markers and cleaning up craft supplies.

2:00 School ends, and I check to make sure I have all my books. I talk to the 7th grade students as they straighten the classroom, asking about their plans for the afternoon, answering questions about myself or America, and just joking around. As with every day here, I drag out leaving as long as possible to have just a few more minutes to spend with them. Finally the other people returning to the city school insist that we leave, and I get back into the car as my students leave two on a bike or walking.

2:00 Cleanup finished, I sit in the teacher’s room and work on my lesson plan for the next day, testing experiments and collecting materials. The other camp teachers also get their work done, and we share ideas and stories and joke around.

3:00 At the city school I head up to the library. I adjust my lesson plans if they need to, and track down Mira didi who is in charge of supplies if I need more materials for something special. If there isn’t much to do I work in the library or just sit and read.

4:00 I drive back home.

5:00 I leave school, walking down the broken-up road and dodging cars, bicycles, piles of trash, and dogs until I get to the larger road. I climb into a rickshaw and tell the driver to take me to Tulsi ghat. “Assi ghat?” he asks. “No, Tulsi ghat. Assi ke pass,” I tell him. It’s near Assi.

5:00 After eating a snack, I spend time on the computer checking email, editing photos, and killing time on the internet. I talk some to my brother and mom about my day.

5:15 The girls who live at the corner next to my homestay house greet me enthusiastically. As I open the door to my house, a loud six-year-old voice calls down “kon?” who is it? My homestay brother meets me on the steps and demands to know whether I have Hindi class tonight and, when I tell him I do, why I can’t skip it. I rinse off the sweat and dust of my day, and sit on my bed and write some before joining my homestay brother on the roof. He runs around rolling tires and building bird shelters out of leftover construction materials as I look out at the river and watch the sun go down.

6:15 I carry dishes and food over to the table and my family sits around on padded chairs to eat dinner. We have salad, artichokes, chicken wings, homemade bread, and berries for desert. I drink milk out of a coffee mug and keep a paper napkin in my lap. At the end of the meal we all clear our dishes and put them in the dishwasher.

6:15 I leave for Hindi class, taking the back way because it’s faster and quieter. I walk down cobbled roads winding between three-story buildings until the gullies open up onto the ghats. I follow the curve of the river past water buffalo, small one-room homes, and a snack stand tucked into a niche in a brick wall. My friends meet me at Hindi class and we spend the next two hours practicing verbs, vocabulary, conversation, reading, and writing.

7:15 I finish up one last worksheet for camp tomorrow and spend some more time on the computer talking to friends and writing.

8:30 A friend and I walk the streets back to our houses together, sharing stories from our day. We stop for a mango smoothie on the way. I tell her I’m irrationally worried my students will forget me or like next year’s teacher better, and she says she’s having the same issues. We talk about our families–the ones in Banaras and those in America.

9:00 I watch a movie or an episode of Farscape with my parents. Cold air blows in through the windows, so I wrap myself up in a blanket.

9:00 I tell my homestay family I’m back and go up to my room. The fan on full-blast, I listen to music as I write some, and fight to stay awake.

10:15 I go to take a shower and get ready for bed.

10:15 My homestay mother yells my name to tell me dinner is ready, and I stumble down the stairs to the kitchen. I sit cross-legged on the kitchen floor and she hands me a plate with sabji and rice on it. She quickly spins out circular rotis and holds them over an electric cooker until they’re the right shade of brown, then drops them on my plate. My homestay father walks into the kitchen and asks in a booming voice, “khana accha hai?” Is the food good? “Accha hai.” I tell him. “Bahut accha hai?” “Bahut accha hai.” Yes, it’s very good. “Us ko nahi pasand.” She doesn’t like it, he jokes as he sits between my homestay sister and me and receives his plate of food. My homestay mother pours filtered water into metal cups and continues serving until everyone else is done before she takes her own plate of food. I talk to her a little longer before heading back upstairs to bed.

10:45 My cat Jack follows me around my room as I turn my alarm on, turn off the lights, climb into bed, and pull my many covers over my head. It takes me a little while to fall asleep.

11:00 I brush my teeth and set my mosquito net back up around my bed. I turn out the lights, turn my alarm on, and crawl into bed. I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.


things that confuse me

This is my home. It’s the place I’ve lived my whole life, and completely what I’m used to. Only occasionally it’s like an overlap picture, like something that is normal also isn’t at the same time. A moment of confusion and disorientation that I watch as it hangs over me for a bit and then moves on.

The streets and traffic lights and cars and highways. The size and shiny colors of the cars, the way they drive inside the white lines, the speed.

My clothes, so many different tshirts and jeans. Why do I have so many jeans?

People wearing short shorts and tank tops, especially packs of middle school girls all dressed the same way. They look like clones of someone I don’t remember.

Showers confuse me too. Hot, high-pressured water, and I can take a long time–so many luxuries, and yet I’m convinced I’m wasting time and water. I know I don’t need any of it; I know I can do just fine with a quick rinse in cold water. I feel good, relaxed, and at the same time guilty and unhappy.

Me. I confuse myself. My reactions to people and materials. Sometimes I’m really quiet and sometimes I can’t stop talking. Sometimes I dwell on Varanasi and other times I push it away. I feel strengthened by my experiences and I’m convinced I should have done something more, different, better. I confuse myself when I do things differently than I used to. I even confuse myself when I’m the same as I’ve always been–sometimes I think I should have changed more.

Hey Banaras

Hey Banaras,

It’s me. The one who… you know… well actually I guess you probably don’t know me. I’m really just one of the many people who has come and now is going, driven away by the heat. Your heat.

Really I don’t know what to say. To you I must be like all the other foreigners, even the flies who come and go with the seasons. Small, short-lived, barely worth your notice. Still, I’m writing to you. Partially because I’ve been instructed to, and also well because I feel like I should thank you, even if it’s presumptuous to suppose you care. I’m sure the flies think they’re special too.

In my mind, Banaras, you begin at the river. Washing, boating, cremating—so much becomes purer here. The scientific reality of sewage overflow and bacteria count. . . I know it, but when I look out at the Ganga river it’s so hard to believe. The calm currents and ripples, the sunlight reflecting brighter than the sky, everything seems so unsullied. And the people who go daily to bathe, do rituals, wash their clothes—somehow, your dirty water makes them clean.

And from the curve of the river spread the ghats, mud and bright paint side by side. Walking on the steps I watched people act out their public lives and deaths. To me, Banaras, you are the place where an old man sits next to a screaming baby, where women can do puja where boys swim, where color splashes over the dirt. Where boats line up for tourists, and candles emulate the moon.

And up the steps, beyond the river, you stretch out so much farther. You are the narrow gullies to get lost and found in, the painted metal rickshaws lined up at crossings. The dust, the wind, the bobbing paper kites. You are constantly physically present. People walk holding hands or with their arms over each others’ shoulders. Cow droppings pattern the pavement. Incense hangs on the air. Trash burns in a corner. Food, necklaces, gods, and sanitary pads color shop windows. Water runs in the river, on the street, and sometimes out of the taps. The electricity comes, the electricity goes. Something I took for granted is a generous, grudging gift. You are the music that throbs through my dreams, a deep, energy-filled lullaby.

You are market-streets where women in saris sell vegetables outside of convenience stalls hung with plastic packets of chips. Temples filled with pundits and devotes, pushing and yelling and demanding money, and tiny shrines propped against the base of all the big “people” trees, wrapped around with red and orange string. Bikes, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, cars, and cows all on the same road. You are an old city made new every day.

You are people I have met and shared a moment with. Shopkeepers, gurus, priests, children. You are the friends I danced with, the family I ate with, and the businessmen I argued with. Students who called me ma’am and asked me questions. Those who promise they will write to me, and those who forgot me as I walked past.  Every person who met my eyes and smiled or frowned or cried.

You are the ability to interact with all these people. To say hello and start my explanation one more time—from America, mother’s Indian, grandparents live in Mumbai, learning Hindi, teaching English and science, and what’s your name?—or just sit down nearby and watch. You are the frustrating moments too—heat, sickness, loneliness—and how I discovered I could get over, make light of, or learn from them. You are responsibility, for myself and for others. And after pushing me to do something new, you are the joy of successes, small and large. I found a drum. I make a round chapatti. I taught a class. You are independence, a driving, teaching force in your seeming uncaring.

As I look around, Banaras, I see that your entity is actually an entirety—the river, the people, the buildings, the cows. You are dirty and you are clean; you are holy and crazy and beautiful. The heat, the bugs, even tourists like me, every one of them adds a ripple, some reflection, a single drop to your holy water. I am not the city, but I am for a brief moment, a part of the city, just as a drop of water flows through the river. And the cool thing about water is it doesn’t really disappear. It moves, it changes, even leaves… but some monsoon storm it comes back, different and yet once again there.

in Mumbai

My only real symptom is that I’m tired. I’ve got my appetite back, I don’t have a fever, and I never turned yellow. Really I would feel totally healthy, if I weren’t so tired.

I’m also a little disappointed, though I try not to be. Bad enough that I missed the first month of my program waiting for my ankle to heal, but now instead of heading off to Ladakh I have to sit and wait for my liver to heal! But luckily this time I am not sitting miserably killing days at home; instead I’m at my grandparents’ house in Mumbai. And hep E, while annoying, is not threatening, chronic, or very long-term, so hopefully I’ll get to have at least a few minor adventures of my own while I’m in the city. Right now the most I can manage is going to one place or meeting one relative each day, and mostly I just sleep and eat and sit and sleep and eat and sleep some more.

People here tell me it’s hot, and I think they’re probably right. But after the beating sun and dry, scorching winds of Banaras, Mumbai weather feels pretty nice. It’s cool in the morning and evening, and there’s this strong breeze off the ocean that I find really refreshing. Every day I happily throw open my windows to greet the sun and wind, only to have them blown back shut in my face. Then I more slowly open one side at a time, and latch them to the sill so they’ll stay.

My clothes have caused people here some confusion. Since I didn’t bring many western clothes when I came to India, most of my outfits are proper salvar-kurta-dupatta sets I bought in Banaras. They’re comfortable and cool, and were the appropriate thing to wear there. But for cosmopolitan Mumbai, they seem very old-fashioned and dowdy. People I meet are surprised to hear I’m from America because I don’t dress like it.

I’ve also been struggling a little with the perception people here have of Banaras. While some people tell me with a laugh that I saw “the real India,” as if Mumbai were somehow just a Bollywood creation, many classify my city as “backward” or “dirty” without a second thought. They praise me for the fortitude they think it must have taken to spend time there, but don’t really understand why I would have wanted to.

I like Mumbai, the breeze and architecture and convenience. But I miss Banaras. I miss the ghats, the blaring street music, the smiles of strangers. Sometimes I even miss the cows, but that may be excessive nostalgia. Mostly I miss my friends there, and the independence and purpose I had. Guess it’s time for me to start finding a little independence and purpose here now. At least once I stop sleeping 14 hours a day.

a note on bracelets

Before I left Banaras, we had a small ceremony where each of us tied simple bracelets around all the others wrists with a thought or little prayer. The green one from my group leader slipped of en route to the airport, but she retied it for me as we got out of the car. Throughout the afternoon and evening the cords were constantly coming loose and slipping off, and though I retied them the best I could, by the next morning only one bright orange thread was still hanging on.

When even that one finally gave up, I spread all five out on my bed and glared at them petulantly. I really wanted to have these bright bracelets—and the goodwill and comfort they carried—with me as a constant pick-me-up. But they were too slippery to stay tied on. .

With a little thought and more dexterity than I knew I had, I managed to braid them together at both ends, and I am happy to report that the resulting bracelet stays nicely on my wrist. Just one more analogy reminding that we really are stronger together.

Hope you all are doing well—I miss you a lot, but every time I look at my splash of color I think of you with a smile. Thanks.

saying goodbye

I’d decided I was too tired to cry. Saying goodbye to friends, our wonderful cook, even my homestay family, I didn’t shed a drop. I was sad, yes, I missed them already, yes. But tears? none. I could barely get through the day, so I figured I just didn’t have the energy needed to hold that level of emotion, and that I’d deal with it later.

Saturday morning my students came to school to say goodbye to me. We met in the library and I showed them the full series of The Magic Tree House and The Chronicles of Narnia (I’d read the first books of each of these with my 5th and 7th grade students, respectively). Each one of the 5th graders grabbed a Magic Tree House book out and sat down to flip through it. I sat and talked to them all a bit, explained where I was going and why and how I was getting there (none of them have ever seen an airplane).

We went outside and they played for a while on the asphalt “field,” the bus, and a brightly painted play structure, which Shubham told me was a library like the magic tree house. When they found that the play structure shifted back and forth a little on its supports, Pradyum said “The treehouse started to spin. It spun faster and faster,” quoting from the book we’d read.

I’d told them I had to go at 9:30, and we counted down the time together and tried to drag it out. Finally I took a picture with all of them, and spent a few minutes talking to the wonderful principal there. Then I traded a last goodbye and handshake with each of them, and promised once more that I would write to them, that I’d miss them, and I’d try very hard to come back someday. And then there was nothing left to do but leave.

As I walked through that bright green and blue gate some tears finally forced their way through the numbness and exhaustion, and I stood in the sun and dust for a moment and wept.

I can’t explain how much my students mean to me, how they’ve been my teachers and friends as well. How so many of my days and so much of my thoughts have been about them, time spent on lesson plans or test papers or explaining or questioning or writing, all for them and about them. I can’t tell you what it’s like to say goodbye to people you care about that much knowing you may never meet them again, may never even talk to them again. I guess it’s one of those things that either you understand or you don’t. I think most of you will understand, and also know what I mean when I say that these kids, my first class, have truly changed something in me, and I won’t ever, ever forget them.

I am so proud of you.

At school we had a big fair with performances by all the students; the theme of the fair was “The Future.” For my younger class we discussed the future in relationship to many of our science topics, but I decided that in my English class of 5th and 7th graders it would be useful and interesting for them to spend some time thinking, writing, and performing about their ideas for their own futures.

Two weeks ago I gave them prompts to write about their dreams and goals, from education to career to family. When I realized most of them were writing down random degrees they had heard of, I gave them homework to find out the meaning of the sets of letters, and decide which degrees they actually wanted for their hopeful careers. In  class we edited and expanded their ideas until each student had a paragraph or two he was happy with.

Pramod, one of my 7th graders, said he really wanted to be a doctor, but had no idea which studies were involved. I assigned him some extra work: to talk to a local doctor and find out what degrees and studies he had done. Pramod originally protested, saying he was too shy to talk to a doctor, but he came to class two days later with a full paragraph constructed from the notes he’d taken. He told me he’d gone to the doctor’s office three times until the doctor had time to talk to him, and found out all about which degrees a doctor needed, how long the studies were, and what the degrees actually meant. As he explained the progression to me, he spoke with the confident understanding that comes from information discovered personally.

I had them tackle the memorization of these passages one piece at a time, saying, “when you eat dinner do you put all the food in your mouth at once?” No Ma’am of course not. “Right. You take bites. So it’s the same thing. Piece by piece.” I assigned each student one clause at a time, and they had to write it 5 times, say it 20 times, say it backwards 5 times, and say it forwards again 10 times. They sat at their desks or wandered around the room repeating that clause, and when they thought they were ready they came to me. If they could say the clause and their speech up to that point properly I underlined their next clause and the whole work started again.

For three days our class was a constant mumble of voices as they worked hard at learning these passages; the background noise was frequently punctuated by excited students calling me over to hear how much they’d completed. I spent most of the class sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, and my kids would line up eager to rattle off their sentences.

We had one practice run with a small audience three days before the actual show, and at that time students who’d recited their whole speeches to me minutes before tripped over their words, forgot entire sentences, and even froze up completely on stage.

Afterwards they all came to me upset.

“I know my speech, ma’am,” Kamlesh, the student who had completely frozen, told me, “but then my heart is going like this—” he hit his chest rapidly with his hand.

“It’s okay,” I told all of them. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I know you know your speeches.”

I was interrupted by a chorus of worried “but ma’am” protests. They were all really upset with themselves.

“But,” I continued a little louder, “you got nervous on stage. That’s o.k. Everyone gets nervous sometimes. Really truly it’s okay. Do I look angry? No. You all—ALL—did a good job. And we will practice more and more, and everyone will do better and better.”

Kamlesh was still really worried.

“I will practice ma’am,” he said, “but I know when I say to you, but still…”

“Yes,” I told him and the rest of the class, thinking rapidly about how best to approach the stage fright issue, “I understand. That’s why tomorrow when we practice, we will also practice how to walk on and off stage, how to not be nervous, all of that. And we will talk about what to do with an audience. Okay? So, do you know what I want you to do tonight?”

I knew they were expecting homework speaking or writing or even illustrating their speeches, all of which we’d done. But right at that moment I decided a different tactic would be more helpful.

“I want you to relax. Your homework is not to worry about the speeches. Put it away, and don’t think about it, don’t worry about it. And tomorrow we will start learning how to do all these things—not be nervous, more hand gestures, everything. But tonight I want you to relax.”

The next day we started strong as I tried my best to give them tools to overcome stage fright. One at a time I helped students decide how they could add movement, hand gestures, and props to their words. From the city campus I brought a broken computer, medicine bottles, and costumes for them to use. Over and over I made them practice walking on stage, breathing, and smiling. I taught them to look steadily at one person’s forehead, so they weren’t scared by meeting people’s eyes and didn’t let their gaze wander distractingly. As they said their speeches to me I constantly tapped my finger on my forehead to bring their visual attention back and remind them to focus. They practiced in front of each other and their teachers.

On our last day of class we had rehearsal in the upstairs room where they would be performing. They all did fairly well, and I was especially proud of Kamlesh, who not only presented his speech nicely but also managed to do so over the younger students as they came in talking loudly. I told him if he could manage that feat, speaking to a quiet audience would be easy. Still, despite all the work and my praise, my students were not fully convinced they could do well in the performance.

On the night of the show Pramod and Kamlesh seemed happy, but couldn’t quite let go of their nervousness. I sent them to get dressed, then looked around for someone to tie their ties. Both Manoj sir and Vinay sir were busy, but the founder of the school, Nita Kumar, was happy to help. They were so intimidated by her that I had to guide them across the courtyard to where she was standing, promising that she would not bite their heads off.

Backstage all the students were incredibly nervous, some talking too much and others not talking at all. I walked over to the corner where they were and they grabbed my arms, trying to get my attention so they could practice their speeches one last time.

“Shh,” I tell them. “Breathe. You know your speeches, and I know you know them—just breathe.”

Priya took a huge gasping breathe and pretended she was setting the audience on fire with her exhale. They laughed a little. Again and again I told them to breathe; if I stopped they started getting all nervous again, so I stayed with them.

“Now tell me again, what do you do when you go on stage.”

“Breathe,” they told and showed me. “Smile.”

“And I look here,” said Pramod, tapping my forehead.

“Good. Breathe.”

When our group’s turn came they went out one at a time on stage. Priyanshu with his computer keyboard “I want to be a BIG man of India”; Sandeep “I will do doctor and police work. . . I will be happy in my life”; Pradyum, another computer engineer  “My family will live with me and I will have a child and then some of my family will not live with me”; Suruyabali “I will study bio science and be a doctor”; Saurabh “I will be an engineering doctor”; and Shubham, who begins by pretending to not notice the audience as he types on the computer “My children will be players or students? I think my children will study.”

Then it was time for my three 7th graders. Kamlesh was first; standing tall in his white clothes and tie, he really looked like the doctor he wants to become. “In hospital I will do operations which is very necessary. My mother and father support me, ‘you can do these things.’” He spoke clearly, his hand gestures understated but all remembered. He came back and looked at me.

“It was fine?” he asked.

I was beaming. “It was wonderful.”

Priya was next. Once shy and self-isolated in class, she has become so confident especially in her acting, and her speech was the most exhuberant, as she illustrated her words with big smiles and wide gestures. “I will teach small children Hindi, maths, English, and art. Sometimes I will also teach big children. . . . my family is very important to me. When I do wrong things, they will help to me to do my work.” We’d gone over that sentence many times every day, and while she still didn’t get it quite right, overall she did really well, and when she returned, I gave her well-earned praise.

Last was Pramod, who also looked very much like a kind and serious doctor. He took a breath and let it out with a nod before going on stage. His presentation was also amazingly done, every word correct, and I wondered if anyone in the audience knew how much the speech and information was  his own work.

After all the performances Pramod introduced me to his father, and I awkwardly spoke a few Hindi sentences of my student’s praise to the silent man.

“My father studied to 8th grade, but not English,” Pramod told me. “His sister studied to Interim, 10th or 1tth, and his brother my uncle studied to 11th grade interim.”

His voice spoke of the pride he has in his family’s education.

“And you?” I ask. “What class will you study until?”

“I will complete the courses of MD and MS to be a doctor,” he grins as he launches into his speech for the las time. “I will do the competition of MBBS. . . After studying I will work in a hospital. My family and my patients will be very important to me. All my patients will be like my family.”

As I told him then, I honestly believe he will do all this and more.

the performance at the village campus

On Sunday  I’m sitting in the Bread of Life Bakery with a group of friends trying to decide which of their delicious but too expensive entrees I want to order when I get the text. “Hi  we’ll leave for Betaver at 1.” This evening is the performance at the Nirman school in Betaver village, where I work. Teachers and students have been working extra for the past two weeks to make costumes, set up classrooms for a mini open house, and teach and learn multiple plays and speeches in Hindi and English. I  spent the day yesterday at the city campus helping run the event there,  which went really well, and tonight is even more important for me as my classes will be performing. The teachers who work at the  village campus had originally been planning to take a car there from the city campus at 2:30. I still need to eat, go home, shower, collect some final supplies, and take a cycle rickshaw to school; it’s 12:15 now.

“Oh man,” I tell my friends, “What do I do? We really don’t need to be there that early—why are we leaving so early? What do I do?”

Actually it’s kind of a stupid question, because I do exactly what I’d been planning and need to do, just much more quickly. I eat fast, spend 15 minutes getting  ready at home, and argue with a rickshaw driver who is convinced he knows better than I do where I actually want to go. I finally get to the city school at 1:20.

No one is ready yet, so I sit and discuss The Lord of the Rings with the other intern working at Nirman. We finally pile into the car at just about 2:30.

When we arrive at the village school I hop out ready to go. While I’ve always liked this place—from the view of the river to the smiles of the kids, it’s a welcoming environment—I feel the most confident I’ve ever been here, really thinking of the campus as my school, the 1st to 4th grade room as my classroom. I put the finishing touches on my classroom displays and help cut out letters for a sign we’re making.

More teachers, who work at the city campus, arrive on the bus, and my students start coming one by one. After a while, we start the process of getting them all dressed and ready for the show. These girls need help putting their saris on, those boys need to be given something to do, one kid is ready for makeup, the preschoolers need to be taken to the library, and two students need somewhere to change. I flow from one group of students to the next, never without some task. Show prep is a familiar scene for me, but for the first time I am the one directing this pre-performance drama. It’s crazy but I really enjoy creating order out of the chaos. My students trust me—I can tell them the order of the shows, find a way to get them whatever they need, bring them where they should be. For about an hour I am constantly moving from one side of the school to the other, upstairs and down. These girls need help putting their saris on, those boys need to be given something to do, one kid is ready for makeup, the preschoolers need to be taken to the library, and two students need somewhere to change. I flow from one group of students to the next, never without some task, and the whole time I try to exude the calm confidence I’m feeling.

After everyone is dressed and ready I go backstage, where I help keep children quiet, calm nerves, put on costumes, and watch my students perform. One at a time each group goes out and does a wonderful job, speaking clearly in Hindi or English and remembering everything we’ve practiced. I can’t stop beaming, and I tell each student just how proud I am.

“You are amazing!” I say over and over. “You did such a good job!”

“And me?” some ask. “Was my job good?”

“So so so good!” I tell them, spreading my arms wide to illustrate, and they smile back at me.

My pride in their hard work and successes is still filling me with joy almost a week later. I am so thankful to have had the chance to do this work, to help children perform on stage and share with them the energy and joy big events like this bring, and also to teach them every day and be even a small part of their lives.

falling with style

It’s hot, like 42 C hot. Don’t even want to think about what that means in Farenheight hot. “Pretend you’re on a tropical island,” my friend laughs. We’re in a cycle rickshaw and the wind is blowing dust into our eyes and mouths from multiple directions. I wrap my dupatta over my mouth and hold the end of it up to shield my eyes from the too-bright sun and flying dirt. Tropical island? I’m pretending I’m on a desert migration.

I scooch a little more toward the center of the rickshaw. I’m on the left side, and I feel a little unstable, like between my heavy backpack and the slippery seat I just might slide out. My friend and I keep talking about her work and the work she hopes to do there in our last month.

The rickshaw is yanked to a stop as it catches on the wheel of another stationary rickshaw. The rickshaw driver falls forward a bit but catches himself by holding on to the handlebars. My friend also takes a hard fall forward but falls onto the rickshaw driver, so she is safe although slightly embarrassed. I, on the other hand, am launched out to the side. I’m in motion long enough to observe my surroundings from the perspective of being in the air before I land on  my backpack like an upside-down turtle.

The Indian men on the side of the road looked on without much interest as my friend hurried to make sure I was okay, and I worried whether my camera was okay. Fortunately my backpack kept me from any injuries more serious than a few large bruises, and the books and magazines in my bag kept my camera from getting hurt. It all ended fine, but I still can’t figure out the physics of why I went the direction I did; I’ll draw a diagram for you all when I get home and you can help me sort it out.