This morning, I wake up, make coffee, hop aboard the FB train and look. I look because people are sharing their news, showing pictures, posting articles and opinions. I enjoy it for the most part and also think about how open and honest people can be. Essentially inviting a wealth of people to view some part of themselves that they feel ok about sharing. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years myself. I’ve shared my stories about my life, my work, my vacations, my opinions and opportunities.
It’s a lot to put out there, if someone were to sit down and organize my thoughts I wonder what it would say? Probably some vague posts, but also some thoughtful (I hope).
Today I share something I’ve been holding on to. Today is my last day at the detention center. I’ve been working there for a full 9 years, and I definitely have mixed emotions about leaving. I think it’s a good decision for me, because I want to do something different, and I also feel the need to re-calibrate myself personally and professionally. Maybe people will find that funny, but I’ve spent 10 years being associated with the detention center, and I’ve put my all into every single day of working there. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have led me to some other pretty fantastic experiences. However, the experience of working there is taxing on most who spend a significant amount of time there.
I don’t want to downplay the stressful environment, because it truly is one of the most challenging places to teach. It’s not just because of the kids, but also the type of place, the potential for aggression and the constant barrage of verbiage that comes out of mouths. There are always noises. Constant motion, and an underlying current of anxiety. One of the most anxious parts of my day occurs every 50 minutes. When a class ends, I have to round up all the art supplies by myself, count them all, and put them away. Everyday I count markers, pencils, color pencils, erasers, fine point markers, paint brushes, scissors, rulers, stencils, and many other kinds of supplies. I clearly don’t think my students should be limited in the act of art making. True, I could limit their choices more, and leave out one pencil for each students, and give them one marker at a time to use. But I have always felt that it’s ineffective and takes way too much time from the short class period we already have.
The decision to leave didn’t come easy to me. And some might say I waited too long, or some might say too soon. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been a part of something that taught me a lot about myself. Everyday was like staring into a big mirror and seeing a reflection of things I didn’t like inside myself, that were too painful for me to deal with on my own. Working there was the biggest education for me, even though I was the teacher. I am not sure if some of the students recognized that or not. Every chance I got, I told them,” You are my teacher too.” I would often see so many students rise above the daily challenges, the trauma they have incurred, the barriers they had to overcome, the recognition of their faults just by the virtue of being placed in a detention home. How many people do you know are forced to take responsibility for their actions on a daily basis? How many people do you know deliberately avoid and overlook their own shortcomings in the world and keep on moving? I’m sure we can count ourselves sometimes.
The fact is, yes, my students are there by court order, many of them have done unspeakable things, and many have done things only a teenager could be in trouble for. Many of them come from circumstances that we would never understand or be able to recognize. Some go to great lengths to cover up their circumstances and are constantly trying to show that “everything is ok”, or they’re “in control”. We know that’s not the case.
So the daily challenge becomes- what can you do now? All students are not the same, each of them require a lot of different kinds of services, interactions, accommodations and treatment. All of them carry with them individual habits, predispositions, interests, histories that we may uncover or not. Many students have realized the opportunity that education could change their course and station in their current life. In school, they get our undivided attention, working with teachers who care and will not let them give up, or allow them to see alternatives to the path they have previously chosen. Many struggle with letting that control go, and hold up that heavy wall of protection for themselves. It can be extremely hard to keep up, by the way. However, there are holes in that wall. Some of which start to crumble, but some of which they begin to tear down themselves. They become vulnerable and open. Sometimes, they flail around because they may have never had such opportunities or people who care about them and want to support them. Or, maybe they’ve realized they have already wasted some opportunities like this.
And maybe that is one of the difficult things for me. It has take a lot of patience to get to the student, creating a lot of access points to interest the student in doing something, and also being ready when the moment happens. But, when it does, it is rewarding. For everyone.
When I started teaching, I really had no direction, or goal of teaching in a particular kind of school, in a particular kind of setting. I actually started out as a Social Studies teacher in a tough school in Albuquerque. I too, flailed around to see where my feet would land, and it landed at the detention center. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on the education side and detention side. I’ve learned about hard work and dedication by being in their presence and observing how my co-workers interacted with the students. I learned that you have to collaborate, you have to ask for help, you too— have to be vulnerable and willing to fail, and willing to get back up, go to work, and try again. Most importantly, you need to be you. Authentic, real, and compassionate. Towards yourself and others.
I never knew all of what my students were attempting to overcome, or battle with, but it never really mattered to me in some ways. They needed me to guide them, be supportive of them when they needed it, and offer them an environment where they could flourish in the midst of chaos. If they were willing, they came along on that journey with me.
There is a popular saying that people use, often under difficult circumstances, but it all rings true to me. It encompasses non-judgment, compassion, and empathy: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
The major highlight of being involved with NalandaWay Foundation was being able to attend, observe and help facilitate an arts camp called Kanavu Pattarai (dream workshop). The purpose of the camp is to immerse youth in community building strategies. By using arts based and mindfulness practices, Kanavu Pattarai camps educate and train diverse communities to create responsible children who are expressive and positive in their choices.
Before we arrived at the camp for this session, our group stopped along to visit some other groups at some different schools who had already experienced Kanavu Pattarai in previous sessions. The kids had recalled what they learned, shared with us the art and skits they created during camp. I even got to facilitate some group yoga practices. What a treat!
The best part for me was being able to interact with the kids, and noticing how receptive they were to my presence and trusting me to guide them through some poses. What a warm reception and some stand out, unforgettable moments.
Here is a glimpse of some of the students I met, the schools I visited, and what they shared with us:
You never know what kind of driver will pick you up when you use Ola. Most are not very talkative, but others talk your ear off, or ask you copious amounts of questions. Many are truly just focused on getting the customer from point “A” to point “B”, no matter what. This driver is one of my favorites. He seemed really happy when he picked me up. Greeted me with a nice smile and turned on the meter quickly and without question. On this day, the traffic was light, there was slight breeze, and everything seemed right about the world.
I was busy looking at my phone to follow along on google maps when I noticed his whistling. It made me so happy. At first I just listened, but then I felt the urge to capture his the joy he shared with me. I hope you smile.
It was definitely a nice retreat to stay in Kerala for a few days. It was extremely cool, quiet, and fresh. We had great meals everyday, and had a very leisurely time. We played games, ate food, walked around and basically felt like we were taken care of. The quietness can be shocking after being in the city for a time. I was used to the city traffic and constant hum. However, once you refocus your senses to listen to the natural settings of the babbling brook, the bird calls, the monkey knocking at your door (really, they did), you then begin to feel like yourself again.
As I keep going through my pictures for this blog, I realize that I’m really only half way through. I took so many pictures, probably too many. But it was all in an effort to remember, and even feel what it was like to be there. Let’s face it, I am a visual person. I like looking at things. I definitely remember telling myself to stop taking pictures and to just be in the moment and to pay attention to the present. That’s really hard for me when there’s so much to look at. I guess that is a failure of technology, in a sense. We can use it to remember things for us, when we should actually be remembering the time we spent doing, being, and living. I do love taking pictures, but I also know it’s important to step away from the camera lens, to just let whatever happens, happen. I love that I can capture moments, or observe something in a different way with a camera. That’s exactly it’s job, because even then, you can alter what others see. Your first edit is deciding what you are taking a picture of. I don’t alter my photos much, I usually just leave them the way they are. That is also giving that environment, that moment, that object, that person a particular point of view. These pictures are a view of what I saw, what I wanted to remember, but it’s definitely not the way it was or is.
The long awaited break came when a friend visited me from her teaching post in China. She came to Chennai and then we took the bus to and from Pondicherry. After that, we flew to Kerala. We didn’t do the typical trip of going on a river house boat, or going down south. We went for the cool air, the breeze, and to coexist with the beautiful green forest way up on the mountains. There we took a few hikes, a yoga class, chatted, had a massage played games, and watched some cultural performances. Maybe it was just what we needed to get a way from the hustle and bustle of the cities both of us had been living in. One thing for sure, is that I want to get back to Kerala and experience all the other amazing historical offerings and more of the beautiful landscape that makes up this huge state. The food was good, the people were welcoming, and the air was fresh.
After my experience at Auroville the very first time, of course I told everyone about it. So when people came to visit me, I had to take them to at least see it. So on the second and third trips I took my good camera and got some better shots that were closer to the Matrimandir. Still think it’s one of those amazing experiences that will live with me forever. I still can’t get over being inside the Matrimandir and how quiet it was inside.
Serenity Beach is outside of Pondicherry. By auto it takes about 1/2 hour. You zoom through the town and it takes you out towards Auroville. The beach is a welcoming sight for the traveler who just needs some peace. You can watch the fishermen bring in the fish, take a walk, and soak in the sights. There are some cute little cafes to stay cool in and have some awesome beach snacks. I actually really enjoyed the tofu burger and french fries at the What’s Up Cafe. They also have amazing lime sodas. You can sit back relax, take a surf class, or do absolutely nothing, and just watch the day pass you by.
One day I was walking to work and I came upon a woman and her son creating a rice powder drawing in front of their store. I asked the woman if I could take a picture and video, and she smiled giving me the ok. Like I’ve mentioned before, Kolam is commonly practiced in South India, and on any given day you walk right by them. I had many opportunities to take pictures but hadn’t have many chances to catch it in a video.
I’m in the final days of my Fulbright experience and I’m trying to figure out what to write here. This blog has been a non-blog for so long and I really feel guilty about it. But, also out of practice. What can I write here that will make sense of what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been seeing, and what I’ve been experiencing. Surely I will need time to think about all of those things. A co-worker, here in India said to me,” Why didn’t you write more? You’ll think differently when you get home.” She’s right. I will write more, but the posts I make back at home in retrospect will not be ones in the moment, it will be based on memory. It will be a different kind of post with a different mindset. I guess that’s why I feel guilty.
So maybe I’ll just start writing, and we’ll see where this all goes. As this is my final post for my time IN India, I feel like I should kind of sum up my experience and what it has meant to me to be here.
When I first arrived, everything seemed new and different to me, I was experiencing a lot of firsts. First auto ride, first haggling, first dosa, first shopping experience, first meetings of new friends and co-workers (who have become my friends), first festivals, first temples, first western meal after eating a lot of South Indian food (hahaha), first filter coffee and burning my fingers, first service apartment room (then second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth… won’t miss that), first conversation with wuto drivers, first random acts of kindness, first email from home, first face-time, first whatsapp, first tea from tea stand, first coconut water, first raw mango, first business lunch (and at least 100 more), first bus ride, first train ride, first phone snatching, first return of phone snatching, first police station visit, first coffee at Cafe Coffee Day, first friend, first art class, first Tanjore painting, first time getting sick, first visit to a park…
And so many other firsts, that are probably even more important than the ones I wrote here, but, it will come later…in fact I’m thinking of some now, but they will require pictures.
The truth is, I’ve been overwhelmed by firsts, because I wanted to try and do as much as I could. This is experience has been my own making, but guided by the fact that I knew I’d be here for four short months. And it’s true, some of the time seemed to go so very slowly, but most of the time I was kept very busy. There were moments where I had missed home greatly, but I’ve seriously never doubted for a moment that this is where I wanted to be. In fact, on my last day of work my friend said to me, “I think you might be Indian.”. She went on to say she had expected someone different before I showed up. She never thought that I would take such a strong interest in trying to fit in to the culture. She never expected me to take to the food and and customs of South Indian life. I told her, “What else would I do? I love India!”
And it’s true. I love India. I do believe there is something about the cultures, the strength of the people I’ve come across, the ingenuity and history of the sub-continent, the richness and heritage of all that makes India. Such a vast, wonderful, enticing country. I’ve still only seen a fraction.
The one thing I dislike about leaving a place like this is I often feel that I’ve only begun understanding certain aspects of the culture, day to day living, spirituality, and people. I feel that I will be leaving with many more questions. My thirst for wanderlust keeps going, if I know this part now, then how will I know more next? What can I do that will take me back to India again and again? What are the next steps into making sure that I keep up with all the people I’ve met here?
The answer. Stay connected. It’s easy to say sometimes, and hard to do. I expect to be overwhelmed a little bit when I get back to the US. I have new opportunities to investigate, new ventures to start, but there is also the part where I have to get back to my own way of life and navigating my daily life. Some of it will seem to be mundane, I’m sure. However, I also think there will be some re-entry culture shock. You see, I’m not returning home as the same person. I will be effected by what my experiences have been here. How can it not be? Experiences shape who we are. We may not notice the effects quickly, but they are there. I’ve made a whole lot of promises to myself to do this, or to do that, but the truth is, over time we’ll see what happens.
There are a few lessons I’ve learned while being away:
I can communicate to get my needs met. When left to my own devices, I can make it on my own. I can figure out how to meet my basic needs, and then some. I have the ability to navigate a culture that isn’t my own, without use of local languages. Many people here do have some working knowledge of English, but I only relied on the mutual understanding of simple words and numbers. And really, that’s sometimes all you need. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not how many words we know, it’s how we can effectively communicate with the words…and gestures help too.
I can be patient and wait. This is a fact of life anywhere in the world. Your mom always says,” Be patient”, and she’s right. Many times I just had to remind myself of that wisdom when waiting for something to happen, because in most cases it will. It’s important to make time for time. There is this funny sign in Pondicherry that says,” Give time a break”. It’s become a joke among me and my Fulbright friends. BECAUSE it’s so true. Wait –Things will work out. Wait– before responding. Wait — it will change. Not everything needs to be in a rush all the time, and not everything needs an answer right away. IF we can learn to be patient with ourselves, imagine what can come when we “give time a break”.
I can be open. I am open to many different kinds of experiences. I really am. I found myself doing things I wouldn’t normally do back home for a variety of reasons. Usually we may close ourselves off from experiences and ideas out of fear or being uncomfortable. It’s important to acknowledge feelings, but it’s also important to act on some of those feelings. When I first came here, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know where to walk, where to ride, or how to get places. The uncertainty of it all scared me a little. BUT- I knew I would be living here for the next four months. I had to get out and see what was out there. So what did I do? I walked. I was jet lagged, tired, overcome by heat and pollution. BUT- I walked. I made a huge circle in the Nungambakkam area of Chennai. And let me tell you, it WAS overwhelming. But it broke the ice. Nothing bad happened. I know that sometimes I can hold myself back at home– fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear that I’ll fail myself. But the truth is, if I don’t get out there and be open to the possibilities (good or bad) I can’t learn anything.
I can let people help me. I am someone who likes to rely on herself. No doubt about it. It can be very challenging for me to accept help from others, even when I know I need it. I have been trying to learn that it’s ok to need help and accept help from others. It is not a personal failure. There were a few times in India where I needed help. I wanted to come off strong and independently minded, but the truth is, I couldn’t have made it through this experience without the kindness and strength of other people. In my classroom I even tell students that each of us have a variety of strengths, so why is it so difficult for me to follow my own lessons? Because we all have that voice inside our heads, and mine usually says,”I can do it myself.” Well, I’m learning that even though I think that, it’s not always the case. In fact, there are many instances when I’ve accepted the kindness of strangers on this trip, including just last week, when my phone was stolen. People came up to me (about 30) and asked if I was ok. Then another man came up to me and immediately pulled out his laptop and help me turn on “find my iphone” ap. I also experienced this kind of help when I first got here to help me find housing. People who I didn’t even know were offering me help to find a place to live! I can accept help, people who are just like me are offering it because they can offer it, not because I failed.
I can connect with others. I know I’m an outsider looking in when I’m here in Chennai. Most people think I’m a tourist, or hanging out in between flights to somewhere else. But, I think the people I see regularly and interact with realize that I am here to build personal and cultural connections. They realize that I want to be a part of their lives, just as I want them to be a apart of mine in someway. Maybe it just starts with being considerate and acknowledging each other with greetings, but there have been several instances where a greeting turned into a friendship. One of the most profound examples I have of that is going to the same coffee shop almost everyday. For months I had been going a Cafe Coffee Day in Anna Nagar, and I had always seen this woman there working, reading, or something. BUT, we never talked. Until about 6 weeks ago, I got back from my trip and we both just said hello to each other. That exchange led to many conversations over coffee each morning and now we are friends. She is someone who I instantly connected with as soon as we started talking to each other. I can’t believe it took us 2 months to start talking. But it doesn’t matter, because we did. Building connections is what I think travel and education is all about. It’s the main reason we’re all alive and living together on this earth. To have a personal connection with someone is to learn to understand the similarities and differences between ourselves, to accept change and foster new ideas, to reach a level of awareness that we’re all here on earth trying to connect in some way.
I can just try. If I don’t try, nothing will happen. If I do– the possibilities are innumerable.
I can give myself a break when I need one. There were definitely times when I felt overwhelmed by aspects of this experience. It could have been the research, the pressure of the Fulbright, or the project I was to complete, or even the day to day life. Sometimes, you need to treat yourself, find a way to get away from it all, or just find something small in your day that is familiar and makes you happy. For me, that was having Western food every once in a while. I do LOVE Indian food, but some times I really craved the familiarity of a waffle, or pretzels. Many times I forced that on my co-workers by bringing in treats from the United States. There were a lot of jokes made about my eating habits at work. And that’s fine! I didn’t have a way to cook, but my co-workers would share their lunches with me everyday! At times I felt so guilty that I would try to make some contribution to your lunch by bringing in nuts, pretzels, dried cranberries, chocolate. It became such a joke that my mentor called it “nuts and bolts” of lunch. But, I needed those items in my life, and I wanted to make some kind of contribution to their lunch, since they were so kind and willing to give me some of theirs. (And everything they shared was soooo good)
I can be an outsider looking in, and its ok. I was pretty confident that I would be able to share what I knew about art education in the United States when I got here, but I was unsure about how I was going to try to share all of my ideas. Well, I got over that as soon as I was asked to create a workshop for my co-workers at NalandaWay. It was good that it happened quickly, it was kind of like how you’re supposed to remove a band aid. QUICKLY! I jumped right in and got to work as soon as I got to Chennai. Within a week I was planning a full day workshop, which led to a lot of other opportunities to work within NalandaWay. I helped navigate some of their research to create additional modules for their projects and also create my curriculum for art and yoga. However, it also opened me up to what I didn’t know. I hadn’t learned much about art education in India and the role non-profits play in providing arts programming to schools in need before I came here. Almost ALL schools need the arts programming in India, and NalandaWay is working hard to provide meaningful engagement. But, what was my role? What could I contribute to this organization to help modify their program and to meet the needs of children in India. I was very curious about how a westerner like me could understand the variety of needs. However, I was lucky enough to visit schools, and learn about the structure of schools, how classes are taught, and just how a school day runs. This provided me with a lot of perspective and understanding about how the school day works and how teachers and students interact. Acknowledging what I didn’t know helped me to adjust my role and step back. In this way, I could be open to learning about the developing social and emotional needs of children here, their school infrastructure and education, as well as arts foundation and cultural needs. Sometimes it’s good to be the outsider, because people want you to see and know what’s happening.
Give a little, and then give some more. No matter where I have been on this journey, I’ve always learned that you can give. It doesn’t really matter what you’re giving as long as it’s something. For me, that took on many forms. No one can doubt the existence of poverty in India. It’s staggering to come right off the plane and wake up the next morning to find that wherever you go, whatever you’re doing there will be someone in need. In critical need. From the beggars on the street, to people who have very low paying jobs, to the school that have very little infrastructure, to the servers at western restaurants, to the restroom cleaners, to the hotel staff. I have given financially, I’ve given food, I’ve given kindness, I have given conversation, I have given smiles, I have given pictures, I have given clothes, I have given water. But nothing compares to what I have been given. For every thing that I have given, people have given me back more than I could ever imagine. Being a stranger in this country is pretty obvious. But I have never met a population of people where kindness is the main tenant of life. I have witnessed so many random acts of kindness on almost every street I have walked or ridden on. I have seen people literally pick people up from a dangerous predicament. If I’ve learned anything in India, it is that giving doesn’t take away from a person, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t take much. We can all afford to give– whatever it means, whatever definition you subscribe to. People will accept what you give and often return that favor times 10.
I can take many pictures, and write down many things, but nothing will compare to the memories and pictures that live within the walls of my head, the emotions I’ve felt along the way or time that I spent with people. Those are the only true things that exist. From now on, everything will be a slightly different story, based on memory, based on past experiences, based on the time I spent. The moments have passes and have shaped and created new knowledge, but it is not only based on experiences and not the present. I hope that even though I will continue to write and remember, that I can stay as true as possible to how it was, and not how it seems.
So those are a few lessons learned. I hope to share many more when I return as I settle back in to my “regular” life. India is an amazing place to live, see and wander. I will be back and I cannot wait. I am going to miss living in Chennai. I’m going to miss my hot commute and regular coffee at Cafe Coffee Day. I’m going to miss my “business” lunch, and all my co-workers and friends who have made my experience so unforgettable. I’m going to miss shopping in my neighborhood to get my fruits from the fruit stand, and the man at the local corner shop where I get my water. I’m going to miss chatting with the Auto guys who tell me their political view and talk about American politics or all the places they can name in America. I’m going to miss walking around and people randomly starting conversations just because they want to show off how much English they know. I’m going to miss the smiles and the friendly children who wave to me as we’re stuck in traffic or passing each other on the street. Chennai will be in my heart, it’s left it’s imprint… and it’s deep.