sipping happiness & brewing joy

 

“Joy is a byproduct of a life well lived. It’s much bigger than happiness.”

-The Book of Joy

 

Supposedly, Millennials “over-index” on career as a determinant of their happiness (The Happify Study). That’s why the topic for this blog is happiness.

 

Does my career affect my happiness? Absolutely.

 

We grew up in a culture that’s often characterized as a rat-race. As humans, we’ve been socialized to enjoy doing well, whether it’s good grades or praise from your managers.
And to be honest, being productive and creating results contributes to my happiness, and failures make me upset. It’s only natural, but I don’t necessarily view either of these drawbacks. After all, if failure didn’t bother me, how would I be incentivized to get better?

 

Not doing well can serve as an extremely effective wake-up call. When I wasn’t doing as well as I would have liked in a linear algebra class, and I only had one more exam to turn things around, I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for it, and ended up getting the highest score in the class. I’m confident I wouldn’t have been able to do so had I been more complacent.

 

Similarly, as a teacher, I constantly saw students I could be serving better. And while the endless number of things you can do as a teacher is sometimes disheartening, it also pushed me to towards the vision we had for our class: to become Seekers. We kept working towards our goals, using our mistakes as learning experiences and undeniably improving week by week. Even though we failed and even though my happiness in the classroom was contrasted deeply with more negative emotions, I think I was still largely full of joy in those two years.

 

I thought about this a lot as I finished reading The Book of Joy. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu tried to distill joy into eight pillars: perspective, humility, humor & laughter, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.

 

Largely, they’re great categories and I found them incredibly applicable to my own life. On different days, you might need a certain pillar more than another. Yet, what I found to be the missing link in these pillars was that none of them would bring you joy without meaningful relationships.

 

While I was never introverted, this was one of the most fundamental realizations I had as a teacher. Even on days that found me crying on the bus to school, as soon as the first student saw me, everything changed.

 

It wasn’t as if I had to pretend to be okay. I was okay. Seeing them reminded me that I was somebody’s role model. That there were a hundred children who looked up to me, who expected me to help them learn. The purpose gave me strength. The relationships gave me joy.

 

One of my students, Shivam, inadvertently showed me how powerful this can be. I had scolded him that day because of his rudeness to the two girls sitting next to him. He had become glum and sulked for the entire class period, choosing to ignore most of my lesson. But he saw me at a nearby vendor as he was walking home from school and immediately smiled, waved, and said “Bye, Didi! (older sister)” That simple gesture became ingrained in my memory and taught me a crucial lesson. What he had done was forgive, but the reason this made us both happy was that we had a meaningful relationship we invested in and cultivated.

 

So maybe I do over-index my happiness on career. But I’m not chronically unhappy because that’s different; my joy lies elsewhere. Applying and practicing the eight pillars will help increase the joy in my life, but what makes my life joyful are the relationships I treasure and hold close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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foregone profits and what we choose instead

Last weekend, I was asking a friend about her experience at one of the most competitive, well-respected research institutions. For six months, she had led a project focused on leveraging private sector influence to fund innovation in developing countries. In my last blog, I discussed how millennials are choosing career paths that are “activist” in some sense of the word. And yet, even though she is passionate about entrepreneurship, my friend decided not to pursue the role because “there was not enough opportunity for professional development.”

 

Other friends and I nodded in understanding. Her rationale made perfect sense to us. In fact, 76 percent of millennials prefer “a more creative, inclusive culture rather than an authoritarian, rules-based work approach” (2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey). But this seems so obvious to those of us in the midst of it, guiding our whole life by opportunities that bolster our potential for growth.

 

When I was a senior in college, I had the choice between deferring for two years to join Teach for India or working in consulting immediately following graduation. I gave up a substantial salary for two years because I knew the learning alone from TFI was worth the opportunity cost, without even taking into account the potential impact I would have on my students or any of the other positive externalities.

 

Even the decision to return to consulting after TFI was based largely on considerations of professional development. If I am to contribute meaningfully in education, I felt I needed the skills I would acquire in consulting. I wanted to hone my ability to think strategically, distill insights, communicate effectively, and convince stakeholders and partners.

 

The word I go back to is “impact.” I want to create a positive impact for the stakeholders I choose to work with. But before I can do that, I need to make myself into an individual who has the skills to create change.

 

Part of this mindset is societal. It is common for millennials to stay in school longer. More millennials have college degrees than any other generation at comparable life stages. Post-graduate degrees have become an implicit expectation in many industries and circles. Graduate school enrollment amongst 18 to 34-year-olds increased from 2.8 percent in 1995 to 3.8 percent in 2010, which represents a 35 percent increase.

 

Although formal education and degrees are crucial ways to gain knowledge, I strongly believe learning can be found in most experiences, interactions, and jobs. That being said, there are definitely some job prospects and organizations that lend themselves more easily to personal growth and development. As I seek to develop myself for now, I prioritize those experiences. In a few years, I believe I will shift my priorities towards impact over learning, while continuing to seek learning from all experiences.

 

disenchantment and remedy

Last November, as people struggled to understand the unexpected outcome of the American election, some found solace in the fact that if you filter the election map for those aged 18-35, the US turns blue. Still, only roughly 50 percent of eligible young voters went to the polls (well below the expected turnout of 58 percent) and even amongst those who did, 8 percent voted for third-party candidates.

 

Does this imply that millennials are less interested or will be less involved in politics and activism? Not truly, but those words do need to be examined a little more closely.

 

People do not stop caring about issues that affect the world around them – no matter how selfish the media might portray the generation to be. In fact, one of the positive byproducts of millennials’ belief in their own “specialness” is a sense of agency. Because millennials have been raised to have the highest expectations of themselves, have been told time and again they are special and they can do whatever they want (and whether this is good or not is a discussion for another time), they have strong sense of agency and do in fact try to change their world.

 

Arguably, one of the hallmarks of our generation is a new version of “armchair activism”, which manifests itself in the sharing of articles and discussions with like-minded friends on social media. We applaud Jimmy Kimmel for talking about access to healthcare and denounce Pepsi advertisements that don’t do justice to significant political movements from the confines of our smartphones. There are both merits and drawbacks to this awareness, as it comes with a deep-seated conviction in your own beliefs without engaging the other. Coupled with a sense of agency though, I believe that it has created a generation that is more willing to follow through upon their beliefs.

 

We may not self-identify as activists, because often elicits the image of a picketing protester. But many millennials are more likely to choose careers that match our passions – whether it is sustainability, feminism, healthcare, education, or something else. For many people, activism isn’t a “hobby” or volunteer activity, but rather it’s their life. The change doesn’t have to be dramatic, but can be a simple choice like switching from investment banking to impact investing. From glancing over a global brick-and-mortar retailer because you’re more interested in sustainable fashion.

 

Personally, my purpose is “impact” and my chosen means to get there is bettering education. How can I spend my life making school more fulfilling, more practical, and more equitable for all children? My career trajectory is motivated by the inequity rife across all nations and a belief that I have a role to play in changing the status quo.

 

It would be foolish to believe that I am representative of the millions in my generation, or that my generalizations carry any more merit than the sensationalized media portrayals of the lazy millennials seeking instant gratification. I don’t know whether our generation is more or less likely to be politically involved, motivated, or activist compared to previous generations. But I do think that definitions evolve with time, and as the world around us changes, so should the connotations associated with language. For many millennials, activism is no longer an “activity”, but rather a life-long choice that seeks to mesh together a fulfilling career and meaningful life.

rising temperatures & cold actions

When I moved from Mumbai to Boston this June, one of my biggest apprehensions was the brutal New England winter. However, there have been multiple “winter” weekends (including this past one) where I’ve been able to walk around sans jacket. And while this is great news for my cold-hating bones, I wonder if it’s yet another side-effect of much more sinister climate changes. According to NASA, two of the three warmest average January temperatures have been in the past two years.

 

Global warming, whatever the current administration may choose to say, is an undeniable fact. The question is not whether it will affect us, but rather what can we – as a world of different nations, as nations of millions of people – do to mitigate its effects?

 

In teaching, as in parenting, adults should remember to lead by example. Children will not practice what you preach, but what you do.

 

Similarly, there’s a strange tension between the developed world powers who seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions post-industrialization, and developing countries who often believe they do not have the resources to develop without polluting the environment the way larger countries did.

 

Unfortunately, greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for ages. Emissions to date will already impact climate over the next several decades or even hundreds of years.

 

And yet, it’s one of those problems we refuse to tackle head-on because it’s too big, and too hard. Some choose to become ostriches, burying their heads, refusing to acknowledge the issue. Others push it to the back of their minds, because they have more pressing everyday concerns. Still others take small steps towards cutting their personal carbon footprint, but believe the larger commitments needs to come from larger players, like nations, industries, and other large pollutants.

 

I don’t know the balance between how much power lies with countries and world leaders, and how much change individuals can bring. But in the United States alone, each person produces ~50,000 pounds of carbon emissions in a year. And while there is a “floor” of roughly ~20,000 pounds of emission below which American citizens cannot dip with lifestyle changes, that still leaves 30,000 pounds a person a year as “room for improvement.”

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While I generally believe education can more or less address any issue, climate change requires an urgency of action which education may not be able to invoke. Still, changing mindsets is a critical lever is achieving long-term change. Thus, while countries do need to dedicate resources and political will, they also need to make sure their science teachers are dedicating enough time and energy to the topic.

 

A recent Penn State paper found that most teachers spend an average of one to two hours discussing global warming in an entire year. Even when they teach, over 30 percent of the teachers surveyed provide misinformation to their students, claiming that recent climate change is “likely due to natural causes.” In general, the scientists were surprised by the “levels of ignorance the teachers showed”. Those are two words that should never be paired together – ignorance and teachers.

 

So while yes, this is a huge problem, and yes, education won’t solve all of it – to translate words into action, we need to reshape fundamental mindsets. I’ll even advocate speaking with money, for once, by investing in the right research and technology. Individuals need to move towards closing the 30,000 pound gap. Teachers need to educate themselves, and then their students. Larger countries need to lead by example, smaller countries need to be the bigger person and set their own, new standards. And, well – we probably need to hope a little, that things can get better, that we aren’t too late.

 

Disclaimer: Since this blog reflects only my reaction to a question regarding “How do we translate words into action”, if you’re interested in a succinct summary of climate change and its socioeconomic and political implications, check here.

 

the next four

I missed the Millennial Bloggers’ deadline for publishing this blog, despite the fact that it was written and ready. It’s been a journey, facing the fact that the next president will be a candidate I couldn’t believe ever became a serious contender. There was a whole range of emotions I felt, ranging from simple shock to disillusionment, fear, uncertainty, and everything in between. De-tangling these emotions and making sense of them seemed too hard – so I detached instead, choosing to focus upon my day-to-day. But I realize I can no longer be the child who pretends something hidden doesn’t exist, and so I thought it was time these words were posted.

  

 

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

 ~ Paul Farmer

 

When I walked into 5C, most students there shrugged if any of their peers implied they were too “stupid” or “undeserving”. Two years later, one of the students in the classroom explained, “Now we don’t think that they are better or we are better; we all get equal opportunities.”

It was just two years of their life, but their mindsets were fundamentally reshaped. What changed?

The idea of justice is something I held close to my heart from a very young age. When I was six, and food for a baby monkey was snatched by a larger one, I stood with my hands akimbo and lectured the rather befuddled large monkey. The idea grew stronger as I became older and saw the world’s inequities first-hand as I traveled between the US and India every summer.

When I got to my classroom at the age of twenty-two, I knew there was a lot I needed to learn. But I also knew that it was impossible to reach Teach for India’s vision of “One day, all students will attain an excellent education” without justice – without providing equal opportunities to all students, regardless of gender, religion, previous achievement, or any other metric.

And it wasn’t easy, to make a message land when a lot of what they had heard previously was precisely the opposite. When even their parents believed their children were stupid and incapable, it was an uphill battle to get the students to give themselves a chance. But they did.

Two years with a teacher, and we were able to reshape their mindsets fundamentally.

Imagine what kind of influence four years of an American president has on the children.

The rhetoric you hear around you get ingrained into your way of thinking. If racism is unacceptable in your community and your world, you automatically bat away racist thoughts from your mind. But if suddenly, the man occupying the highest office in the country – the man who half the country elected – not only believes such rhetoric is acceptable, but in fact runs on a platform of these views and wins, that changes how people think.

The policy implications of Trump’s election do stir fear in my mind. Climate change, healthcare, women’s rights, international relations – all of these may regress several years under his tenure.

But what keeps up awake at night is the potential impact this election will have on children. There are already young students telling immigrant peers to “go back.” That scares me. That’s an entire generation believing that someone’s skin color or native language and region determines their rights. Fundamentally, that throws into question the basic tenets upon which this country was founded.

A few months ago, on this blog, I discussed the necessity of teachers and school systems understanding how to culturally integrate migrants into their communities. I wrote:

And yet, to create the world for our children where the “content of their characters” is foremost, educational institutions must pave the path. Systems must change. Mind-sets must readjust. Children will learn.

Now, more than other, the onus falls upon educational institutions. Teachers and parents must not only complement the teachings of the political system, but go against it. There is no turning back from this unforeseen outcome. The nation is divided, and there are toxic and hateful views on both sides. We must work cautiously and consciously towards a healthier, more prosperous future. We must heed Obama’s advice to his daughters, that “your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.”

Growing up in the midst of this anger and hatred is one of worst environments for children. It is therefore more crucial than ever to listen, to let voices be heard, to understand, empathize, and work tirelessly – it’s not just our futures that are on the line, but theirs as well. And even though there are some outcomes we cannot reverse, it is definitely within our power to ensure that the messages that are delivered to students are the ones we want them to hear.

to be heard, emboldened – and not broken

In the 1960s, student across the United States demanded that American troops withdraw from Vietnam. The movement began in college campuses with a small, liberal minority – but gained prominence as the U.S. committed more troops and longer years in East Asia. Around the same time, the Naxalite movement rose to prominence in India. Spurred by Maoist ideology, the Naxalites have been called “the single biggest internal security threat faced by India” by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Using guerilla fighting techniques over an extended period of time, the goal of the movement is to overthrow the existing democratic government as they hold no faith in a parliamentary democracy.

What is the difference between these two movements? How did they each affect the world’s two largest democracies?

While there were pockets of violence and provocation during the anti-war protests, the Vietnam War protesters largely relied upon peaceful demonstration to voice their reservations to the government. On the other hand, the Naxalite Movement was founded upon an ideology of violence to destabilize the existing government. Anti-war protests gained prominence over time, eventually playing a large role in turning the prevailing opinion in the country and encouraging people to question the government’s actions. Although Naxalites in India gained small pockets of power, they always remained a dangerous minority – never able to garner a foothold in general debate due to their radical methodology and ideology.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.” And I agree with him, wholeheartedly. But, there are nuances to the inclusion of the youth – it must be in a way that drives forward democratic practices, that encourages conversation and debate, but eventually leads to a more peaceful future for everyone.

How does a nation encourage its youth to participate while maintaining the stability of its democracy? How does a nation make itself malleable to change and open to discourse while maintaining the integrity of its system? Certainly, no country has perfected it. And there is no one way to towards this, yet it is both an outcome and a process that must be deliberated carefully.

 

 

 

Schools and campuses are a great place to promote non-violent civic engagement. Moreover, as we can intuitively guess, education and democracy are highly correlated and there is empirical evidence to back this up. And yet, most of the world’s major democracies tend to have highly limited participation by half the world’s population – women. Democracy implicitly decrees that all people’s interests be represented, but women’s limited voice in democracies across the world precludes systems from being intrinsically equal.

Linking these ideas together, it follows that investing in female education will result in more just democracies. The democratic processes will be bolstered by girls’ involvement. Furthermore, studies have also shown educated mothers are much more likely to send their children to school, thereby compounding the effect of education a girl-child. Lastly, females who receive secondary education have a much higher probability of becoming educators themselves, propagating the effects still further.

And while there are certainly infrastructural, cultural, economic, and logistical barriers limiting female access to quality education, trusting the youth to engender change is one of the most fundamental steps we can take. It will not turn the tide entirely, but imprinting upon young minds the value of education for everybody is one of the most influential steps we can take.

We must be willing to trust students’ abilities to be leaders, no matter what their age. In hot April afternoon in Mumbai, in a classroom full of 44 sixth graders, I showed a documentary called “Girl Rising.” Despite their initial restlessness, the 11-year-olds watched in awe as a girl their age in Afghanistan became a child bride, who struggled to get an education against all odds.

They turned to me and questioned, “Didi, is this real?” And they were enraged on her behalf, and there was a young boy in my class who started crying, and it melted my heart to see their passion and sincerity.

We continued the discussion the next morning, and I asked them how they could change things right now. And they were hesitant, at first, because “we are only children.” But as we talked, ideas started emerging because we found places within our own community – in their little corner of the world – where things weren’t equal, where they could be made more equal. We talked about encouraging sisters to go to school. About telling parents that money spent on daughters’ and sons’ educations should be the same. About how we would make sure our kids got the best education possible. About how every girl in that classroom would seek a job if she wanted to, would not be limited by societal dictates of her role – and more importantly, would never subject anyone to societal norms that limited women’s freedom. We talked about the importance of young boys and men being involved in the conversation, and empowering others.

We talked about things that adults often fail to think about, too ensconced in their day-to-day struggles, complacent in the status quo. And their level of thinking, of understanding, impressed me more than any 100% result on an exam.

I know these conversations are a mere starting point. But imagine ingraining such honest discussions into the educational system across countries. Imagine empowering youth from low-income communities to have iron-strong morals, rooted in ideals formed by passion and discussion and reality. Imagine students understanding their own role, their own power. Imagine what our world would be like – how our democracies would evolve, brighten, and sustain societies sparkling with vibrancy, optimism, and hope.

 

 

 

 

 

from toxic vat to melting pot

When I was eight years old, my middle-class Indian family and I migrated to the United States because my parents wanted their children to have the best education possible. Like the approximately one million immigrants who enter the U.S. every year, we came in search for something – and left many other things behind. As countries around the world grow increasingly xenophobic, education has an increasingly important role to play in not only dispelling these toxic sentiments but also fostering a culture that thrives in a world with blurring borders. Schools are where the mindset of the next generation are molded; when children find themselves in a classroom as culturally and linguistically diverse as the world, forming friendships that transcend these barriers, we uncover the truths of humanity. But if not navigated well, these same havens of truth and togetherness can turn into horrifying years of bullying and being an outsider to your own childhood – feelings that leave scars inside, turning laughter into fear and innocence into skepticism.

 

So the question arises: how should school systems handle the influx of immigrants, tapping the potential of each unique child with distinct needs, such that they foster success for not only the individual, but also the culture?

 

Of course, there is no “one” answer to this – the question is layered, nuanced, and complex, so the answer must be such as well. I don’t pretend to have the expertise to provide such an answer, but I can share my own experiences.

 

One of the key differentiators between migrants and locals is the language of comfort. Sometimes intelligence is masked beneath linguistic struggles, leading teachers to form damning opinions of otherwise capable students. According to John Hattie’s research, teacher-student relationships are one of the key determinants of student outcomes in a classroom. If true understanding of a migrant’s potential is hindered by their ability to communicate that potential, it can have a significant impact on their learning. For example, in the new OECD report, Immigrant Students at School: Easing the Journey towards Integration, authors Francesca Borgonovi and Mario Piacentini find that even after controlling for PISA scores, migrants were more likely to be held back a year in school.

 

There are a number of ways to bridge this gap. Awareness is a key aspect. When I started teaching in my second year in an under-resourced school in Mumbai, we had a new student named Aditya. He had gone to a school in his local village for the past couple of years and had many gaps in his educational background. Additionally, because his teachers themselves had not been fluent in English, he was far behind our class in his understanding of the instructional language. Initially, Aditya’s inability to comprehend my questions during class led me to believe he would require additional attention to learn.

 

Luckily, my students were much more perceptive than me. They translated questions for him, and he started raising his hand to answer. Every time, he would ask, “Can I say the answer in Hindi?” and when I nodded my assent, he would go on to perfectly describe the concepts I had only explicated in a different language. Both the other students and I quickly realized that despite linguistic barriers, Aditya could easily keep up with class material. As this belief cemented in my mind, I enthusiastically discussed his progress with my co-teachers. We built on each other’s perceptions and excitement, until every teacher and student who interacted with Aditya had a fair belief of his abilities, unmarred by the shadows of circumstance.

 

A number of practices can help avoid unfounded beliefs. If the teacher understands the student’s native language, students should be given a chance to learn in that language initially. Students should be encouraged to help each other (cooperative learning was also ranked to have a significant positive impact in Hattie’s research). Furthermore, I relied deeply on actions and visuals to communicate the concepts I was teaching as English was not the first language for any of my students. For example, when I taught them that lower altitudes tend to be warmer, we all bent down and pretended to feel hot. Then we climbed on top of the benches, wrapped our arms around ourselves, and shivered. While such explanations may seem simplistic, especially for a middle school classroom, action-driven learning helps the material stick in students’ minds – even for those who don’t face linguistic barriers.

 

That being said, this was a simple example of an inexperienced teacher stumbling into a startling realization. There were a couple of things that helped me: a cooperative classroom culture, a co-teaching team who focused on learning from each other, and an infrastructure within Teach for India (TFI) that encouraged us to identify and share actions that helped learning outcomes. The focus on continuous learning and the various structures available to facilitate it – program managers, city conferences, learning circles – was a key part of why an inexperienced teacher such as myself could achieve high outcomes while teaching in a second language for all the students. Despite making mistakes, I constantly learned from them and encouraged my students to do the same.

 

Borgonovi and Piacentini reached a similar conclusion in their research. They said, “Teachers and schools need to be provided with additional training and resources to be able to specifically tackle the challenges their students face.” A mind-set of continuous learning – for all the students and teachers – is a necessity to accommodate our new, in-flux environment. Systems would of course need to augment these mind-sets through training, resources, and collaborative learning spaces.

 

There is so much beauty in the potential of seamless integration and so much menace in the lack of it. There is no simple, elegant solution. But there is one thing that school systems, families, and countries cannot afford to do – and that is to ignore the issue entirely. It’s dangerous to calmly continue the practices that were created in the eighteenth century for largely homogenous, single-ethnicity schools. The task is by no means an easy one, and my experiences are not a perfect parallel.

 

And yet, to create the world for our children where the “content of their characters” is foremost, educational institutions must pave the path. Systems must change. Mind-sets must readjust. Children will learn.

 

of promises, stolen breaths, and soft explosions

Collage Seekers3.jpg

 

Prologue:

It’s not that I gave up writing. I just moved to a more personal platform, because that’s what happened in my second year: everything became so much more intimate. Each lesson and each action had so much more of me – so much of the kids – and of what we had created, together. It felt intensely private, in the alluring way secrets tend to be. So I wrote for myself: quotes, memories, pictures – trying to capture the magic of the everyday.

But then, as I sat at our Alumni Induction (what TFI has cleverly decided to call the graduation ceremony from the Fellowship), I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect.

I liked what people said, more or less. I was inspired by the children’s performances. I even maybe sort of half-laughed and half-cried in disbelief when my own students spoke about me through the video. I made Divya and Aditya jump as I grabbed their arms and subsequently smirk with amusement as I sat baffled. These two kids left me awestruck at the depth and clarity of their thoughts and ideas. Even after two years, they surprised me – and alongside pride, I felt this burning desire once again that I could have done more, been more.

Yet, I didn’t find that moment that symbolized the clichéd “end of an era” for me – the moment when I felt ready to move on.

That’s why I’m here. I think, in some ways, we need to search for our own closure. Our journeys were so different, our challenges varied, our approaches and paths divergent. How can any individual expect to speak at a ceremony, under the stark light of the stage, and present a summative view of tumultuous 2-year journey in the span of a few minutes? We are as disparate as each of our kids, and these two differences (the fellows and the students) were the only constants that moulded the fellowship into the experience it was.

 

First Year: 

At the end of my first year, I felt strong. Confident I had created an impact. Yes, I understood how much work there was to be done, and I had a whole year left to do it. It was easy to categorise my experiences, using a few words like “unexpected” and “impact” to tie together the disjointed memories, the hours of learning, planning, playing, teaching, and reflecting. It was easy to speak about having let the experience change me as well. And the thing was, it was all true. I had become better, stronger, more confident. My students had benefited. The journey had been eventful, unexpected, exhausting, and rewarding. And I had very few filters when people asked me about the same.

 

The Things that Mattered: 

However, now at the end of my second year, I’m struggling to find words to adequately express this journey. I’m unsure which details I want to share, and which I want to cocoon like soft secrets between my students and me.

Of course, right off the bat, we should all acknowledge that the fellowship was not any one thing (and to try and categorise it as such would be nothing short of folly.) Please don’t tell me it was about “love” because it wasn’t – not always. Maybe love was the undercurrent, the wave, and the sky above our heads. Maybe it even was the tremor in my aching voice and the twinkle in my students’ eyes as they teased me. But there was no love in the unforgiving heat, nor the scrutinising gaze of distrustful parents. There were days I couldn’t find it in the corridors, I couldn’t see it in the numbers keeping score on our walls. There were days when the wet pillow couldn’t tell me where love was, and my minuscule lettering in my lesson notebook held no secrets within its folds.

Yet, even on those days, when a tightened chest held a hopeless heart, fingers gripped chalk, voices rumbled, and students learned. In some ways, the fragile wavering beauty of those days – like the overcast sky lending a small respite – beat the glaring sunshine. When we moved past our egos and kept going – even when if didn’t feel the bright rays of love – those were the most miraculous days. Those were the days where the sun floated inside the walls to shine from the corners of our classrooms.

In fact, the days that mattered the most were not the glaring ones, demanding attention with bright lights in your eyes. They were the small actions – a child apologizing without prompting, a parent sending you lunch, the shy girl in the back raising her hand for the first time.

The beauty of it is that it was the furthest thing from perfect. It was raw, unplanned, and broken. There are fragments of this glass that will haunt me – the mistakes I made, the cost of not being able to rectify them. But these same fragments, sometimes turned in a particular way, perhaps even by mistake, can transform a small beam into a bedazzling array of lights and reflect this glory across the four walls – and maybe beyond.

The beauty of the fellowship is that I cannot truly tell you about it. Every time I write, I keep thinking, “I forgot to include this. How can I not talk about this?” I have reacquainted myself with the delete button again. Moreover, I especially cannot tell you about your part of it, so unlike mine, so uniquely challenging and special in its differences. But perhaps, I can make you feel mine for a few brief moments.

 

Reliving Moments (song):

Hot tears slapping on your cheeks, each drop a new failure – rebuffing you even though you can’t even pinpoint what the hell happened, what you did wrong. Clenching your heart tight, full of fear, apprehension, self-doubt. And then small, tiny hands reaching inside fearlessly – unknowingly – and unclenching it. Replacing that fear with something you’ve known – joy – but this kind of joy seems new. It seems boundless, infinite, innocent, unreserved, undeserved. It’s honest – it yells and screams and defies – and still smiles when you furrow your brows and explain and punish and defy. It greets you with a “Hi, Didi” as if you didn’t just scold it, it shows its missing front teeth with all the inhibition of a street dog, and it pulls you into its world of open doors and much-too-sweet chai and riding around on shared cycles, teasing friends with words borrowed from Tarak Mehta.

And now you’re scared again. But this is a new fear, a fear of losing this, of not delivering enough, being enough – of letting them down, because they’ve pulled in their parents, their aunts, their brothers and sisters, and all these eyes are resting upon you. And you’re just a child, hardly able to manage your own self, sort through the thoughts fighting for dominance in your head, but you have to do this – there are no excuses. Instead, it’s like you teach them – one foot in front of another, one failure follows another, and we learn – we learn together. You teach them about your world – nouns, verbs, fractions, logic, contradiction, probing, thinking, analysing, creating – and they teach you about theirs – forgiveness, innocence, honesty, trust. You talk to them about grit, excellence, taking ownership, respect, and they show you friendship, loyalty, leadership, and love.

It’s not like you’re ever alone. You’re never without them. In bookstores, you always wander to the children’s section, even if you’ve come shopping for yourself. Your anecdotes are peppered with revelations about those small humans, about the small world you’ve built with them inside your classrooms. You watch with envy as others sleep away lazy Sundays while you run around on a football field or spend hours correcting the same mistakes in fifty different papers. Still, for reasons you can’t articulate, you wouldn’t trade this experience. Not for anything.

When there’s yelling, screaming, and anger, you can’t look around for an adult to fix your students’ issues (you’re the adult). There’s no choice but to step forward, to teach them what’s right, and explain until your lips are sore why why why we must do this. You’ll become a master at making kids process their actions, analyze their behaviour, correct their mistakes. And sometime during all this, you’ll wake up and realise you’ve become the adult you’ve been pretending to be. As Divya said, “It’s funny, they force us to grow up while helping to keep alive the child within us.”

 

Our Paradoxes

Nothing great is without its paradoxes, and the fellowship is no exception. It’s the frustration at the organization, juxtaposed against the thud in your heart at being a part of something so great, so wonderful. It’s the marvel at the opportunity. It’s the amazement at the people you’re surrounded by. It’s the affection for the community that becomes a second family. It’s the lack of support and structure and accountability. It’s the camaraderie with the staff, guiding you no matter which year they were or which school they taught in. It’s the people with whom you share your joys and your fears. It’s the strength you discover within these people, the strength to keep going when the children don’t seem like enough – when even your own heart doesn’t seem like enough. It’s the bonds you know you’ll carry, the changes in yourself you’ll treasure, the memories that will pave the path to your future.

 

Hope 

A few months ago, I heard Snyder’s Hope Theory. What struck me was the subtle difference between optimism and hope.

optimism – the belief that the situation will improve
hope – the belief that the situation will improve, and I have a part to play in it.

The Fellowship helped me believe in my agency. It transformed optimism into hope.

At the end of these two years, there’s an overwhelming understanding of the challenges – and an understanding that perhaps we’ve only grazed the surface of the potential pitfalls in these two years. There’s an understanding that in the vast world, our students and us are just a drop in the ocean (albeit perhaps a lovely, multi-faceted, bright little drop.) There’s an understanding that there’s so much to be done, and so much yet to learn. That perhaps the longer you spend, the more you don’t know.

But there’s also a belief that simmers beneath this understanding: a belief in our “One Day.” We will make it happen. Our kids will make it happen. The path is kind of grey and invisible, and sometimes even menacing. And yet, some of the fear dissipates when you realise you’re not stepping onto it for the first time; you’re already in the middle. There are people behind you, next to you, and ahead, and as we tread down the path, hearts beating wildly, we are shaping the path, changing the path, and making it our own.

This last part is for our students, who keep asking why we’re leaving them. And my only answer is this:

Because you’ve shown me how wonderful, brilliant, compassionate, self-aware, and thoughtful you can become, given the right opportunities. And I have to leave, to play my small part in making sure these opportunities find the millions of other children like you who deserve them. It’s you who will always inspire me and push me as I journey onwards. I’m leaving you for the only thing that could possibly make me leave you: the millions of other children like you who deserve the same. And I know we’re going to make it happen, together.

walls that speak

This is the longest I’ve stared at a blank page, waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike. Smaller reflections are much easier to focus on, and more discrete points are easier to elaborate. The task of writing about the end of my first year of Fellowship seems way too daunting in comparison.

I’ll start with a few words that stand out the most to me, and go on from there. It’s been unexpected. I had to collaborate a lot more than I anticipated, and I had a lot less control than I had initially believed. Those were probably the two hardest parts. While I have always worked on group projects, and generally loved the teams I was put with, this required a completely different type and level of collaboration. First of all, many of my peers didn’t share my background or my outlook. Secondly, I needed to build relationships with not just my peers and students, but also parents, TFI staff, school staff, alumni, and everyone in between. The allocation of my effort was certainly unexpected, and a little hard for my perfectionist mindset to digest – because there was neither the time, nor the space, nor the expectation of perfection anywhere. Just sort of a nebulous “do your best” kind of attitude, where for the first time nobody told me what my best was supposed to look like, or how I was supposed to go about attaining it.

From as far back as I can remember, I had worked hard for my future. For grades, college, a real job. And then that moment came, and somehow real life turned into ninety-eight faces, ninety-eight hopes and dreams. It was a challenge that neither textbook knowledge nor any level of analytical thinking and extra-curricula had prepared me for.

Have I changed?

Certainly, the answer is yes. Pinpointing the exact changes and their causes is a little more difficult. I’ve come to doubt myself a lot more. It was easier to be good within defined bounds and rules. But when you’re working with people, especially children, structures are not always a reliable safety net. I have failed. Many times. More times than I care to count. These failures have made me cry and doubt myself in a way that I never had before. But the failures have, in some way, also made me stronger, because they’re teaching me to look ahead instead of looking behind.

The word that sticks with me the most is the word I chose as my “purpose keyword” – or what I want to achieve in life. That word is impact. I want to do something larger than myself, and I wanted to start my journey here. I have many concerns about what we do on a daily basis, or what the organization does, but I don’t regret my decision to join the Fellowship. I know it’s only been one year, but there are certainly visible changes in many of the kids. Kids who have started reading, who have started enjoying school, and kids who have begun to truly not just imbibe but practice the values we have been preaching. We certainly take steps back in this cha-cha of sorts, and I’m sure I won’t be there to witness all the impact, but in some ways, it’s more than I imagined could be done in a year. It’s real, tangible progress. It’s progress we saw in numbers, in words, in actions, in expressions. It’s progress that makes you smile through tears and believe that maybe (maybe?) I’m supposed to be here

this patch of grassy dust

Saying that life has been crazy busy would just be redundant, and yet I can’t find of a more honest way to begin. Between extra classes, Just for Kicks, and meetings, life has been as fast-paced as ever.

I’ve especially enjoyed Just for Kicks, the soccer program for our kids. As exhausting as teaching them during school hours is, it is just as much as fun to hang out with them outside of school. And when I say hang out, I do mean that. Of course, they are still kids who look up to us, and obviously the teacher-student relationship permeates all our conversations, but there are certainly elements of fun and light-hearted teasing that cannot be present within a classroom. It’s interesting that sometimes when we step outside the classroom, outside the daily rigmaroles of everyday life – that’s when we realize just how much the kids have carved a place for themselves within you.

Boys' team waiting at the sidelines

Boys’ team waiting at the sidelines

We’ve been especially lucky as a few of my friends from Brown have taken on the responsibility for coaching the kids on weekends. And seeing their investment in the students in these short few weeks has made me realize it’s not me at all. Anyone can fall for these little devils.

Recently, I read somewhere that even during their PT period, kids shouldn’t be allowed to just run around. Rather, we should teach them specific skills related to sports in certain units, so they gain and understanding of the correlation between hard-work and results, and they begin to develop an appreciation for the beauty of different sports. Sports are also a great way for children to learn teamwork and respect. It made me reflect upon my own education. I began to realize just how much I had taken for granted. That’s how life had been for us. We had units on volleyball, archery, track, racquet sports, etc. Our teachers coached us step-by-step on how to volley, how to serve, and allowed us to practice before playing games. Even during school hours, our education had never been limited to the classroom.

I had theoretically understood all this, but found it rather difficult to try to plan for and implement formal skill training during PT when we take 40 kids outside at a time. This is especially difficult given my limited proficiency in most sports.

For all these reasons, I was especially excited to start soccer practice with both our boys and girls. And students whom I so easily overlooked in the masses of the classroom became superstars in my eyes after I saw them on the field. One especially problematic child showed a remarkable ability to follow directions and leave behind his characteristic selfishness in favor of teamwork when he was on the field.

There’s something magical about the rush of competition. I’ve known all my life I’m an incredibly competitive person – it’s a large part of what pushes me to keep doing my best all the time. And when our boys had their first soccer match, my nervousness was making me bounce from foot to foot. I hadn’t felt that kind of adrenaline since my own track meets in high school! I could see the competition pushing together children who wouldn’t otherwise be friends, helping each other, practicing their skills, and trying to boost each other’s morales.

As a teacher, it is so fulfilling to see children who normally struggle within the classroom gain a whole new confident persona on the field. Especially for kids like these, who don’t get as many opportunities for external validation and whose self-esteem is often based simply upon classroom grades, an opportunity like this can be priceless in improving their self-worth.

I know teaching within the confines of a school wall isn’t the only way to mold responsible citizens for our world. But seeing it in action lent the notion so much more credibility in my mind. I only hope we can continue to combine all types of learning for our kids in the upcoming years.