This past week i've been settling into my teaching placement in Madurai. I took a few days over the weekend to see Kodaicanal, a hill station that mostly attracts Indian honeymooners and, I guess, American girls looking to live for a few days among the clouds. The bus ride up the mountains was magic. I could feel the temperature dropping as we climbed higher up the jungle covered hills overlooking valleys where villages surrounded plots of farmland. But no, it wasn't magic. That implies something unnatural. But this was pure, unadulturated nature soaked in beauty. While in Kodai, we went to a few lookouts and explored town a bit. At night we relaxed on the back porch of our hostel by a fire, overlooking a valley of twenty villages lit up like a thousand small fires burning through fog. It is so nice being a part of this makeshift family of foreigners- as if being in India werent enough. It brings comfort to share the experience of frustration and awe, confusion and inspiration, that in isolation it could potentially drive you bonkers.
As I spend more time teaching, I am coming to terms with the unsettling reality that is the Indian education system. It is rewarding in small, short lived ways but it is an uphill battle that begins again every day. I was up last night thinking about it, and realized why it is so frustrating, besides the lack of interest-
They deserve better.
I have grown up in a society with a sense of entitlement that only a country built on the phrase "manifest destiny" can muster. In my second week in India, I wrote in my reflection journal how "refreshing" it was to be in a place so devoid of the sense of entitlement that seems like second nature to an american, almost a pre-requisite to citizenship. Only now am I realizing the debilitating reprocussions of this: A system of education that has given up- taking pride in the few who have figured our how to get by, and herding the remainder into the worst, darkest, most crowded rooms with the poorest, most impatient teachers. The inconsistency is staggering. My 3rd graders, placed downstairs in the stadium seat lecture hall filled with light streaming in through tall windows, can read every word I write while my 5th graders, crowded upstairs in a dark room that holds four other classes, get by on rote memorization. When I changed the order of "father" and "brother" not one of them had the slightest idea. Not one.
And it is these kids, the ones who frustrate me the most, who deserve better. Curriculum without basic grammar errors, or teachers who recognize basic grammar errors, or even teachers who acknowledge their primary role as educators instead of diciplinarians. A room where you dont have to yell to spell out words because the class next to you is divided by a thin partition and their teacher decided to play a game for the entire morning.
And it is here when I ask if our sense of entitlement should not be exported, free of trade barriers like lack of government funding or international support or terms like "politically possible" and look instead at what is needed. "When something is needed, it can and must become possible."*
Moments like these- in the middle of this country, so very present- is when I look for narrative of my own experience to bring others in to what I am seeing or how I feel. But I come up short. I know eventually I will establish some narrative, pick off a few moments which I feel are either entirely representative of my trip or (more likely) what I wish were more representative. It's inevitable for me to try to condense and find meaning, all with good intentions. But this is a sad process because while you experience it, the meaning you find seems so bit. Then you return and try to find words that wrap around your memories perfectly and intricately that you end up with a few stories that, though true, are only pieces of the truth that approach but never succeed in capturing the whole. Falling into the trap of misrepresentation could be fatal, turning a month and a half into a few cheap stories reading like a self-help book or religious experience. Because it was neither. It was a million different heartbreaks. A million different moments of clarity. A million different things that knock you off your feet.
I read a speech by David Foster Wallace this week, per recommendations my another volunteer, which he gave as the commencement address to Kenyon College a few years before his death. I firstly would like everyone to go and read this, because it voices so well what I have been struggling to put words to, though much more eloquently and straightforward as only Wallace can. He tells of two fish swimming along who encounter an older fish who casually asks how the water is. The younger fish stop after a bit, stunned, and ask "What the hell is water?" He goes on to describe the process of awareness that takes a lifetime, requiring incessant reminding that you are not (despite what your senses allow you to believe) the center of the universe. We must begin to see life as the conversation it is- an ever-revolving series of experiences and perceptions. I've recently started visiting an Ashram nearby of a fairly renowned yogi in the evenings. He sits outside with his long, gray waves of hair to match a slightly darker long wave of beard, waiting patiently for someone to come along. His "office" is covered with photos of his guru and himself in positions that made me hurt just looking at them. The session left me feeling completely at peace. As I hopped on a bus (which never really seemed to stop) to go home, I realized I felt perfectly at home and adapted at that moment. The hard part is over, though just in time for me to appreciate it for a week or so before I leave. And I am reminded of those wise words again- this beautiful process of learning and (finally) embracing. I don't pretend that I've figured it all out, but when you've been reaching for that first wrong on the ladder for so long and finally feel a grip, you can't help but beam. I am finally feeling that I am moving on to that point of convergence between old perceptions and new experiences and, flawed though they still are, it is a hopeful step in this life process of awareness "of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over
This is water. This is water."
*A quote by the profound and inspiring Jeffery Sachs, whose book "The End of Poverty" has accompanied me here and provided a framework for thinking about need and development that I am extremely grateful for.