15 Jan

And sorries.

Today was my last day at Shanti Bhavan. In light of the event, one of the Aunties let me borrow her sari and helped me put it on. I was astounded at just how much effort it took.

First you put on a slip and then a top that’s essentially just sleeves and covers your chest. From there, they wrap the fabric around your waist just about twice and gather up the rest. They pleat the remaining fabric and then tuck it into the waist band. Then, they work on the fabric that sits just on your shoulder. They pleat that, too. So it sits layered on your front and layered over your shoulder.

It’s tough to walk in. And in this weather? It’s also hot to stay in. But the honor outdid the struggle. And the compliments didn’t hurt either.

“Miss, you look so beautiful.” “Miss, you look like a doll.” “Miss, your sari is tied so nicely.” “Miss, this sari looks perfect on you.” “Miss, you should wear this everyday.”

Typically, girls don’t get to wear these dresses until the day of their marriage and special events after that. So the fact that they grace their volunteers with such an opportunity meant so much.

They even give you a special message at assembly. They have one student – or in my case, the entire class – come up and speak about what you’ve taught them in class. They thank you and honor you and Vice Principal Beena wishes you good health and encourages you to come back soon. And then they call you up front.

Two of the precious kindergardeners hand over a card to you, which they design special for each volunteer. My card has a little bird on it, holding a heart. The inside reads:

Dearest Chelsea,

We thank you for the wonderful time you spent with us. Your bright smile was visible everywhere you went. Your loud and energetic voice made your students work harder. Thank you for teaching Literature, Computers, Power Builder, Civics, and also PT. We will miss you and please send our regards to Christen and Kate*. Please come back when time permits.

With Love,

Dr. George, staff, and children

I showed the assembly hall the photo which provoked an “awww” response and I read them what was inside. And then I told them:

Thank you so much for this opportunity. This was the very first time I’ve really traveled outside of the country and I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming group of people. No matter where you go, you will never find brighter smiles or more genuine hearts. I do a lot of work for She’s the First and I’ve heard so much about Shanti Bhavan but it doesn’t compare to actually coming here and seeing this all. Seeing your faces and seeing how eager you all are to learn reminds me exactly why I do what I do. I have loved getting to know each and every one of you and am so thankful that you’ve allowed me to come and stay with you in your home. I’m forever impacted because of you and I hope, one day, that I can come back and see some of you graduate. Nothing would make me happier. Nothing is better or more rewarding than this trip.

I meant every word. Every natural word that fell from my mouth.

I’m sorry to Shanti Bhavan for staying just 10 days. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to spend more time here. I’m sorry to have to leave you just as I’m getting to know you. I’m sorry if I cry tonight and I’m sorry if I wear my broken heart on my sleeve.

What they say is true – when you get here, it’s really hard. And then when you leave, it’s just as hard. My heart is splitting at its seams knowing that when I drive out of this school, this will be the last time in a while that I’ll see these smiling faces.

I’m going to miss them all so, so much. I’m so grateful that every one of them has entered my life and touched my heart in some way or another. I’m forever changed. Forever humbled. Forever honored. Forever grateful.

There is nothing quite like Shanti Bhavan. Nothing quite like the children who go here. If you ever get the chance – go. If you ever have the money – donate.

These students will astound you. They’ll amaze you with their kindness, their drive, their dreams, their stories. They will show you what it means to love what you have and to take advantage of all that’s around you. They’ll teach you how to come together, how to support, how to love, how to care. They’ll show you strength, courage, vulnerability, and honesty.

I will never be as strong as these children. Never.

Everything I’ve ever thought about myself has been altered from here on out. My life isn’t tough. Not compared to this. I’m independent and I’m brave. I’m driven and I’m positive.

But I’m not a Shanti Bhavan kid. I never will be. But thankfully, I will always carry them with me.

*Christen and Kate are also two women working with STF who came to Shanti Bhavan last year for graduation.


14 Jan

I’ve had a tough time teaching poetry. I’ve been telling my fifth graders about rhyme scheme and cohesive stories and while they understand the concepts, they have a tough time applying it.

My students are trying too hard to rhyme. They’ll write one line and the one that follows makes no sense, but the last word will rhyme. For example:

The sky is blue

Basketball I do

That would be a typical sentence I would read. The lines are about two totally different topics but they work diligently to assure the final words match.

And I’ll teach them that it isn’t correct. That their poems need to be about one subject. I even assigned projects like writing an autobiographical poem or writing about nature and they still force it.

I was discouraged. I didn’t know how else I’d get through to them. Would they ever learn or would they just carry on with the format into their higher years?

Preetha gave me the confidence I needed.

She told me she’d write a poem for me. She told me She’s the First could read it. What I didn’t know was that after she’d shown me the poem she’d be writing for STF, she’d give me her poetry book, her journal, and let me read through all of it.

I was honored and humbled. Such delicate pieces of work lay in my hands. Preetha gave her most vulnerable self to me in that moment. I was amazed at what I read.

They were so personal, so real, so sad, so wonderful. I learned a lot about Preetha. Her past, her present, her future. Her thoughts, her dreams, her wishes, her feelings. I wish I could share them with you. I wish I could tell you what she wrote, what she has to say.

But I’m guarding her secrets. Her most valuable stories.

She’s letting me bring just one poem back to the US with me. One poem that she’s allowing STF to read out loud to 70plus people. That poem I’ll share with you once she’s written it down for me.

I think you’ll like what you’ll read. I think you’ll learn a lot from just the 6 or so stanzas she’s put in print. I think it’ll help you understand the experience I’ve had the last 10 days.

Just wait. You’ll see.


14 Jan

Mehndi is another word for henna. This art is custom in India and yesterday, I had the opportunity to have my delicate skin painted on.

I sat patiently and watched intently as Preetha applied the paste in intricate designs to my left hand. She only glanced at the photo in my lap once. Just once, and she knew the design.

She began with curved lines and small dashes, then evolved into minute details. Details that would make my henna complete, and beautiful.

She worked for just about a half hour and in those minutes, we talked about everything. She asked about She’s the First, about my family back home, about technology and music, singing and dancing. And it wasn’t forced, it was genuine.

We wanted to know more about each other’s lives.

I knew that Preetha was good at writing. She told me she’d share a poem with me. I told her I couldn’t wait to read it all. But she’s humble – she doesn’t believe she has talent. Even when she sings, she doesn’t know how beautiful her voice is.

That crushes me. All I want is for her to know that she has better prose and poetry than most students her age do, that she has the ability to sing and write professionally, that she has a great chance of succeeding in the arts. She doesn’t have to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer like they teach you to be. She can be an author. She can be a singer. She can be an artist. She’d be wonderful at any of those.

Preetha is meant to be in the arts.

And that got me thinking – what if we brought the arts to them? Celebrities help charities all the time. What if we had a celebrity come and train them for a while?

What if we took some of these girls to New York City? What if we gave them the chance to ride their very first plane and make their very first trip outside of India? What if their potential to succeed in the arts is much greater than they know? What if they made it in Hollywood? Can you imagine?

I know that my coming here has changed my world and I’m positive that them crossing over the western hemisphere would do much the same.

So as Preetha finished up my Mehndi and added the final “She’s the First” touch, I reminded her to never forget how talented she is. To never lose sight of her strengths. I don’t think she’s often told just how great she actually is.

I’m glad I had the chance to.

Bhogi Pongal

13 Jan

Tomorrow, the kids don’t have school. Why? Because they’ll be celebrating Bhogi Pongal.

Pongal is a week-long Indian celebration which marks the start of the the sun’s journey northward. It’s typically celebrated for 4-7 days but since the children have classes and exams to take, they’re only allowed one day to rejoice. That first day of Pongal is Bhogi Pongal.

On this day, everything is cleaned and whitewashed. This morning, the students were seen cleaning the food area, the sidewalks, and their dorms to prepare. Soon after, a bonfire was lit just behind the girls’ dormitories.

They were tossing old clothes and unwanted goods into it, shouting “Miss! Miss! Come celebrate Pongal with us!”

The burning is symbolic of a new cycle, a new year. It’s the Tamil New Year. Out with the old, in with the new.

As I watched the fire set ablaze with a fellow volunteer, a few of the girls told us about the holiday. How they wished they’d be celebrating with their families, but how excited they were to be celebrating it none-the-less.

The festivities haven’t started just yet. It’s just Sunday here so there’s one more day before it all begins. Still, seeing the preparation for it all is quite exciting and I’m glad I can be here to see them celebrate this very important holiday.

This trip has been nothing short of cultural. I’m familiarizing myself with all sorts of customs and taking every opportunity to learn more about their lives and their reasoning for doing what they do.

It’s fascinating how different our worlds are. How differently we celebrate our holidays.

But I have to say, I quite like their idea of burning items from the past to start fresh. I think I’ll start myself a new tradition. Every new year, I’ll write a list of the negative things that happened in the past year. I’ll absolve myself of all regret, guilt, unhappiness, and hurt by writing it all down – and then burning it.

It’s a part of their culture that I think America needs to take on. Too often, we hold grudges. Too often, we’re sad over what’s happened in our past. But the weight of the burdens become too heavy. They bring us down.

And maybe that’s why the Shanti Bhavan kids are so happy. They let go. They appreciate the small things and deal with the bad things. They cope better than we’re even close to being capable of doing.

Structurally and economically, they’re underdeveloped. But morally? Mentally? They exceed us. We build and advance to accommodate our latest needs. We’re never satisfied with just what we have. There always needs to be more.

Simplicity, forgiveness, and new beginnings need to be implemented in our society. We need to find the good in the bad.

I wonder what would happen if someone here came to America. I wonder if they, too would be culture shocked. To know that humans can be so mean and cruel and unforgiving to one another. I wonder if they’d be frightened that we live in such a self-centered world. I imagine so.

My wish for them in the New Year is that they find the kindness they need. That they find the strength to push forward, past their struggles and past their pain. That they continue to be the warm-souled, happy individuals I’ve grown to love and care for.

I wish that they find growth in their world of stunting. I wish that they always stay with me and I always with them. I wish for their futures, and many more New Year’s to come.

I wish for their freedom. I wish, for them.


12 Jan

After a long week, I wasn’t in the mood to travel very far. So when the volunteers mentioned they were headed into Hosur for the day, I jumped on the opportunity. It’s just 45 minutes away on an auto-rickshaw and in town, you can get everything you need.¬†From souvenirs, to clothes, to groceries, to copies, to coffee – Hosur has it all. It even has the culture.

The auto-rickshaws were such an experience. How to explain it? It’s a three-wheel….cart, if you will. There are no doors and a single, long bench in the back and one in front for the driver, or an extra passenger if need be. If you get motion-sickness easily, Dramamine is highly recommended. But I enjoyed the ride and the scenery, life, and discovery that came along with it.

Before coming here, many people told me that everyone would stare. At the airport, this was the case. But in town, not so much. Some did here and there but overall, it was a welcoming experience. They were happy to welcome us and happy to help us.

Our first stop was a clothing department store. It was an overwhelming three floors full of racks and racks of clothes. I picked up a gorgeous Indian shirt here for a fraction of what it would cost for something just measurably close in America.

We then went downstairs for a tailor and a bangle shop. Why a tailor? You’re probably asking. In India, when you purchase a dress, it’s sold without the sleeves. I’m not exactly sure why but for a just a couple of rupees (cents in American dollars), they do it for you in just minutes.

So while we waited, I explored the countless bangle options they had to offer. Gold, colored, wide, thin. I didn’t know how I was going to choose. After a few minutes of pondering and hundreds up bangles spread across the counter – it’s custom here for salespeople to take everything out for you – I made my selections.

I picked up 4 colored bangles – one for me, my two best friends back home, and my sister. I also picked up 8 gold bangles – two each for my other few friends at home and one for my mom.

In a store nearby, I also grabbed two keychains for each of my brothers. Engraved on them are signature Indian symbols. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a selection for men here so I chose the next best thing.

Later on, I also spotted a scarf. It’s simple and black but I’ve been looking for a black scarf and now each time I wear it, I know I’ll be thinking of all the special memories I’ve made here.

In a few other shops, I picked up henna, a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh, and some Indian tea. Random at best, but significant never-the-less.

So, shopping was a success. And so was lunch. After being served nothing but rice and curry throughout the week, I was overjoyed when we discovered a pizza place to gorge our desires for something other than pure starch.

The table was filled with pizza, garlic bread, soup, salad, soda and in the end, desserts. It was what we all needed. We all needed a pick-me-up.

Over lunch, we had a great conversation. We talked not only about our lives back home but also Shanti Bhavan. The need for new opinions and voices. The Indian culture. The caste system. What it means to be in love. Everything was on the table. And buried beneath all of our food were our hearts. They laid right there as we exposed our most genuine thoughts to one another. I’ve never really opened up nor learnt as much as I had in that hour.

We made a few last minute stops at the ATM, at the produce shop, and for coffee and as quickly as the day had begun, it ended. And it was wonderful.

Yes, the children of Shanti Bhavan brighten my day. But so do the wonderful volunteers who have made my time here so manageable. They’re the kindest souls from all over the world and they’re teaching me so much aside from all the knowledge I’ve already taken in.

Working with them has been an experience on its own. One I won’t forget. Shanti Bhavan has brought me a world of good, and 6 spectacular people that I’ll have a unique, irreplaceable connection to forever.

I’m one lucky girl.

To Flourish

11 Jan

“Miss Chelsea, what does it mean to flourish?”

My fourth graders asked me this today. Four of them huddled around my desk, eager to hear to the answer.

“It means to do well. To do better for yourself. To excel. To grow. Does that make sense?” I responded to them. They shook their heads and simply repeated, “To flourish.”

This morning at assembly, Dr. George spoke to the children about their ability to flourish. How they weren’t applying themselves. How they needed to recognize their strengths and use them not only to pass their exams, but to make a name for themselves. To prove to their world, the world, that they’re deserving of the education they received.

And in two of my classes today, I had to remind them of that. One of them being my fourth graders.

We did a simple activity called a Power Builder. They read a short story and then answer a few questions. Basic questions. They’re more grammatical than structural and more centered around grasping basic story building concepts than understanding plot sequence.

I went over the directions, read through them, and asked if they had any questions. No response. And just moments into starting the assignment, more than half the classes’ hands went up. I would answer a question, and then someone would ask the same question. And that would happen again, and again, and again.

They would bring their books up to me and say, “Miss, what is this answer? How do I do this?”

And I knew that they knew the answer. I knew they could figure it out if they just tried. I understand they’re just in fourth grade but these are some of the smartest children. They’re afraid to excel. They’re afraid to be intelligent. And I don’t know why.

Sixth grade was the same. I took them to the library to pick out a book and as I went around the classroom to see what they’d chosen, I was astounded at the simplicity of their selection. They were 40 page books with size 16 fonts. They were about animals and the weather as opposed to stories with meaning and emotion.

I was so disappointed.

So I made an effort to speak to both fourth and sixth grade just before class ended.

To fourth grade, I told them this:

You are smart. You are inspiring. You were chosen to come to Shanti Bhavan because you show promise more than anyone else. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t intelligent. So why are you selling yourself short? Why do you believe that you aren’t smart enough to find the answers? Why does initiative make you so nervous?

“Miss, what’s initiative?” they asked.

I wrote the word on the board, followed by the definition. “It means to take action. To want to do more. To do something without being told.”

A singing of “Ohs” and head nods commenced.

I continued. You’re bright children, you know? You’re special. You’re the reason the teachers come here and do what they do. You’re our future.

They were quiet after that. Sixth grade was after I spoke to them as well.

To them, I told them something similar. I asked why they were reading books they’d already read. Why they were reading books that were too easy. And they didn’t have an answer.

I know you’re better than this. I know you’re smarter than this. I understand you have classes all day, homework all night, long periods, and structured schedules. But your futures are so bright and wide. Why aren’t you taking advantage of what’s right in front of you?

Dr. George always addresses his children. He always challenges them and he’s always tough on them. He’s strict but he needs to be. At first I didn’t understand why, but now I do.

It breaks my heart that these children don’t see all they’re worth. Their culture teaches them not to. Even when Shanti Bhavan tells them they can, they still think they can’t. And maybe they’ll understand it better in time. Maybe, as they get older, they’ll recognize the importance of all that’s in front of them.

They make me smile, they make me laugh, they give me a run for money, and they make me hate myself for yelling at them when they get too off-focus. But they also make me confident. Confident that with these students at our forefront, we’re looking toward a better future.

Things aren’t the same as they always were. They’re changing. Starting here, growing everywhere.

Prathibha and Preetha

10 Jan

I’ve met over 200 children since I’ve been here. We don’t pick favorites.

I truly do love them all. Each and every one of them bring something special to my days. Shormilla brings me smiles when she widens her own, Vysali brings me poise as she sits up straight and looks onward, Maria brings me laughter when she fools around with her friends, Aba brings me grief and joy in his spot-on 10 years of age, and so many others simply light up my world.

But Prathibha and Preetha? They’re magical.

I’ve been impacted most profoundly by the two of them. They trigger emotions within myself that I’ve buried. They’re reflections of me, though indirectly. They’ll never know just how deeply they’re engrained in my brain, etched in my heart.

Prathibha is 4. I met her today on the kindergarden playground. They speak very spotty English but they try their hardest to communicate. When I first arrived there, all the children ran up to greet me. “Miss! Miss! Your name, Miss!” They hugged my legs, grabbed at my waist, and flaunted their bright, beautiful smiles.

But in the corner, away from the rest of the children, was Prathibha. And she was crying.

I asked one of the other girls why she was crying and all she muttered was, “Mom…mom.”

“She misses her mom?” I asked. She nodded.

I went over to Prathibha and I told her my name. Still crying. I asked her how old she was. Still crying. I asked if she wanted to play with her friends. Still crying. I asked her why she was crying. Prathibha let out a simple, “Mother.”

She’s homesick. And she wasn’t the only one to cry over that today. Four children were taken out of class because they were crying. But Prathibha – something was different about her. I saw the story in her eyes. I understood.

For a moment, I watched her life. I imagined her mother, holding Prathibha in her arms. I imagined them making trips for water together. I imagined them happy with their simplicity. I saw why Prathibha was so sad.

I asked if she would show me a smile. She hesitated. I asked again and pointed to my own. And just then, her lips cracked and I saw her blinding white teeth. “See?” I said. “Look how beautiful that smile is!”

She may be sad and she may be sick. But she’s strong. She puts a smile on when she needs to. She’s brave. She trudges on.

I remember when I was her age. My mom took me to gymnastics and the moment she left the room, I cried. I cried, and cried, and cried until she finally came back. I ran into her arms and I didn’t let go.

I remember how that moment felt. Like the only thing you knew was being stripped of you. And that’s what happens to these children every year. The only difference for me? My mom came back. Prathibha’s didn’t. And she won’t. Not until she graduates.

Yes, education is just that important.

And then there’s Preetha. She’s in the tenth grade, she’s great at sports, and she loves to write. She’s gorgeous. The men in America would flock over her if they ever caught sight of her sleek black hair and slim figure. But I don’t think any of them would be deserving.

Preetha sits at the head of the dinner table, surrounded by fifth and sixth graders. They’re not her friends, but they’re her siblings. Theoretically. She’s the big sister they don’t have with them. And she takes it on with a smile. With understanding. With pride.

I sat with her at dinner and we had the most down-to-Earth conversation. I felt like I was talking to one of the volunteers. We talked about classes, her hobbies, her friends, her dreams. She didn’t hide a thing. And when we started talking about writing, she became shy and humble.

She’s done exceptional things. She’s produced amazing work. And she doesn’t even know how wonderful she is.

I asked if she’d let me read some of her things and she shied away. “Not even a class assignment?” I asked. “No, they’re no good,” she shrugged.

I told her the best writers are often the ones who think their work isn’t worth anything. She seemed hesitant but she smiled. She knows she’s talented and she finally cracked – she’s writing me a poem before I leave.

I can’t wait to read it. I can’t wait to see what she has to say, what she thinks, what she feels. It’ll be incredible whether short or long. It’ll be inspiring. It’ll be moving. I can feel it.

I wish you could meet Prathibha and Preetha. I think you’d love them. I think they’d make your heart melt in the same way they did mine.

If I leave here with anything, it’ll be two new friends. And a poem. And that’s all I really need.