Sunday, July 25, 2010

Coconut or Mango?

When I arrived at the hostel this morning for my last day of teaching, the roles had been reversed. I was now the student and my 60 teachers (both boys and girls )had requested that I sit outside the teaching area until the room had been prepared. Nearly fifteen minutes later after enjoying the taste and aroma of an extra hot cup of coffee, they called me in for class. When I impatiently asked what was taking place inside the room I was no longer allowed inside of, they informed me that maybe it might have a little something to do with my birthday which was to take place the following day.

When I walked into the room that was formerly known as "Meera's classroom", I couldn't have been given a better surprise. The children and staff at the hostel had lit and placed about 30 small candles around the edges of the room making for a circle of light. In the middle of the room was a small table on which a cake, a mango, a bottle of mango juice, and the idlis had been placed. The cake and candles were the most obvious signs of celebration, but the mangoes and idlis were meant to touch on a very subtle joke. Although I enjoy the taste of nearly every fruit on the face of the earth, coconut seems to be the only one I am just not able to acquire a taste for. Because I told people early on in the trip that I DID liked mangoes just minutes after explaining that I was "highly allergic" to coconuts (that's the only way to avoid anything around here), they somehow decided to compensate for my allergy by showering me with lots and lots of mangoes/mango juice/mango anything from that point on. So, sitting just to the left of the cake was one very large, beautifully ripe mango and a bottle of my favorite mangoe juice to go along. The fourth item at the table was a small plate of idlis. These round, white flattened circles are more or less equivalent to small rice cakes, a common food taken in the morning with a simple sauce to be drizzled over for flavor. Because everyone thought it was extremely funny that I was not able to eat the sauce that was normally placed over top of the idlis due to its intense spice, my students at the hostel thought it would be good to prepare for me a few extra idlis just they way I like them, plain white.

After walking into the room in total surprise and taking several pictures of the beautiful arrangements, the ceremony began. Although there was no singing of "Happy Birthday" and only one candle on the actual cake to be blown out, there was something specific about this celebration that I will remember forever. As I began to cut the first piece of cake, the people standing around me informed me that I needed to cut it to be quite large. Although I was not sure of their exact reasons (besides wanting me to get really fat really fast), I just went along with it as if I knew why it needed to be sliced so big in the first place. In the end, it turns out that after the birthday girl or boy cuts the first piece of cake, that piece is then handed around to each individual in the room so that he or she can feed a small bite to the guest of honor. Sounds a bit strange I'm sure, but in reality it's greatly amusing. As people start passing around the piece of cake faster than you can swallow the previous bite, everyone around you just begins to laugh, and sometimes even slow down the cake-passing process a little.

After cake, it was time for birthday games. Although they did not understand my initial directions when explaining to these children the game of tag, after giving an example with one of the girls sitting close by all the children were able to understand. Although I haven't run so fast or so continuously for quite some time now, it was well worth the slight lack of oxygen and extremely sore legs that followed.

Since I taught them a classic game from my part of the world, it was now time for them to do the same for me. "Coconut or Mango?" was the name of this particular activity. The game did not make any sense until about five minutes in when I started to realize the running patterns of those who had originally been picked as coconuts verses those who had been chosen to be mango. More then the game itself, I will always remember the name, and how during this day of celebration these 60 or so children took the time to select a game that I could easily understand, even if it was only the title that made sense to me at the time.

Finally, after the people had recovered from the joys of eating and running around (although not a complete joy for some when placed too close together), I was suddenly snapped back into teacher mode. Before coming to India, my father had placed in a my suitcase a few small packets of sunflower seeds (to grow giant sunflowers) to be distributed to the hostel sometime during my teaching career. I sat the girls down into four different randomly selected groups, with the exception of four specifically selected older leaders to look out and report for themselves and their chosen group. To continue with the story, I spent the last few hours of my visit to the hostel giving direction on how to plant and grow the seeds I had provided. I requested that each leader of the group assign a different one of their team members to water and measure the flower each day, and another to be the team's sunflower height recorder. If there was one thing I got from my time teaching at the LAFTI Hostel, I think the children were at the point (nearly 6 weeks later) where they could benefit from a small amount of competition, but competition unrelated to the world of academic performance where children of this age can easily be brought down by competitive standards. The plan went as follows: one week from the day I left (today), each group would plant two of the team's six small seeds, care for them daily, and record their flower's progress every week. Although I have not determined a specific prize just yet, I will be sending a small gift to all participants of this sunflower seed-growing competition. It is not that I am giving a better or worse prize based on the final height of each team's sunflower, but I am giving them an incentive to believe in something they have such great power over. Although it will take some amount of time and commitment to grow each flower to its potential, I am rewarding the students for their consistent attention to and recognition of their own skills and talents, not for the actual result of those skills or talents.

Although my whole time here as the English teacher may have come across to some as a six-week long sunflower-growing preparatory school, words can not explain the true sunflower-like beauty, strength, and color that these students developed in their personal and academic lives over the past month and a half. Humbling, rewarding, frightening, and transforming all wrapped into one. The time I spent teaching and learning from these 75 girls and boys over the past six weeks can only be analogized in one very specific way. It was like being at the middle of a sunflower and watching a million little petals develop and expand around me. I could not have watched without them there to be seen, and they would never have been seen without someone there who truly desired to watch.

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