An Aside: Realia

Realia is one of those eduspeak words. It means when you are teaching something, you bring the real thing into your classroom to connect the lesson to life.

I have never before been realia.

Most of the girls of Shri Shikshayatan School had not met nor even seen people from the USA. They watched us walk past and giggled or waved. They jumped up and greeted us with, “Good morning, ma’am!” They shyly asked for us to take a picture with them.

And they asked questions. A lot of questions.

What are the struggles faced by American women? Are they the same as ours? Do you believe in climate change? What innovations has the USA created to conserve water resources? Do women have equal pay in the United States? How do you keep your hair like that?

The purpose of the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellowship is to develop mutual understanding and lasting relationships.

Senator J. William Fulbright observed, “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy – the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately.”

By coming halfway around the world to build friendships and a global community of learning, I am honored to have built new friendships in Kolkata, India.

And I am happy to be the realia that helps to build bridges of empathy and understanding.

In Kolkata, Young Women are Serious About their Education

When girls learn together, they often learn how powerful they can become.

That was the lesson I learned at Shri Shikshayatan School, a private, all-Girls school in Kolkata, India, to which I was assigned for my Fulbright Teachers for Global Project Fellowship.

“I prefer an all-girls school,” one Grade 9 student said confidently. “I am with my friends and teachers who help me focus on what is important.”

“We are very focused on our studies,” a Grade 11 student proudly told me before a morning assembly. “And here we have educators who are experts in their fields of study, and we have opportunities like you coming here for us to interact with and learn from.”

Every morning, different combinations of grade levels line up in the outdoor gathering area to the sound of beating drums and beautiful, haunting music. The purpose of the assemblies is not only to start the day building community through meditation and reflection, but also to disseminate announcements, celebrate student victories and to give the girls an opportunity to give presentations on the topic of the day which both inform the assembly while giving those presenting vital practice in public speaking.

The Tuesday morning assembly for Grade 6 girls featured a presentation on safety, reminding the young ladies to report any incidents of inappropriate touching or behavior immediately to a trusted resource. The young ladies were also reminded that Kolkata has a special emergency number for women to call if there is no one nearby to help.

The girls also trust each other to talk to and share their ideas and dreams.

“Here everyone understands my issues.” said another girl with a smile.

During a lengthy library conversation that involved black holes, artificial intelligence and opportunities available to young ladies in astrophysics in the United States, a brilliant Grade 12 student told me:

“In India, the examinations we must take are quite difficult. If you don’t study on your subjects properly, if you don’t get focused on those particular subjects, you are missing a lot of things around you. We are responsible to take the opportunities given to us.

“If you get too attached to a person during your studies, you become unfocused. You are a losing the chance to discover yourself and become the person you a meant to become.”

What I discovered was this incredible all-girls school was engaging, elevating and empowering these amazing young ladies to be fearless and pursue their passion and their purpose.

Cleanliness is next to …

Shoes. Walls and walls of dusty, well-worn shoes.

Cleanliness is a demonstration of respect. Before we Fulbright TGC teachers entered the Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in New Delhi, we were asked to take off our shoes before washing our hands in a sink, then walking through a shallow bath for our feet. This shows respect for both the gurudwara and the holy scripture, Guru Granth while allowing nerve endings in the feet to receive as much energy as possible.

What we didn’t know was what was going to happen to our shoes.

When we were ready to leave, we discovered that there was an entire ministry of cleaning the shoes of everyone who comes to the gurudwara.

Cleanliness apparently really is close to godliness.

Hindus believe that taking a bath (“snanam”) is the most important ritual of the day because water nourishes and sustains the spirit as well as the body. Water is one of the highest elements because it purifies and uplifts. The Akshardham Hindu Temple celebrates water through the incredible Sahaj Anand Water Show, which celebrates a story from the Kena Upanishad.

We heard the beautiful call to prayer as we walked through the alleyway of Khan Market in Delhi. Muslims believe that The Quran contains the literal word of God. The Quran itself says that only those who are clean and pure may touch the sacred text, so no one is allowed to open it until they have made their ablutions by washing their hands and, if they have not done so in the last 24 hours, taking a bath. When we were ready to leave and retrieve our shoes, we discovered that there was an entire ministry devoted to cleaning the dusty shoes of all who come to the gurudwara.

It was the rows and rows of shoes that got me. Foot-cleaning is a powerful symbol in my own faith (Catholicism) as well, and it brought me pure joy to see some of the threads that tie the people and faiths of the world together. We believe in showing respect. We believe in being humble. We believe in serving others.

 

An Aside: Connecting Through Disconnecting

The message from Verizon came just two days after arriving in India: “You’ve gone over your allotted data allowance.”

I’d purchased an International Calling Plan for the month of July, and a quick call brought me some great advice: stop using data when not connected to WiFi.

That meant while on the bus traveling to and from our destinations, I wouldn’t be posting pictures to Instagram of me doing a silly dance for an auditorium full of students and I couldn’t check WhatsApp to see what my group had been sharing.

But by not keeping my face in my phone, sharing my trip with the world, I was experiencing at an even deeper level the very things I wanted to learn and share about India.

I saw a cow prevent a car from backing up on a narrow city street. I noticed a billboard with the smiling face of the Deputy Chief Minister of Education in Delhi, whom I had just met the day before. I enjoyed the pure smiles of the women on balconies hanging their clothes out to dry.

It’s a start on the road to mindfulness: being fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing. It’s a concept that Delhi just introduced their students to last year, and one that is getting some traction back in the States. We need to focus on the things that matter; we need to stop emphasizing the negative and overlooking the positive.

I’m going to start disconnecting more often.

 

A Beautiful Day in Pachayara

“Let your life be your message.” – Mahatma Gandhi

img_3235Thirteen chairs covered with vibrant pink material caught my eye first.

Our first full day in New Delhi started very early because the forecast was for a high of 100 degrees (which would “feel like” 112 degrees). We left the hotel at 4:30am to visit the peaceful village of Pachayara, about a 45-minute drive from our hotel in Delhi. 

The welcoming smiles on the faces of the Rajesh family and the incredible preparations they had made for our visit immediately made us feel like we were in the home of old friends. The pink chairs, which stood out so starkly in the dry setting, sent a message that thought had been put in to our arrival and care had been given to details of our stay.

The Hindus say, “Athithi devo bhava.” – “The guest is god.”

Many of us were taking mental notes of how to improve our own hospitality at home as we shared the morning with our hosts. We were offered homemade treats and special snacks everywhere, we discovered we weren’t the only ones who liked taking selfies, and we drank fresh boiled cow’s milk.

We sat at the home of the village elder, who shared his hookah with several of the fellows and even gave one of us a motorcycle ride around the compound! Another home offered us the chance to pat out the roti into a circle before placing it on a metal pan sitting above the fire of cow patties. We cranked the sorghum machine to chop it up for cattle feed. We laughed in the joy of each other’s company. We savored our time with each other. We exchanged cell numbers and Facebook pages.

The love we felt from the village of Pachayara was the message they lived every day. You could see it in the eyes of the children, because you knew they had learned to be kind and compassionate from their families. You could feel it in the eyes of the older women who laughed when my roti folded over on itself to look more like a turnover.

Today’s lesson was simple: How much more could we do if, instead of holding our hands up to block or avoid encounters, we embraced each other? What more could we accomplish if, like our new friends in the village of Pachayara, we allowed our lives to be a consistent message of empathy and love for all?

Welcome to Incredible India!

After more than 19 hours in the air and a seven-hour layover in London where we met up, the 2018-2019 Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellows arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India.

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After taking long-awaited showers, brushing our teeth and getting acclimated to being in a much different time zone (twelve-and-a-half hours ahead of my own), we gathered for an enormous, delicious Indian buffet meal with my favorite – naan!

What we didn’t expect was a beautiful welcoming ceremony from our amazing hosts, Rajesh, Pooman, Mamta and Sonia!

They welcomed us by using red turmeric paste to dot our foreheads and then gently tossing small flower petals onto our heads as a blessing. They gave us gifts of brightly colored bags and promised to guide us well as we make this incredible educational journey in India. We learned that pressing the palms together when you meet someone and saying, “Namaste,” not only shows respect, but is also joining your hands at very specific pressure points: those for the eyes, ears and mind. When pressed together, those point activate parts of our brain that help us remember the person we are greeting for a long time.

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And “Namaste” is from the Sanskrit meaning “I bow to you.” Namaste recognizes the importance and value of each soul, and it strikes me as a wonderful start to this journey.

We need to value each and every person we meet – whether inside our classrooms or beyond our borders. We need to show appreciation and gratitude for each and every experience – for those who have worked hard to make this possible. We need to recognize that, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Relationships are based on four principles: respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation.” By showing consideration and respect to others, we help make our world a much better place for everyone.

Namaste! Let the adventures begin!

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The Best Laid Plans …

Twelve of us are beginning our travels today from the USA to India! We have made all the necessary preparations we could think of for this amazing trip: currency changes, vaccinations & what clothes to pack. We were all very excited to see our flight agenda which has us meeting in London at Heathrow International Airport July 1st and then taking the same flight into Indira Ghandi International Airport in New Delhi!

However, due to storms with 80-mile-an-hour winds in Chicago, five educators have delayed or cancelled flights! But are they despairing? No! They are using WhatsApp to communicate with us and the Fulbright staff. They are driving rather than flying to connecting airports, and they are reworking their travel arrangements so we can (hopefully) all meet in London in time for our flight.

That’s the funny thing about making preparations – sometimes things don’t go as you plan. But as my fellow teachers are proving today, that’s all right as long as you don’t give up! Try something else! Ask for help! It may very well be that things turn out even better than your original plan!

Expanding Your Borders

There are many borders to cross as I fly out to Delhi, India, this weekend: The Atlantic Ocean (a natural border), twelve time zones (temporal borders) and airport security checkpoints (safety borders). But the border that has caused me to reflect the most is the one around my comfort zone.

It makes me wonder, what exactly are my personal, emotional, psychological borders?

I’m excited for the journey, especially meeting new, enthusiastic people to learn and share ideas and experiences with as well as build bonds of friendship and understanding. But as I pack outlet adaptors and precautionary medications, I realize spending almost a month in a place halfway around the world away from my family and home is making me a little anxious.

What I know for sure is we don’t learn and grow unless we push ourselves. Arthur C. Clarke said that the only way to define your limits is by going beyond them. Necessity is the mother of invention, so how can you really learn anything if you don’t push past the borders of your own comfort?

The important thing is to keep moving forward, to take that first step.

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move,” said Anthony Bourdain. “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

The wonderful words of friendship and encouragement I’ve gotten in emails from my two host teachers in Kolkata (and the amazing agenda they have put together for my time with them) remind me that, as Barack Obama said so well, “We are defined not by our borders, but by our bonds.

We must cross over our borders of comfort to discover the world and ourselves. What more could we learn and accomplish if we are fearless?