Yesterday I attended the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards program at a nearby Government School (would be called public school in the US). When I arrived, an hour late, the program was already in full swing. It was a sort of leadership training workshop for the 10th grade class, taught by Rotarians. Since only 40% of the class was learning in the “English medium,” and the rest in Telugu, (one of the regional languages in Hyderabad), the workshop was taught in Telugu.
Instructor: “నా నీటిపైగానీ ఈల్స్ పూర్తిగా”
So I sat idly by the side, pretending to understand and listen, trying to figure out how to introduce myself, (I can’t seem to go anywhere without having to go to the front of the room and talk about myself. It makes me feel narcissistic), and wishing I had a biscuit.
Until lunch, that is.
I shook hands with about 20 girls, and tried to answer questions for a good long while, until a few of the boys complained that they hadn’t gotten to say hi. So I said hi to the boys, and then my hand was grabbed by one of the girls, Nandini, and she whisked me away for a very quick tour of the schoolyard. We reconvened exactly where we started, where the girls had a quick dispute over which way they were bringing me next, (One girl tugging my left hand, one girl my right hand, another my right arm). Food won out, and I followed Nandini in to lunch, where I learned the following phrase in Telugu:
నా పేరు అమాలియా
(My name is Amalia)
that it’s a sign of friendship to eat from each other’s hands, and that I have nice eyes.
After lunch we returned to the classroom for the rest of the workshop, where I was crammed in the middle of a 3-person bench with 4 other girls who all wanted to sit next to me. I made them promise that they would pay attention and not talk to me–a hard promise to request since I would have much rather been talking than listening myself.
So I sat on a bench in a crowded room with a bunch of kids in their tattered blue uniforms listening to a language I can’t understand. And I started wondering, why wasn’t I there? I mean, why wasn’t I there as a student? And I’m not saying I want to be, because it wasn’t exactly the nicest or prettiest place in the world, but I guess I just felt like these girls needed me, for the exact reason that I came here for.
These girls have never had a reason to learn English before. These girls still believe that the lighter your skin, the more beautiful you are. These girls have never known a culture besides their own. But these girls were nice. They took this random stranger with blue eyes and made her smile, and feel welcome, and didn’t laugh at her strange accent. They shared their food and their space and their humor, and they had no reservations. These girls deserve the kind of cultural education that I’m receiving, because it will change their lives even more strongly than it could ever change mine.
When I got on my school bus this morning, I found a seat, opened my window, and watched the people go past. A few stops later another girl got on, came up to me, and said “That’s my seat.” She stood there as I moved to another space, then sat down and turned her back. And I thought again, why wasn’t I there?