Rubiksu pt. 2

I wrote this for Kenan Institute of Ethic’s Encompass Magazine last fall as an extension to my original blog “Rubiksu” and felt it would be appropriate to add it to this blog.

Buying a little bit of food for a homeless, hungry boy is a common occurrence. It is an act of humanity and of kindness, and one that any decent human being would undertake. Anamika, my DukeEngage partner, and I felt sorry for Ramu at once. As college students working with economically underprivileged kids around Ramu’s age for the past several weeks, we were torn to see this young boy without food, friends, or education – at least this is how we imagined his predicament – and bought him snacks from a nearby food stand.  However, simply buying food for Ramu didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to see him eat the food, so I pressured him into taking a few bites before I left. My motives for this were reasonably well-intentioned: I was concerned that someone would take the food away from him and preclude any benefit I may have provided for him. It was my care for the boy that caused me to impose myself on him, and on any other day, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

But Ramu’s reaction at being asked to eat in our presence immediately caused me to reconsider my actions. There was a great deal of awkwardness, even fear – certainly not gratitude  – in his expressions and actions. He never made eye contact with me, playing instead with his Rubick’s cube.  I assured myself that my agenda was unerring; I did not budge until he took several bites. Those few morsels, though, came at a steep price.

Over the next few days, I couldn’t get Ramu out of my head. I replayed those few minutes with him over and over in my mind until I finally realized what had really happened. In my obstinate rationale, I overlooked the fact that I put Ramu in a terribly uncomfortable situation – I’d subjected him to my will, assuming that my motive to feed him, however well intentioned, mattered more than his desire for me to leave. A similar incident is explored in great detail by Robert Coles in his book The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. Coles writes about a man, Alan, who, in his struggle to bring equality for African Americans in the South by encouraging them to exercise their voting rights, scorns a poor tenant farmer’s concerns that he would get shot were he seen voting. Although he was working to bring rights to the farmer, Alan rebuffs the farmer’s uneasiness at the possibility of leaving his family without a breadwinner. Alan later realizes, however, how he disregarded the farmer’s needs in his attempt to help him: “I looked myself in the mirror…I realized how snotty I’d been with him…while I was talking with him I dismissed him in my mind both psychologically and intellectually. (191)” Alan’s story highlights the difference between charity and immersion or engagement: charity creates a subconscious hierarchy where the people being helped are almost inferior to those helping; immersion or engagement allows for a level playing field such that the person helping is instead a server who is simply providing a service to another human being.

Like Alan, in my quest to ensure Ramu ate the food I thought he so desperately needed, I neglected one of his rights. My motives were selfish: I was willing to push too far to make sure that I felt helpful, even if it meant (although at the time I didn’t know it) shattering a young boy’s – and his brother’s — dignity. Ironically, my fear that Ramu wouldn’t benefit from the food made me go too far, and Ramu was in all likelihood hurt more than helped by my actions.

What would I do if I was presented with this situation again? Quite honestly, I don’t know. Discussions with my mentor and professor Leela Prasad helped me understand that for true civic engagement to occur, first, one needs to be able to honestly examine one’s own motives and intent, and second, share an understanding with so-called “recipients” about needs and forms of collaboration. This episode with Ramu highlights for me how difficult it is to expunge a selfish motive and come to shared understandings. Only in retrospect have I been able to see that my perception of Ramu’s hunger and attempt to alleviate it may in fact have deprived him of his sense of self-worth.

Should I ignore Ramu’s hunger? Should I be the one to prioritize his physical necessities over his emotional ones (and force him to act in accordance with my priorities)? Or is there a viable alternative in the middle? I do not have an answer to the last question, but I have learned that it is important to keep asking.


As co-directors of the DukeEngage Hyderabad program, we posted below two entries about the program looking back and looking forward. A few of our students, challenged and inspired by the Hyderabad experience, have been reaching out to work with new communities that are now part of the larger Durham community.

A Home for Keerti
The Halftones of Civic Engagement

Eleven-year old Keerti (pseudonym) and I sat next to each other on the bus ride to the zoo. She looked fresh in her new school uniform, her earrings caught the sunlight, and her neatly-combed short hair bobbed as she chatted. A folded handkerchief rested on her lap. All traces of a caring home, I thought. Keerti came to school with her younger siblings, two naughty, bright little boys that my students loved to play with and carry. The bus revved along noisily.

Some of my students were singing with their kids, some had them on their laps and were quietly watching shops and traffic and people awaken to the morning outside, and others with boisterous kids were chanting “Don’t stick your head outside the window!” The teacher too was excited and had brought her children and two cameras. Our two daughters, who often hung out with us at the school, were no less a part of that morning’s buzz. This was the first time the school kids had ever gone on a picnic and we all felt on top of the world.

As we reached the outskirts of the city, Keerti excitedly turned to me and exclaimed in Telugu, “Oh this is close to my village, I wish I could go!” I had heard from others that Keerti was an orphan and had been adopted by a family. There had been days when she had come to school upset about something at home but the story always took many different details, depending on who told it.

In the bus, over the clamor, I asked, “Your village?”

“That is where I used to live with my Amma (mother) and Naana (father).”

“Who lives there now?”

“Nobody. My Naana died of a fever and then my Amma too died. My Taata (grandfather) looked after me until he died last year.”

“And then?”

“When he died, I ran away from the village and walked to the city [of Hyderabad]. My father  [adoptive] found me crying on the street and brought me home when he heard I had nobody else.”

Nobody at all in the village who could have taken care of her? Nobody who had come looking for her? Nobody who registered a police complaint for a missing child? No answers.

“You mean he just brought you home and made you part of the family?”

“My father did not have daughters and he badly wanted one, so they decided to keep me.”

Unsure of whether to ask at all, I tried,  “Do you like them?”
“Oh yes, they take very good care of me, I like it! I love my brothers!”

The two little boys were horsing around with a Duke student in the seat in front, arguing and laughing about mismatched socks and shoes. How indeed did they relate to her?

So that was Keerti’s story until one day, toward the end of our eight weeks, I got a call as I was setting out for the school. It was from my Duke students (they used to reach the school earlier). Keerti, they told me, distressed, had tried to run away from school. One account of the episode was that the mother had given Keerti’s brothers some money to buy snacks at shops near the school. Keerti had protested that she had not been given any and had told her mother that she was being treated differently from her brothers because she was not one of their own. This protest had escalated, probably mingling an ever-present past with things from the present. Some of our students and our program’s school coordinator had cajoled Keerti to return to school. Keerti’s mother had shown up, angry with her for attempting to run away from school and apparently also from her home. The coordinator and the teacher had pacified everybody, and the conflict had quietened. I never got to hear Keerti’s version. Yet, I found myself uncharacteristically becoming a recalcitrant listener as I heard the teacher report that Keerti’s mother found Keerti ungrateful, impertinent, demanding, and a rift-creator (who caused her adoptive parents to clash). I denied these labels, although I knew I would open myself to the charge that I was the typical “non-resident Indian” who wouldn’t understand Indian realities.

Keerti would not talk to anybody that day and did not eat the mid-day meal. In the days that followed, although the teacher had tried hard to patch things up between Keerti and her mother, Keerti was frequently absent from school. As she began to trail off from school, Keerti firmly resisted offers to be put into various orphanages and residential schools. She adamantly claimed she did have a family. I was thrilled to see her at our final day event, but I left unsure that she would heed my advice to not live on the streets.

Indeed, about ten days after our Duke students had left Hyderabad for the US, I learned from the teacher that Keerti had left her adoptive parents for good.  From what I have heard, Keerti now lives with a fruit-seller, an elderly woman, near the temple close to the school. I gathered that she knew this fruit-seller and had approached her for help. The woman, herself alone, had agreed to take her in. Keerti could not be persuaded to come back to school.

My ride to the zoo with Keerti had started a journey into her world, a world that I could not fully be present in, but I knew that she wanted to belong, wanted to be a “real” sister and daughter (and not incorporated through the folds of somebody’s charity). Her choice to settle in with the fruit-seller in the neighborhood she knows well conveys—to my speculating mind at least—that she believed she did have a home and did not need to be packed off to an unfamiliar “Home For…” Clearly, Keerti is not about to allow herself to become one more statistic in studies about the predicament of “the destitute girl child in India.”

There is no doubt that we will try to locate Keerti, even though I will do well to remember that at this point she probably does not consider herself lost or uncared for. She tugs at the parent in me, for I cannot forget the image of her walking away from a home she did have once, a home that she felt had shuttered down because of the deaths of people she loved, walking to a big city of strangers and busy streets. But it will be at least two months before we can check in on her and take up at least the issue of her schooling with her, her caretaker, or policy advisers or government offices.

So many loose ends.

As I reflect on the partial stories, the inchoate information, the provisional solutions Keerti has been devising, and my fledgling relationship with her, I find something deeply instructive in this experience. And that is that civic engagement is always work-in-progress. It is a process that is marked by experimentation, possibly many beginnings, identifiable tangibles and also intangibles. Looked at in this light, one could ask: While a project-oriented approach to civic engagement is helpful in bringing valuable projects to fruition—a bridge is built, the alphabet has been learned—can relying on such an approach ironically bring to an end civic engagement itself? Is civic engagement ever optional (as in “I don’t do that” and or “I finished doing that”)? The questions become rhetorical if we see civic engagement as the understanding and the cultivation of a sense of co-being in the world. To agree to co-being requires us to unlearn the large and the small practices of domination, discrimination, exploitation, indifference, and sheer habits of incivility that pepper our everyday lives, both at home and elsewhere.

But as I consider how little I know about Keerti or how little I seem to have done for her (but potentially can do), I find hope in the world of art: the halftone image. Small bits of knowledge and little steps in practice are like the many dots in a halftone, dots whose sizes and relationships to each other make it possible to visualize the picture. Similarly, civic engagement is about dots, how we perceive them, how we arrange them, and ultimately how we connect them. Stepping back—physically from the halftone and figuratively from action (to reflect)—enhances our capacity to discern. It is when we connect the dots that are outside in the world with dots inside of us that engagement begins and we can arrive at a vision of the civic.

Small Acts

As I look back at the summer and reflect on our work in Hyderabad, its effects and effectiveness, and the notion of civic engagement itself, the question arises for me, as it has for some of our students: Are we doing anybody any good with our short terms of civic engagement? In our case, the goal to help children get better education in eight weeks surely seems a bit too ambitious!
I find myself going back to a critical scene in a Hindi movie called Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on the Earth) that all of us in DukeEngage-Hyderabad watched together. It’s a movie that anybody working with children should see. So, we sat together—all 16 of us, we 14 in DE-Hyderabad, and Anandini (11 years) and Akshayini (7), our two daughters—with the movie playing on my computer and being projected on to the big white wall of the living room in the girls’ apartment—a poor simulation of Indian movie theaters, but effective nonetheless. Taare Zameen Par is about the relationship between Ram Shankar Nikumbh, an unorthodox art teacher, and Ishaan Awasthi, a dyslexic child who struggles to find his voice in the fast-paced, achievement-driven society of India—a society in which rote-learning and exam scores are all that matter because they are believed to ensure “good jobs.” Here is one of the pivotal scenes of the movie when the boy’s father visits Nikumbh at the residential school where the child is enrolled:

When I look at all the photographs and video clips from the 2010 summer in Hyderabad, I am struck by how physically demonstrative our Duke students and the school children were with each other—shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek. It is hard to see in these images at least any barrier because of language or cultural differences. Pointing to how our DE students interacted with the schoolchildren, the Math teacher at one of the schools said to me, “You know, really, they have blown the myth I had of western cultures being cold and aloof. It’s amazing how in this short time, the students and children have bonded…” Buttoning a child’s shirt, combing another’s hair, running after a kid into the street to get him back to school, not being able to eat lunch because the children had been given an inedible mid-day meal, or going to slum-houses to check why a child was absent–these are just a few undocumented signs by which Leela and I knew our Duke students and Sudeepa, our school-coordinator, cared about the children.

The many “together” pictures the children drew, the friendship bands that they tied, the phone lists they made (even making international calls) and most visible of all, their daily anticipation–all told me that the children had come to care about our Duke students too. With help from our program community partners, we are experimenting with ways in which these bonds can be nurtured better supported through technology (Skype) and letter-exchanges but also through changes in our program’s structure (e.g., by partnering each Duke student from the very start with a Hyderabad college student who has had a continuing relationship with the children).

A sense of caring comes from within, but it can also be inspired by things on the ground. Critical reflection helps the process of sifting and understanding gestures that reflect care and those that betray a lack of it. P. Sainath recounts that after the tsunami disaster of 2005, starving homeless fishermen in south India received boxes and boxes of neckties! (watch at 10:15 min) It doesn’t take much to imagine whether such donations came from closet-cleaning charity or caring. The challenge is that caring appears in many dispersed ways, verbal and nonverbal. Its signs can be subtle—but this is also true of uncaring. That is why critical reflection—candid, not self-congratulatory—becomes so important.

So, let me return to the question of whether anything was achieved in eight weeks of work. For me, the answer is in this: Even if the children may have forgotten the letters and the songs they learned, there is one assurance they got from us—that we cared. For these children, we did not represent a world that was simply a spectator to their circumstances or a give-and-go donor, but we embodied a world that cared to engage and be engaged. And that confidence will make a world of difference in their lives.

The Head Fake

As Randy Pausch said in his famous lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” life is full of head fakes, or situations in which the true purpose, meaning, or lesson is disguised. Pausch includes an example: parents don’t encourage their children to go out for football or swimming for the sake of teaching them the sport; instead, they actually want their kids to learn things like teamwork, perseverance and sportsmanship. So I got to thinking, where exactly was the head fake in my experience this summer?

I should start by saying that the head fake was two-fold: our kids were tricked and so were we. Though we supposedly came here to teach English, both we and our students learned a myriad of other things. Therefore, the first head fake was our project mission. Although I spent every day at the schools teaching my students basic English, that is not what I wanted them to learn. I wanted to teach them confidence and nurture a sense of excitement for learning. I wanted them to believe in their academic abilities, and show them that learning can be fun.

Another head fake? Painting the walls and classrooms at Nirmal Nagar. Did we actually care to have fish and trees and maps all over the school? In a sense, yes – the map and alphabet balloons will hopefully be great learning tools. But more importantly, we wanted to change the feel of the school, and this was our way of doing it. As it turns out, a little bit of paint went a long way in terms of changing attitudes. The kids are proud to come to school, as is the principal. The neighbors took notice and often came in to talk to us. Even the education ministers finally recognized Nirmal Nagar as a school and took measures to prevent the community from abusing the school grounds as a place to drink. We revamped the look of Nirmal Nagar but ultimately wanted the community to respect the school.

Even more interesting was the head fake that happened to us. DukeEngage was described as ‘an immersive program that allows students to address critical human needs in the U.S. and abroad,’ but surely Duke wanted us to learn more than that. Although my time here is not quite over, there are so many insights and lessons I have gleaned on this trip that were not advertised in any DukeEngage websites or pamphlets. Just as I hoped to teach my students confidence, this trip has certainly reaffirmed my confidence in myself. Accomplishing so much in such a novel setting has convinced me that I can do whatever it is I want, with enough hard work. This program has also taught me to be less judgmental. From the other Duke students I met on this trip to the socioeconomic situation of our kids, nothing was what it seemed. Just because I am in a different social circle that someone else on campus does not mean that that we can’t get along with or even love each other’s company. And just because a kid grew up in a tarp and stick tent with very little money doesn’t mean he can’t dream to be a doctor. I can’t assume. I don’t know nearly enough about this world to do so. This experience has obviously taught me tons of other things about Hyderabad, its people and its tendencies, about teaching, and about kids, but to list them all is too daunting a task.

As Pausch explains, it’s very important to be aware of the head fakes in your life. Chances are through every experience, you are learning a lot more than you think. This trip has taught me even more than I realize now, and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. I am excited to keep on discovering all of the new things I have learned, over the next few months and maybe even years. I wouldn’t be surprised if looking back on this trip uncovers yet another head fake. As Randy says, life is full of them.

Getting out of bed is almost always difficult for me, but today was especially difficult.  I knew that the day had come to say our goodbyes to the children at Sri Sai Nagar School and while I knew this day was unavoidable since we started our journey, I hadn’t realized just how quickly today had come.  There are still so many things I want to teach the children and so many stories I want to hear, but our time has come to an end.  Rather than reminiscing on the past and trying to think of things I could have done better, I like to think about how much the children have done for all of us and hopefully all that we have done for the children.

As we drove up the hill to Sri Sai this morning, the children were all anxiously awaiting our arrival in front of the school with smiles, gifts, as well as a performance to commemorate the last eight weeks we had spent together; it was at this performance that I witnessed the vast effect we had on their lives.  They found a new self-confidence that I had not seen when we first arrived and they grasped the beginnings of a language that can offer them many possibilities in the future.  These children, our children, were genuinely thankful for the time we had spent with them and they told us, using Leela as a translator, that we were their brothers and sisters and that they will never forget us.  They sang songs, including If You’re Happy and You Know It, and they danced.  They even pooled their money together to give us a gift to take home.  After the performance, we all assembled in our different classrooms one last time to give the students a gift, including a group picture for them to remember us by, and to say goodbye to the children we had gotten to know so well in our different classes.  It was here that many of our children broke down.  They were heartbroken that we had to leave and they pleaded with us to stay using all the English vocabulary they could muster: “India your home Soren anna,” and “Please don’t leave.”  After what seemed like far too little time, we said our final goodbyes with hugs and the secret handshake they taught us.

As this is my last blog here in India, I would like to take this time to express just how life changing and meaningful this journey was for me.  I will never forget my time here in India and I will greatly miss the children.  I find peace through my experiences here and I hope with all my heart that our children will never lose their spark and drive.  I think we taught them the power of knowledge and education and if we have changed the life course of just one student, then this journey will have been a great success.

The Finish Line

“If you could adopt one of your kids, who would it be?”

I was at a loss for words when presented with this hypothetical question several days ago. I do not want to give a romanticized answer and say that I love all my students equally and thus would adopt every single one of them. I, like every other one of my fellow Duke students in Hyderabad, have my favorites among the children. Although I reduced the possible candidates to a handful, I was faced with the dilemma of whether I would choose the athletic Vinay, the curious Narinder or the innocent Brammiah. A challenging proposition indeed. It was only after a few moments of deep thought when it hit me: I can’t actually take any of these kids home with me.

Eight weeks is a precious time. I like to think that our work during this short period has been fruitful; that we have ignited a spark within the children and that they will continue to quench their thirst for knowledge, regardless of external circumstances. Yet the gravity of those last four words reminds me that the child’s future is not necessarily in their hands. It was only during this trip that I realized how privileged I was to have parents that actively encouraged me to pursue my education. For me, education was a requirement – for these children, however, it is a privilege. Parents are often willing to pull their child out of school to earn extra money for the family or lend a helping hand around the house. As depressing as it may be, this is the reality, and one that I am still struggling to come to terms with.

The end of our project signals a regression to the grossly understaffed nature of the school: one teacher for 40 children, ages ranging from 6 to 14. A decline in the quality of schooling is unavoidable, leading to doubts about whether we have actually changed the children’s lives at all. Our arrangement with a local college to have students volunteer weekly at the school addresses this problem, but still leaves questions about the long-term impact of the program. The fluctuation in parental enthusiasm shifts the burden of motivation onto the kids themselves; and this is where our part comes in. Our time with the children may have sparked a curiosity in the children that could potentially fuel a desire to learn in the face of an impassive environment.

This delicate but promising catalyst has the capability to move mountains for the children. They do not limit their dreams by their social circumstances. They aspire to be doctors, teachers, and engineers just like any other child – a remarkable mentality considering the oppressing caste system and cycle of poverty present in this country. But after Thursday, I will be oblivious to the future of my children, never knowing if Sirisha ever became a teacher or Rohit a doctor. Unaware of any obstacles that may have inhibited their dreams from materializing, I will have to make do with the hope that my children will continue to show the passion for learning that they vehemently showed during my short time with them.

This Thursday will be the finish line for the DukeEngage project in Hyderabad. It will be a finish line for me as I head back home to my own world. My interest here will never fade and I will be back someday, but for now I will turn to my studies. When I do come back in the future, my children will be long gone. But for them, the finish line represents not the end, but the beginning of their life journey, a journey that can take them places beyond their wildest imagination, a journey that can stretch them to their breaking point, but a journey that I know they are wholly capable of.

As Scottish band Snow Patrol beautifully puts it, “I think the finish line’s a good place we could start.”