Sword Beans and Bitter Gourds

I have started this blog post multiple times. My musings have included titles such as, Ek Minute, Morning Rain, Bamboo on a Taxi, and Introspection. Some of you received a personal email that was blog-esque in nature, and I guess I decided that took care of November’s post, even if the rest of my readers (Hi, Candy-mom’s friends!) didn’t get their monthly installment. And then December flew by in a rush of end of term work and editing and meetings and…well, now it’s February, and for the all of January I attempted to write about something, anything, and words failed me when it came to paper and pen or the clickity-clack of these black and white keys. Could be the excitement and bittersweet sentiment of a trip back to the states left me searching for words. Could be the joy of new-old love has me flittering about like hummingbirds at the feeder in June. Could be I just didn’t have anything much to say.

But it also could be that for the last month, I have been living a life that doesn’t necessarily feel foreign, doesn’t feel like the exotic experience some of you may imagine I am having, that maybe you expect me to write about. The closing of my seventh month in Mumbai (is it really that long already?) is almost here, and though I still sometimes wake up astounded and confounded as to how I ended up here, most days I simply feel grateful and alive and go on with my life and my work like each of you do every day.

So, how did I end up here? “Why India?” is a popular question among new friends or other ex-pats. I suppose some people wait for the spiritual answer, being the flower child I am. Oh, I came for the peace and the joy, for being in a land that is so rich in culture and…yoga! No, that’s not it. I came to be awakened, to have my senses shaken up, to see a place I had never experienced before! Okay, that’s closer, but still not it. I know! I came because I read Shantaram and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and I just had to experience Mumbai! Yes, yes, I have read these books, and damn were they good, but still, no…that’s just not it.

Maybe I should back up. To this afternoon or the afternoon before that, right about three-oh-seven, or thereabouts. I know it is three-oh-seven because I can hear his feet tapping softly down the hallway. Or if I am outside, it is the shake and rattle of the door handle as he yet again pulls when he needs to push, but no matter because it’s what he’s here for that is essential. Like me, he keeps track of time by leaves and flowers. He measures the passing of days by the height of a bitter gourd seedling or the number of branches and suckers on a recently transplanted tamatar plant. He leans over his garden, thumbs tucked around his backpack straps, saying little but nodding approvingly, a sly smile sneaking its way across his face. His mother and sister wait quietly, sometimes asking questions, mostly just enjoying the sunshine and more likely the energy radiating off their son and brother. I can imagine what he might be like some day, someone’s boyfriend, someone’s father. He’s a nurturer, that one, and by three-fifteen he is gone, barely saying goodbye as he leaps back through the door frame, walks backwards for a moment then takes off running down the hallway.

He is why I am in India, this ten year old child, and the sixty-three (and growing!) others that inhabit this building from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. Some are barely potty trained, and their brave teachers clean them up while teaching them to clean up their tables, to pick up markers and paper scraps from the floor. Others are passing so quickly into puberty we haven’t had time to figure out our game plan for adolescent sex talks when those moments come (Oh, wait. They have. It’s weird and awkward and beautiful like adolescence is. For everyone. Patience and forgiveness is what we’ve come up with so far.). But it is these children! These kids! I am here because of them! And because someone said, “You. Come to India. Teach what you love to the people you love. Yay!”

I am a teacher, no doubt, another label like runner, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, girlfriend, best friend, scientist, nerd, introvert, artist (who noticed I wrote runner before daughter…???) and so many others that have been given to me or that I have taken on out of birthright or pride or the joy that comes from stepping into that role. I am a teacher, like my dad and mom and sisters, and brother-should-have-been, like my aunt who taught all of my cousins to be outstanding and brilliant human beings in her Naperville kitchen, and my other aunts who lent me Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet when I was twelve (Laura) and who always encouraged me to do as Joseph Campbell says and “Follow your bliss” (Judy). I am a teacher like my Nanny and Grandpa Lou, who taught me to love painting and backyard picnic tables and the refraction of light through a prism in the window and strong coffee, “None of the that girly coffee, babe.” No way, Grandpa. Never (except when Mom has that Italian Cream Death Trap in a Plastic Bottle Coffeemate Shit that Is Soooo Delicious – Luigi Serafini Santo Paulo doesn’t need to know about that. Nuh uh…).

So, I am a teacher. That is why I am here. A year ago, right about this time, maybe a little earlier, a friend sent me a post she had found online. She knew I was unhappy in my job, desperate to leave but uncertain how to do so. Her email read something along the lines of, “Oh, my god, I wish I could apply for this, but I can’t or won’t but it would be so perfect for you please say you will apply because this job was made for you you beautiful sexy beast of a woman,” or something like that, probably with better punctuation because she is insanely good at punctuation and grammar and gets joy out of correcting sentences such as “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog!” (courtesy BuzzFeed). When I read the description in the NWAIS website, I believe it went something like, “Do you love science?” (Yes!) Do you love working with kids? (Why, yes! Double yes!!) Are you an amazing human being who wants to teach science to kids and spend all day playing and laughing and making messes? (Oh. My. God. How did they know?).” Needless to say, I applied, interviewed, interviewed again and again and again, and suddenly I was in a boarding line for a flight to Mumbai.

And as much as I have grown to love this city, I have to apologize. I didn’t come for Mumbai, India, Bollywood, Ghandiji, Iyengar, chai, kulfi or any of those things. I came to work with kids, to share my passion for science and life with small human beings who grow bigger every day. I came to learn from them and with them and share a little bit of knowledge, while mostly being entertained and inspired.

I could recount a thousand tales from my short time as a teacher, every day a shiny gift or a dull and confusing headache. I remember clearly one recess in Colorado, blue skies and sixty degrees on a February afternoon, playing zombie tag and suddenly stopping to watch a paper airplane float through the air, softly, slowly and with precision until it – shwoop, dive – landed at the feet of my teaching partner, who picked it up and set it aloft while sixth graders chased it and eighth graders pretended they didn’t want to chase it. I remember returning the week after my brother died to a room decorated with hummingbirds and handwritten notes, my students remembering my favourite bird and wanting to bring me the happiness and love that a simple Ruby-Throat gives me. I could tell stories of dried flowers and dead bugs that have shown up on my desk unasked for but beautiful nonetheless and of emergency calls for Praying Mantis Identification and Capture on the Red Climber. I could go on.

Today at lunch I sat down next to a few kids: one who never eats his food, another who wants to marry me, and a third for whom it was the first day on campus. I admired batman tattoos and played hand-tapping games to ward off tears, and at one point my cheeks and nose and forehead (yes, forehead) were pressed like buttons as I made different noises in exchange for bites of pav bhaji. Children taught me words in Hindi they thought I should know (Khana – food) and made me repeat words I was saying wrong (“It’s LAh-see, not LAH-see.” Okay, that’s an inside joke for anyone who has tried to learn Hindi). And for thirty minutes there was nothing else in the world that mattered or had ever mattered, except that moment, those tiny teeth, small hands, sticky fingers and silly, unintelligible words. We laughed and laughed, and one kid cried a single tear (“Oh, mama, mama, where’s my mama?” he said so quietly I could barely hear.) before realizing he was about to go outside for recess.

When the tables were cleared and the last student had marched down the steps to the playground, I refilled my water bottle in the new, clean silence, and I just felt lucky. Lucky to have found my way here, to these children, though it was no matter they if they were in India, Mexico or Guatemala, Washington, Colorado, or Indiana. Lucky to do what I love, and love what I do (Life is Good), to be following my bliss and working to fulfill my “part of earth’s furthest dream.”

A friend from high school and I share a favourite Annie Dillard quote, and we try our best to remind one another of it in times of doubt and confusion and excitement and joy. Ms. Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Erin currently lives in Columbia, teaching English like the rockstar she is, following a dream that took seven (eight? more?) years in the making and a hell of a lot of courage. She signed the contract that took her south as I applied for this job, and her momentum was my inertia. We spent hours on the phone, hashing out pros and cons, fears and hopes, all the reasons it made sense and was fucking crazy to uproot ourselves once more, Nomadic Midwestern Children, we two. And here we are, she there, me here, living the only lives we know.

This afternoon I was setting out handmade paper to dry on the terrace, trying carefully not to shake the students’ designs, weighing down aluminum foil so that nothing blew away, when I heard voices through the glass and a knock on the window. A different boy than the one who started us off waved at me, gesturing to see if he could come out to check on his garden plot. Of course, I waved back at him, and he stepped over the doorframe already saying, “Nani, Nani, come see my garden! Oh, wow! Look at that! Nani, this is a tomato and this is bitter gourd and, Miss! What is this?” I reminded him it was the sword bean he planted, and he swooned and smiled at it like a proud parent, saying “Oh, Nani, it has just gotten so big! And it just keeps growing!” I’m sure his grandma could empathize.

The two of them spent the next fifteen minutes touring the other patches, admiring the pumpkins and basil and potatoes growing healthy and happy in the afternoon sunshine. Then just as suddenly as he appeared, he grabbed her hand, leading his nani back into the classroom, out the door, down the hall, down the stairs, and through the gate where I am sure, though I didn’t see it, their driver waited, and car horns blared and men in white and pink strolled by and jackhammers pounded. I continued setting out paper hearts and bowls, and I watered a few drooping transplants before myself leaping over the door frame that connects the terrace to the science classroom. I gathered my things and walked out the door, down the hallway, down the stairs, to a meeting with other teachers planning for tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And as I sat there discussing cursive handwriting and journal prompts, all I could think was Here I am. Spending my hours, doing, living this blessed and fortunate life only. Lucky me? Lucky me.

Excerpt from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
On work:
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

May you be happy and healthy.
May you be safe and free.
May you take care of yourself with ease.

Emily Bee

Finally! All those vines lead to this!

Finally! All those vines lead to this!

Lucky me? Lucky me.

Lucky me? Lucky me.

School Garden upon returning after holiday break! KH certainly kept it  well watered!

School Garden upon returning after holiday break! KH certainly kept it well watered!

3 thoughts on “Sword Beans and Bitter Gourds

  1. Oh my dear daughter, I wish you could write one of these every day. I just soak up all your words and enjoy your descriptions and feel some of what you’re feeling also. You don’t feel that far away at all when I can read about what you’re doing and thinking.

  2. Emily Bemily… I am so glad that you are doing something that makes you feel so lucky! That is all anyone could ever ask for . I love you sooooo much!

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