I returned home from India about a week ago. And despite all my intentions to write this post on the endless plane ride home, and then immediately upon landing and then after I unpacked- the words repeatedly fell short. I suppose the experience will evolve in my mind, but for now this is my best effort- one week out- to capture the beauty, the intensity, the joy, the challenge and the heart of my 20 days in Chennai.
Some quick context.
Chennai's spirit is beautiful. The city's spirit is warm and in no place is the beauty more evident then in the actions of the kiddos. I hesitate to call them my kids, but each day as camp began with homeroom- the same class of 9 year olds found their way to me. I affectionately called this class "my kiddos," however they much more belong to their AMAZING Teach for India Teacher, Farasha. I fortunately borrowed them for a few hours a day.
How are they beautiful? These kiddos care for one another by doing the most basic things kindly. They share water. And snacks. They cheer and laugh when a classmate gets something right. They don't want to go in to start camp until every person in class arrives. They know if someone isn't coming. They don't have a means of communication other than eyes and ears and so they take time to listen or find out. They translate from English to Tamil and back to English for kids who don't understand. They do so with patience. They live gently, despite surroundings that seem almost unforgiving in their demands.
Everything in Chennai has an intensity about it. It is the hard and soft of life to an extreme.
The number of people.
The density of people.
The traffic. Cars, buses, rickshaws, motor bikes, cattle, goats all making their way through the streets in a storm of motion.
The poverty. I remember being in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake and seeing the tent-cities. Chennai has similar "cities," made of tarps and scraps and twine. But unlike the white cotton uniformity of Port-au-Prince's UNICEF towns, Chennai's fabric included these tarp neighborhoods with a sense of permanence far deeper than that of a make-shift home.
The number of kids in a classroom.
The amount of daylight hours.
Chennai begs you to keep your eyes open wide.
I'm not sure I've ever witnessed joy as raw as it was in Chennai. I chose to advance the kids practice each day. We always reviewed sun salutations and crowd favorites like airplane, tree and lotus- but especially towards the end of the second week, we started moving into the makings of crow and wheel. Yes, there were many soft face plants, a few domino effects, and lots of laughing while stuck in a position- but once some of the kids got it- they GOT IT. And it was awesome.
Ironically, I found the most pure joy in a student who didn't get the pose. One girl in my class- Divia...she couldn't lift her head off the ground for wheel. She was pushing with all her might, her body was designed to do it, but the mechanics weren't there yet. I walked over and asked if she wanted help. After hearing yes, I told her to try again. I blocked her feet and gently lifted under her shoulder blades. I watched as her belly rose towards the sky and she backbended into her first wheel. While still upside down, she lifted her head to look at me- WIDE EYES, HUGE SMILE, laughing. I will not forget that joy. I lifted her straight to standing and she flew her arms around me as her friends screamed little girl screams of excitement. That's joy.
Its likely impossible to work on a project like this and leave feeling like you've done enough. What would be enough? This mindset is an overwhelming challenge. Obviously, I had a choice, to do nothing or something...a choice to make the most of my moments. And I believe I did do that. I gave the kids my most present moments of every day.
On the day we visited my homeroom's school, we were lucky to go on a home visit to V's house. V is ten. She lives with her mother and father and sister in a house roughly the size of an 10x10 room, with no running water or electricity, a separate room for her grandparents and another for the kitchen. She walked us through her neighborhood where we crossed 4 lanes of traffic chaos until we got to her door.
On the last day of camp V cried and cried. Ten year olds are hard. They are old enough to know what it means when something ends and still young enough to expressively cry, rather than hide their sadness. That's the challenge... I get back on a plane to Boston and V goes back to her every day life at home. I'm not sure she knows how different life is in other places. I certainly didn't know what her life was like in India. But I do know that she was profoundly sad, as was I that the weeks were ending and I wasn't going to see the kiddos for a safe space in the yoga atrium the very next day.
My heart couldn't help but pour open in Chennai. And the kiddos...they jumped right in. For a culture that on appearance does not appear affectionate I was a little surprised how willing the kids were to engage.
On the first day, a student in my class was crying. I hugged her in consolation. She dove in before saying goodbye and suddenly the whole class wanted to hug goodbye too. Thus began our ritual daily greeting and exit. Full of hugs.
On the fourth day a boy in another class came up to me and said, "Yoga-akka, can I have a hug too?" My heart melted. I gave out as many high fives, fist bumps, twirls and hugs as possible in two weeks time.
What else touched my heart? Their questions.
One day a slightly older student asked me, "Meghan-akka, if you had three wishes, what would they be?" I responded and posed the question back to her. Her responses: "I'd wish 1. to be younger, 2. that everything is fair, 3. that everyone is safe." Wise answers in any language.
Another, "What do you want to be when you're grown up?" "An officer! A bank manager! A teacher!"
Perhaps what will leave the greatest imprint on my heart are the words written in a neatly folded "Thank you" note. The student wrote: I love yoga. I will miss you Meghan-akka. You talk to us with compassion."
Seems like a pretty loving place to meet- in a place of compassion- my heart will remember that.
In April of this year I was lucky to receive an email from Shaun Jayachandran. He asked me to join team Crossover as the Yoga Instructor for the 2016 season. Shaun is the founder of Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, MA that utilizes the sport of basketball to teach five pillars: leadership, teamwork, communication, gender equality and character to marginalized youth age 7-14 in Chennai, India.
Our campers live in households where the average income is $1/day and in communities where the 7% of kids complete high school and 48% drop out of elementary school. Since 2012, Crossover has hosted more than 1000 children, all at no cost. Our team this year included: academics, NCAA basketball players, several high school student athletes and me. Each day we collectively talk about the pillar of the day and then break loose. Each group of 40-60 students rotate through four 1/2 hour stations: Offensive Basketball, Defensive Basketball, Classroom and Yoga. The pillar of the day is central to all rotations. We teach these life building pillars through play.
If you'd like to make a donation to Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy to continually support programming, you can do so here.