This Friday was our last at the Training and Employment Center for Disabled Persons because the students begin a three-week vacation this Monday. In the morning I arrived to the bustle of cleaning and organizing in the classroom. Each student had his assigned job. Some took inventory of clay pots. Others displayed beaded necklaces they’d made on hooks in lines on the walls. Steph and I had promised to buy something they’d made, so they diligently exhibited their art for us to view.
For our final day, Vishwani, the class’s teacher brought from home a lunch of fantastic dhal puri and curries. We all ate together with our hands, and Nishan, the mischievous boy who’d shown us his best Sega dance moves on the first day of class, asked for more à la Oliver Twist. Vishwani was happy to sneak another helping onto his plate. And then even another when he threw her a flirty gaze and again asked for more.
Nishan was a bit upset by Stephanie’s delayed arrival—she’d been held up for hours by some transportation complications—so we were all doing what we could to cheer him up. He’d brought us both gifts from home and was distressed that Stephanie might miss the last day. “She’ll be here soon,” I assured him. “It doesn’t matter! I don’t care!” he announced to the room, throwing up his hands in apparent apathy.
After lunch Vishwani walked me around the gardens behind the center—full of bananas, guavas, pineapples, lettuce, cilantro, and papayas. For the past two months I’d had no idea this little paradise sat just beyond the walls of my classroom. When we returned from the garden, we met a family touring the center. They were considering having their son begin there. Vishwani looked around for the keys to the classroom before realizing Nishan had taken them. He often took it upon himself to “organize” Vishwani’s belonging. Just that morning I’d seen him rearrange everything in her purse and reposition her bags, presumably in a more orderly fashion, against the wall.
We called out his name, asked the other students where he might be, and finally realized he was nowhere to be found. Dumbfounded, Vishwani looked apologetically at the visiting family. At least they could look through the windows into the classroom even if they couldn’t enter, she suggested. When we peered through the window, we saw Nishan fast asleep in a chair at the back of the class. He’d locked himself in and drifted off. Our students squealed in laughter, quickly relaying the story to the whole center. Nishan ambled up from his nap with a sly grin and slowly unlocked the door.
Later in the afternoon we indulged in coconut cake, of which Nishan took the lion’s share—no doubt to dull the pain of rejection he was feeling, as Stephanie had still not arrived. Around two, she at last walked through the gates of the center. Nishan at first appeared not to care when she opened the door to the classroom. He wanted Stephanie to know his feelings were hurt, but as soon as he saw her face, a huge grin spread across his from ear to ear. He could barely contain his excitement and handed over his gift—“a necklace from China,” he’d explained to me earlier, “because she is Chinese.” Stephanie is in fact Canadian, I’d explained, but Nishan would have none of it. Nishan gave me an orange hand towel, wrapped neatly in a bundle.
In my time at this center and on this island, I’ve experienced the incredible generosity of Mauritians—Nishan being but one. Food, gifts, and lots of smiles. People have opened their homes to us. Shown us their lives. We speak sometimes of the difficulty some Mauritians have in understanding volunteer work. “There is no culture of public service here,” we say. And this may very well be true. What Mauritius does have, though, is a culture of families. The family is sacred and once admittance is gained, one is forever protected.
I’ve thought a lot about family the past two months. What it means to be a family. I have a family halfway across the world in America—soaking up the summer sun in Florida, biking through the forests in Tennessee, getting ready for Freshman year of college, for an empty nest. I miss my family—a lot. There’s little in this world I’d rather do now than go sailing with my dad or drive through town chatting with my mom. Nothing can replace that, but what I’ve found here in Mauritius is another type of family.
My family of students—what Nishan felt for Stephanie is surely what family members feel for each other. My Yale family here in Mauritius—we can laugh, cry, and complain; we can hate each other’s guts one moment and can be completely over it the next; if that’s not something like siblinghood I don’t know what is. And my ELI family—we’re all bound together in a singular purpose, bringing educational opportunity to those who would not otherwise have it. We believe in equal educational opportunity. We believe that there are so many geniuses lost to inadequate exposure to the world of knowledge. We believe that our students can do incredible things with their lives. We believe we can help them.
Those of you I’m leaving I’m going to sincerely miss; I hope we can meet again one day. I want to thank you for opening your own families to all of us. It’s made a great summer into an extraordinary one. You may not be my real family, but you’re pretty damn close.