The kids and I have started looking for more unconventional ways to pass the time as classes begin to wind down. After unsuccessfully trying to motivate my students to write more articles, I picked up a football (a soccer ball in English) and casually started kicking it around with Manav. The whole educational center surrounded us in a ring of curious faces and eager feet within five minutes. When one of my kicks strayed into the crowd, it was promptly returned with an excited yell. The game had begun.
In moments, dozens of little boys streamed onto the driveway to join in. It was one of the only times in my life that I have actually felt tall. Suddenly an island of a pink dress surrounded by shouts and wiggling limbs, I beckoned for the other girls to join me. They stared at me like I had three heads and then finally shook their heads “no” with arms crossed and eyes wary.
Something Lauren has frequently said about her sports and nutrition class is that the girls are usually reluctant to participate in the physical activities she has planned. I’ve definitely noticed this trend in my last two weeks here. In every game of football, I am the only female playing; both the girls and the boys are consistently surprised when I jump in to participate. It is a starkly different scene from the mixed gender games of kickball and “capture the flag” that I frequently see in my hometown. This makes me wonder if, somewhere along the line, women in Mauritius are being discouraged from being active. Where are they getting this idea that sports are strictly for men?
I’m sure that, in the inexperience of youth, the gangs of schoolboys that play football in the afternoons don’t exactly welcome their female schoolmates to participate. That’s not the problem. The problem is that there is no infrastructure in Mauritius that encourages young women to become athletes. Not only are sports leagues for girls virtually nonexistent, but a belief in equality of access to sports is also underdeveloped at best. While I recognize that this may be my Western bias toward gender parity speaking (and that extracurriculars are low on the list of priorities for a developing country), I think that a nation with diabetes and heart disease epidemics would benefit from incentivizing half of its population to become more physically active.
When I was younger, my dad gave me a book called How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. Reading it was my first exposure to how important football is to communities outside of the U.S. Writes Foer,
“Soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.”
For adolescent boys in Mauritius, football is everything. The game is a conduit for social development, athleticism, and healthy entertainment. More importantly, it is the great equalizer. Unlike sports like lacrosse that seem to discriminate between the wealthy and the poor based on ability to afford equipment, a basic game of football requires only a ball and an open stretch of land. Football here is more than a game; it is a way of life.
Playing football with a group of aggressive, energetic kids is as hazardous as it sounds—I have the bruises on my ribs and legs to prove it. Manav, who is significantly shorter than the older boys, always gets roughed up too. I made the mistake of picking him off the ground and carrying him to the sidelines the first time he was pushed down; the others wouldn’t let him forget it. Apparently my protective instinct is a curse when it comes to peer respect for these young guys. It takes some self-control, but I am learning to let Manav discover how to fend for himself and earn his stripes among the group.
The students seem so alive when they are on the field. Seeing them like that has made me regret teaching a class that was just as academically rigorous as their school curriculums. Instead of giving them the break they deserved and letting them just be kids, I ended up creating the same problems that tuition, ELI Africa’s competitor, generates: burn-out and boredom. I hope that future ELI Africa Fellows will keep this lesson in mind when they are designing their summer programs. No matter how creative you think your idea may be, students will not be eager about a class that isn’t fun. Unfortunately for my students and me, I realized that lesson too late. The best I can do now is squeeze in as many football games as possible, learn to laugh, and let the kids score a goal on me every once in a while.
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.
Lauren here. This was our second to last week teaching. It is time to start thinking about what we want to leave as our legacy. In hockey, our coach constantly talked to the senior class about legacy. He was always asking, what is the message you want to leave? What do you want to be remembered as? It is during this time when things are beginning to wrap up that I am wondering what I want my legacy to be. I know what I have taught, I know what I have accomplished, but now is the time to think about what I want to leave behind. Thinking about it now, the obvious answer to me is this: I want to leave behind an atmosphere of energy, curiosity, and fearlessness. I want to leave behind a message of energy and enthusiasm so that when I leave, the students will continue to be active. Curiosity so that when I leave them with knowledge about the Olympics, they are curious enough to be checking out the website and following the results. I want to leave a message for the girls to be fearless. I want them to know that being athletic and confident is absolutely ok.
It is impossible to teach sports in a classroom, the best way is through experience. This is why I have been taking the students to a soccer field almost every day to show them different ways to be active. I have taught them handball, kickball, and baseball. Have you ever tried explaining the game of baseball? It is so much harder than it seems! Luckily, they catch on quick and before I knew it, the poor mop handle I had commandeered as a bat was bent and broken.
I am certainly going to miss the fun times. We have had some good ones. At one point, Jordy was running the bases, when I believe the first baseman tripped him. I turn around and Jordy is doing multiple summersaults through the dirt. Everyone started laughing to the point of tears and we let Jordy go to second because he would have made it there anyway. Jenna was a hitting powerhouse! She was hitting ball so hard and I am so proud of her for coming out of her shell these past few weeks. She would sit on the side and watch but now she is always a willing participant.
This week I wanted to focus on global sports and perhaps expose the students to some sport they knew little about. I prepared a slideshow with pictures of major sports from all over the world. When we got to lacrosse, field hockey, crew, fencing, and ice hockey, I had to explain what they were and where in the world they were popular. I made sure to include photos of girls playing volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse and others so that the girls in class would be able to see the athletic women of the world.
I was in the process of asking the students what activity they wanted to play on Wednesday when they informed me they did not have class. It was sports day and when I inquired what this meant, I was told it like a giant field day involving about 20 schools. I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along and watch the students participate! The events were 100, 200, 400, and 800-meter sprints, along with potato sack races, bottle-filling races, needle threading, and long jump. They received medals in several events including sprints, needle threading, sack races, and bottle filling! The atmosphere of the stadium was electric. Entire schools showed up and anyone who was not participating demonstrated school spirit to the maximum. Students brought drums and were beating them all day, while some brought homemade noisemakers and others wore bandanas. It was amazing to see the athletes this event brought out. Both boys and girls were competing to win and it was really awesome to be a part of it.
It was a really exciting experience to see the support that came of out Sports Day. Even though not everyone was able to participate, they were always supportive of the students that were competing.
Today was a really interactive day for the Fellows and me. We spent the day visiting schools in the area, which is something we probably should have done when we first arrived. Seeing the students in their usual educational environment was infinitely more helpful than being told about it by others. Our first stop was the Rabindranath Tagore Institute (RTI), a prestigious secondary school in the Pamplemousses district. The campus was a sprawling complex of mustard-colored buildings and exotic flower bushes; it was a tropical version of Lady Margaret Hall, the college I lived in during a summer in Oxford. The staff and pupils were incredibly gracious and welcoming; you could tell they were well prepared to receive us. They even let us participate in their last-day-of-school disco! We fistpumped and sega-ed our way through a few songs (including “Champagne Showers,” our de facto summer theme song) before climbing back into the car to drive to our next destination.
The secondary school we arrived at was tucked away at the mouth of a narrow village road, invisible to passerby on the main streets. My first thought was that this campus looked just like RTI, but after a worldwide apocalypse. The paint was cracking, the lights dim. Curtains swung precariously through dull, open windows, and every door creaked in rusty objection when we entered. The complete lack of students, who had just been released for winter break, contributed to the eerie feel of the place. Unlike RTI, which has dozens of buildings, an auditorium, gyms, music rooms, labs, and any other facility useful for education, this school’s only furnishings were peeling desks and shattered chalkboards. This was a school for “average” students—those who had not achieved outstanding scores on their CPEs. I was shocked when Vedant told us that this was where many of our ELI Africa students studied.
After seeing RTI and a government school in the same day, I realized how different an experience students in Mauritius have. So much is based on where they receive a secondary education. While it’s true that there are “better” and “worse” schools even in developed countries like America, the differences between those Western institutions are nonexistent compared to the educational discrepancies here. Still, I could not help but think of New York during today’s tours. Education in my state is full of contradictions; it is home to some of the nation’s most respected schools, as well as some of the most resource-deprived ones. Which one you attended is partially based on merit, like Stuyvesant High School, but is mostly based on what area you can afford to live in. Unlike Mauritian education, whose value increases with ability to pay tuition fees, the quality of public education in New York often depends on whether or not you have the money to pay property taxes to live within the school’s zone. The result is that students attending inner city schools where taxes are cheap receive a comparatively sparse education compared to kids in the suburbs. And since level of education is positively correlated to salary in America, the cycle simply continues. Children living in poverty continue to struggle in underfunded schools, while the offspring of the relatively wealthy have a chance to better themselves through school. The problem that the folks at ELI Africa are trying to solve isn’t a Mauritian problem; it’s a worldwide epidemic of educational inequality.
I am completely at a loss for how we can stop this cycle and start equalizing quality of public education. And while I do not know if our experiential learning programs are enough to supplement the meager education that the ELI students tend to receive in public school, I do hope that we can at least inspire them to see the world outside a system that has already written them off.
I thought I’d slip in a quick post about accomplishing something that I have always wanted to try. Today, I went on Miguel Hermelin’s “Le Club du Midi” program for Radio One in Mauritius. Let me tell you—it was unlike anything I have ever done.
From beginning to end, the whole experience was a rush. We arrived behind schedule in Port Louis and sprinted through the crowded midday streets, squeezing in between veering vehicles and irritated pedestrians. With my 5’1 stature, it was ridiculously difficult to keep up with the much taller Vedant and Kelvin. I felt like I was in some crazy chase scene out of “Mission Impossible” (although I’m happy to say I don’t run as awkwardly as Tom Cruise). After picking through countless street vendors, the Radio One building appeared before us on a beautiful cobblestone street. My voice was about to be broadcast to all of Mauritius—yet, I’ll be honest, all I could think about was getting into the air conditioning.
After speaking with the secretary at the front door, we entered the inner sanctum of the Radio One building. The center console of the broadcasting room was a car wreck of wires, computer screens, and fluffy microphones protruding precariously from the electrical tangle. I stared through the huge window to the street while we wanted for our turn to talk. The soundproofing created an odd sensation: dozens of people went through the emphatic motions of speaking, but the scene was completely devoid of noise. I created conversations as I watched them interact, losing myself completely in the spontaneous scenarios I imagined.
Miguel Hermelin, the host of “Le Club du Midi,” pulled me back to Earth with a charismatic wave. As they positioned me in front of a microphone, I watched Miguel continue to speak. I am so used to focusing on radiocasters’ words that I never stop to consider what they look like when they talk. While I cannot vouch for other casters, I can say that Miguel is every bit as energetic and captivating as his voice suggests. So, there I was, ensnared by the monstrous electrical centerpiece, when a red light appeared on the screen before me. We were on the air. I felt my body instantly jump to high alert, the way it always would before an important debate round in high school. I tried desperately to relax as Miguel introduced us to his audience. He turned and asked me the first question, and those countless hours of speech practice suddenly kicked in (thanks, Mrs. Esslinger, for giving me the tools I needed not to make a fool of myself in front of all of Mauritius!). We chatted about my experience with ELI Africa; I even through in a few French words for good measure! When the red light switched off, I could not believe that it was over so quickly. We shook hands with Miguel, thanked his staff for their help, and entered back into the stream of traffic in Port Louis.
Talking on the radio reminded me why I decided to teach journalism here in the first place. Having a voice is a powerful thing but, as Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I believe in teaching children how to use their powerful voices to make positive, meaningful change in the world. For just a few minutes, my words reached thousands of people around the island; I hope that my students all have the opportunity to someday know what that feels like.
Manav arrives every afternoon at D’Epinay Village Hall without fail. A relieved smile breaks across his face when he sees me, always surprised that I have returned for another day. He paws shyly at the cabinet where I keep crayons and coloring books and waits for me to open it. Class has begun.
* * *
We weren’t initially friends. I first met Manav on the makeshift football field behind the center, hollering at the older boys from the sidelines. He constantly trailed behind me after that, curious about my presence but nervous enough to always keep at arm’s length. He never smiled, just studied me with brown eyes that seemed too large for his face. I felt like I could see the gears and cogs turning in his head as he tried to make sense of me.
I spoke to him with a big smile and easy French but his mouth, tight with concentration, never moved. That little boy was as much of an enigma to me as I was to him.
* * *
Our first breakthrough occurs when Manav accidentally get ahold of the dry erase markers. When I turn around from helping another student, I find a sun squiggled in a corner of the whiteboard and a proud six-year-old with a hesitant grin. “Soleil méchant ou mignon?” I ask. Mean sun or cute sun?
“Mignon,” he replies with an even cuter smile.
And so it goes every day for weeks. Manav draws suns, flowers, cars, and boats, and I ask if they are mean or cute. The answer changes depending on his mood. I am struck by how particular he is when drawing. There is not a line left out of place or a stray mark permitted to exist. Manav demonstrates an idiosyncratic grasp of perfection for a six-year-old. Most remarkable of all, however, is that this emphasis on order and correctness doesn’t hamper his artistic creativity. I grow to envy that he controls, rather than is controlled by, his need for excellence.
I try to teach him the names of simple images, letters, and numbers, but the exercises don’t seem to hold his attention. I do, however, manage to reinforce one memorable English exchange that I am sure most of my friends will yell at me for: when I say “cat,” he “meows” emphatically in response. It has become our personal greeting, an inside joke of sorts.
When Manav has exhausted the possibilities of a whiteboard and a black marker, I bring him drawing books and worksheets. My favorite part of the day becomes watching his imagination explode across the page in swirls of waxy color. In between the outlines of houses and planes, I discover a clever and inquisitive child that has been overlooked by everyone else.
* * *
Little by little, we share pieces of our personal lives. He sketches his friends, and I sketch mine. When I ask him to draw his family, he stares blankly at the board and shrugs. I quickly create two stick figure images: him with big eyes and me with crazy hair, the way he always likes to draws me. I write famille over our heads. Family. He smiles shyly and returns to drawing.
Another day, I show Manav pictures and videos of my two dogs at home. I tell him that I love them like siblings and watch as an idea appears behind his eyes. True to form, he comes to class the next day staggering under the weight of another child in his arms. It all clicks when I catch the same huge eyes like tea saucers. This is Manav’s brother. Except, instead of bringing me a photo, he brought the real thing. I cannot help but laugh at the sincerity of his “show and tell” attempt.
* * *
A tropical downpour covers D’Epinay one afternoon. Manav and I sit on the porch, watching the treetops shake in the rain. The world is quiet until he bolts and points at the driveway, which has suddenly begun to writhe. Dozens of shrews have evacuated their flooded subterranean homes and now squirm, fur like wet velvet, in the middle of the road. He screams over and over again in Creole, but I recognize enough words to understand what he wants me to do. L’Auto. Souris. Écraser. His concern for life at six years old catches me off guard. I hike up my skirt and step into the sheet of water; I am soaked in seconds. As he yells and points with delight, I chase every disoriented shrew to grassy safety. My delicate, shuffling steps are like a dance and I giggle, feeling free for the first time in weeks.
A lone shrew, however, is not so lucky. I find Manav tucked over one that is nearly drowned in a puddle. The boy quietly watches it perish; I watch the boy learn what death looks like. He looks at me soberly when it is over, but I can’t manage anything to say.
* * *
I try not to think that, in two weeks, I will be moving further away by the minute from Manav on a plane headed for Copenhagen. I try not to think that I will probably never return to Mauritius or see him again. I try not to think that I am leaving a six-year-old child to a bitter life on the streets lacking room for education, compassion, and imagination. I try not to think that the need to survive will soon be the only impulse he feels. I try not to think that that the youth and creativity I have been honored to witness for the past two months will be nothing more than a distant memory as he inevitably conforms to the draining pressures of growing up.
I simply try not to think.
Instead, I squeeze every life lesson I can into a matter of days. When a group of rowdy boys gathers outside our classroom, I point and ask Manav my standard question: “Méchant ou mignon?”
“Méchant,” he answers. Mean. I instinctively cringe.
“Listen,” I say in crude French, taking him by the shoulders. “You are really special and kind, and kids like that deserve to be surrounded by similar people.”
I close my eyes, praying that if he learns just one thing from me, it is this: “Life is too short to spend it with mean friends.”
A couple of months ago my friends and I went to a Florence and the Machine concert. I had never really listened to the music. The one song that I could name was Dog Days Are Over, but when your friends want to go and they are obsessed, you usually don’t argue with them. We made the drive to the concert and I tagged along, maybe dragging my feet a little on the way to the car. My friends would look at each other and giggle with the sort of excitement that bordered on mania. Then it started. The music plus the lyrics plus her stage antics made the concert absolutely one of the best I had been to. Immediately afterward I downloaded all the Florence I could get my hands on. I must say, I think I am infected. I have been listening to Florence all the time here in Mauritius, I think my fellow Fellows can attest to that.
The main reason I have fallen for Florence is that it reminds me of my youth. I know I know, I am 22 years old, what do I know of youth. I know there is something intoxicating about it. I am the lone graduate in our group of fellows and I am constantly reminded of it when the others talk of New Haven and how excited they are to get back to school. The favorite restaurants, the late night snack stops, the comfy chairs in the library that are not conducive to doing work. I have come to realize that I will never experience those moments again. I will never be in my suite again with my roommates, I will never go to brunch, I will never lie on Old Campus, and I will never have the study sessions on Sundays with my team. All of this is now in my past. This realization has created a hole in me. A hole I think Florence is attempting to fill. Sounds cheesy but the music and lyrics calm my nostalgia. The hole gets bigger when I realize that I will never step on the ice as a varsity athlete again. I will never play a game at the caliber I have for the past four years. Thinking about it now, it is synonymous to death. I have lost something. Something I can never get back. My college career is over.
This brings me to the power of nostalgia. Nostalgia, I have come to realize, is a powerful tool. I am sad that the time has passed and that it will never be the same again, but I will never forget those moments. The times when I laughed so hard with my teammates that I cried and couldn’t breathe. The moments on the ice when I was caught in a race, battling for possession, fighting to win. These are burned into my memory.
You know those moments that bring you back to your childhood? Despite the fact that my childhood is not that far behind me, my time in Mauritius has shown me that I have drifted further from it than I had intended. I always intended to stay in tune with my inner child, to maintain the genuine excitement, curiosity and spontaneous nature that I used to have. I have come to realize that I have struggled to do so since graduation. The stress of big decisions, the call of the real world, and the unknown all drowned out the cries of my inner 10 year old. I have discovered that teaching is the best way to keep in touch with that inner child.
Barbara Walters was the speaker at my commencement this year. She had two great pieces of advice. One: Participate. You must participate in life. Don’t let it pass you by. Two: Find your bliss. My bliss has evaded me thus far. But I like to think I am on the right track.
Here is my advice: One. Remember the power of nostalgia. You never know where it might take you. Two. Listen to Florence and the Machine. The lyrics might remind you of something you had forgotten. Three. Take Barbara Walters’ advice. Four. Teach. At some point your should experience what it is like to be the person passing on knowledge, who knows, you might learn something. Five. Wear sunscreen.
The whirring of a fan on high. The buzzing of an army of thirsty mosquitoes. The scraping of chairs against tile. The hum of fluorescent light bulbs. The shuffling of sketch pads against conjoined tables. All these sounds are relatively standard in my classroom. But wait, to complete this audio visual I should add a few more things. The beat of Mauritius’s hottest tracks playing on portable speakers. The shouting in Creole of children trying to communicate across the table. The cries of indignation when a student laughs at another’s artwork. The slide of a ruler from one student to another. The dull thumps of an eraser making its way across the room. The tinkle of a pencil following the eraser in pursuit. The splash of water, perhaps on the table, maybe on paper, maybe on another student. These are some of the loudest sounds in my day when I take a second in my classroom to try and take it all in.
On the days when the noise of class can be a bit much I like to try and drown out my thoughts in loud music that I blast through my headphones once I get home. However, sometimes rather than calm my racing mind it builds on the existing sounds. So the other day, rather than continue to use a method that was counterproductive, I decided to try something new. After dinner, I grabbed a towel, went upstairs, and lied down on the roof, staring at the stars.
The rustle of palm fronds in the slight breeze. The chirp of crickets. The occasional bark of a dog. The purr of a car cruising home on the highway. Relative silence.
After looking up at the stars and what I’m pretty sure was Mars, I discovered a tranquility that I had lost for a little while. As I actually took the time to reflect on my day and on my time at the center I realized that there were some crucial sounds that had been lost in the noise.
The voices of some of my students asking to take art supplies home so they could continue to do their work. The laughing of the students who come to class early to witness silly pre-class antics. The questions, “Is this okay?” or “does this look good?” as the students show me the hard work that they have been putting forth. The scratch of brushes on paper after an art demo has been given and the students try their hands at a new activity.
Sometimes it’s quite easy to get swept up in the noise, to be overwhelmed by sound. But there are other senses that I have to remember to use when I’m running the risk of drowning in the day to day noise. It would be nice to understand what the students are saying when they speak in Creole to one another and I bet it would be nice for them if I could communicate with them in a language in which they feel comfortable. However, there are other means of communication. When I’m explaining an art concept and I make eye contact with the students and I see that they are paying attention to the lesson. When I take my laps around the room and I see students blending colors in their palettes and sketching out their ideas before they take their brush to the paper. When I see the students who stay after class to make sure everything gets cleaned up and that Lauren and myself have a ride home. It seems like I have been doing a lot of seeing but I have realized that until now I had not really opened my eyes.
As we are approaching the finish line I need to remember to open my ears to the sounds that can get easily lost in the noise. I need to remember to open my eyes to the sights that can be easily overlooked. I need to remember that it’s the little things that matter and it’s not always about the loudest sound.
Mauritius has been a real roller coaster for me so far. I am learning a lot about myself, human nature, and what it means to persevere. This trip has tested me in ways I never thought possible, and it has forced me to question how far I can really push myself. So today I’d like to focus on a topic that has been at the forefront of my thinking lately: strength.
Strength is a challenging concept to correctly define. At the heart of this difficulty is the fact that experience isn’t objective. You and I may witness the same event, but how we think about it, how it makes us feel, and how it impacts us in the long term will never be identical. This isn’t just theory; there is a reason that testimony from multiple witnesses to an event can be so greatly varied. Like a fingerprint, we are each uniquely carved by how we interpret our experiences. So then how do we sculpt a universal and accurate concept of human strength and, in the same vein of thought, human weakness?
The answer is, we don’t. This feels counterintuitive, especially for a person like me who feels anxious when something can’t be defined and filed into its ordered place in the world. But it is ultimately healthier to let strength mean different things to different people than to limit its reach by crafting a set of criteria. In the same way that we have recently begun to acknowledge the idea of multiple intelligences, we need to start accepting that there are different kinds of strengths.
Physical strength has historically been an ideal trait to have. When our ancestors were chasing down prey (or running away as prey themselves), being able to sprint fast, leap high, and throw strong was of the utmost importance. And even though most of us no longer have to make catching or evading animals a priority, we still value physical strength among our soldiers, athletes, and law enforcement officials. I think of people like Lance Armstrong and Mia Hamm, whose bodily abilities are a manifestation of their hard work and discipline. They deserve the utmost respect and admiration for their physical achievements.
But let’s be honest: the majority of us couldn’t be as physically strong as people like Michael Phelps even if we wanted to. And this is where it becomes infinitely more complex. Is an individual who crumbles under the strain of a marathon but endures the loss of multiple family members in one year weak? I don’t think anyone would successfully argue ‘yes.’ We recognize that strength is not just about physical ability but also incorporates emotional, intellectual, and social capabilities, just to name a few. And within the nonphysical category, there exists the same huge variation in type. I am hard pressed to find proof that a person diagnosed with cancer must muster more strength than someone living with an addiction. My point is that we can’t compare challenges. They are each unique, as are each individual’s reaction. The nearest I can come to correctly defining human strength is that it resembles perseverance, but even that isn’t completely on point.
Furthermore, I don’t think that strength means a person appears in control of their emotions 100% of the time. The fact is that people process challenges in unique ways. A complaining crier is not necessarily weaker than the stoic who silently bears her trials; they just have varied means of articulating themselves. Vocal and animated communication and apparent anguish do not represent defeat. The development of a mental illness like PTSD, for example, is not an indicator that the individual in question is weak. It just means that they cope differently. In my opinion, strength isn’t about the manner in which you keep going; it’s about the fact that you do keep going. It’s perseverance. So cry if you want to, throw a tantrum, run until you’re more than exhausted. Do what you need to do to deal, but deal. And, while you’re at it, stop evaluating strength based on how people express. Focus on the simple fact of whether or not they emerge from whatever tribulation has burdened their path in life.
On balance, the people that I know do a good job of accepting the idea that we possess different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. But, unfortunately, I have come in contact with people who are too quick to pass judgment. These individuals feel that their strength is the only strength and condemn those who differ from their subjective norm as weak and cowardly. The irony is that those who try to define strength in order to reduce the unpredictable variables that so unnerve them are most likely to be surprised. Their self-imposed limitations don’t account for the idea of multiple and elastic strengths. People, after all, unfailingly rise to the occasion when destiny calls; they channel tenacity they never knew they had. If strength is about surprising everyone, including yourself, about how far you will go to persevere, then those who judge are inevitably going to be wrong about who is and isn’t strong. This is not the kind of future than can be predicted.
Furthermore, those who try to exclude others from the category of strength are lacking an important strength themselves: empathy. I think it takes a huge amount of courage for someone to look at the very foreign experiences of another individual and view them with respect and understanding. My mother once told me that you can’t judge another person’s pain no matter how big or small it is. Pain is pain. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t your strength; strength is strength.
Regardless of whether or not you feel that this idea of different but equal challenges is legitimate, I think we can agree that it is unfair to pass judgment about a person’s strength without fully understanding what they have been through and how it has affected them. Walk a day in their shoes; you may find that their challenges, though different from yours, leave you gasping for breath. I know this is true for me. I often look at someone and wonder how they managed to persevere through trials that I feel would break me in a matter of moments. I can’t claim to always act without judgment; I am far from perfect. But, if anything, I recognize my own flaws common with society and advocate that we all make an effort to stop categorizing people as strong or weak based on narrow evaluations of what the words mean.
I look at the people in Mauritius and I see strength. It is such a different kind than I have experienced, but it is still strength all the same. I am grateful to have been exposed to people who struggle and persevere through challenges I have never had to even think about facing. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (a wonderful book that somehow manages to simultaneously capture our childhood fantasies while answering burning questions about human nature), Dumbledore says something to Harry that really makes me stop and think about our mistakes in trying to define what it means to endure: “There is no shame in what you are feeling…on the contrary, the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.” The life that we so deeply value would be nothing without the agonizing challenges that shape who we are. I cannot come close to defining what being human means, but I do know that emotions, both euphoric and excruciating, are part of what makes our species so remarkable. No matter how difficult they may be to deal with, I wouldn’t want a life without them. Because, at the end of the day, the sun feels so much better after surviving the storm.
Lauren here! This week has been a little odd. Saturday was our adventure to Le Pouce, which I just learned means “the thumb.” How accurate because the mountain is shaped like a big thumb. Our journey up the mountain started with excitement and confidence….which slowly dwindled to exhaustion and confusion as to how anyone could scale a pure 90 degree angle. I assure you the tourist we saw cruising down the mountain had not taken the same path. We then discovered that at the fork back there, we should have taken a right instead of a left. Bryan, Lincoln, and I were absolutely going to scale that mountain, but sadly 15 feet from the top we could go no further. We all returned to the bus stop sweaty, smelly, dead tired, and covered in mud. I will call that day “an adventure.”
Sunday saw our standard day at the beach. We brought a volleyball too so that we could stay entertained when we did not want to just lay in the sun. Then Monday came. This week has been extremely interesting, with little obstacles coming out of left field. The first one was Monday morning when Brittany and I left for our morning run and she promptly tripped over a rock, slow motion falling to the ground into a summersault, coming to rest on her back. I tried to pull her up and she said, “nope, I’m just gonna stay here for a minute.” We finished our route with a brisk walk and saw that her knees and hand had some skin removed.
Tuesday was my day to teach. I started off with an exercise where they had to stand on a sheet and figure out how to turn the sheet completely over without stepping off of it. They did a really great job communicating and working together! Then we tried back to back drawing to encourage detailed description and communication. I then talked about mental health and reviewed stress and relaxation techniques. I walked them through progressive relaxation and a kind of guided meditation and by the end they were really into it.
Wednesday we played Ninja again because the students requested it and really love that game. Then we played volleyball for the longest time because they did NOT want to stop! It was really fun to see everyone get involved. We then did the Great Egg Drop. I gave them toilet paper rolls, sponges, paper and tape and told them they had to create a package for an egg that we would then drop off of the roof. I gave them 5 minutes to create a plan and then handed out the supplies. I was nervous that none of the eggs would break from the look of the packages, and let’s be honest, it’s really no fun if all the eggs survive. I had every group name their package, one was even named Paul, and then we proceeded outside to drop some eggs!! The first one broke, egg juice was running through the newspaper. The second one broke too. I got nervous that no eggs would survive! That would be no fun either. Finally we had a survivor. Another casualty later and then another survivor! It was really great to see how excited the students got about the surviving eggs and I told them at the end of class if there were any activities they wanted to do again to let me know. I suspect this might make a repeat appearance.
Thursday night Brittany and I were indulging in a little donut treat that Kelvin had brought over. It was delicious, with a nice layer of chocolate in the middle. Brittany wanted to split another one so she headed to the kitchen when I realized what I was tasting was not chocolate, but Nutella. I was pleasantly surprised when I froze….Brittany has a severe peanut allergy. I yelled for her to come back and we looked at each other with apprehension and fear. She proactively popped a Benadryl and drank some water. It did not prevent her from feeling a little sick that night, but at least we didn’t have to stab her in the leg.
We are stoked for the weekend. I think it is going to be a lazy one. Beach days sound nice. I have been told I am developing a nice freckle covered tan. Bring it on! Until next week. Lauren out.