Nowadays, my Indicorps fellowship requires that I teach at least ten classes a week to over 60 students. I have ma’am or didi permanently appended to my name. I make tests, projects, lessons plans, schedules, and rules. And as life would have it, I’ve never felt more at peace with any type of work, job or class more than I do my fellowship year, right now.
The thing about trying to change things—from corruption to education—is that you get turned inside out during the process. Everything I thought I was, from my personality to academic strengths, gets wrung like my khadi towel and laid out to dry under the hot Indian sun.
I thought I was patient until a student called me “Angry Ankita.” I didn’t think I was a leader until I heard a coworker quote something I said to inspire another staff member.
My strength, I presumed, lay in mediating, introspection and the ability to connect—backstage, peaceful kind of stuff. But when I got in a fight with my host brother over his laziness and lost my temper, I stopped to reassess.
Years of writing behind a computer screen and practicing yoga has made me a pro at being alone, producing alone. In India, and in our community center, I have to discuss and plan daily with at least ten other people. If I pick up a phone call or open an e-mail, eavesdroppers perk up. Even my meals are shared, down to a single roti.
Being a “people” person has taken on a new meaning, and I’ve had to adjust as a result. Now I can face a room of one hundred shouting kids and not just add to the noise. I talk to everyone involved when making a plan, and clearly see that successes are never, never just mine.
While my strengths are questioned, my weaknesses are too. I used to struggle with assertiveness, never sure of what I deserved or wanted. As a journalist I could ask for an interview through e-mail and maybe a phone call, but used my reporter’s notebook as a crutch to approach people.
Lately I’ve found that confidence is a simple recipe: one part knowing what you need and three parts enduring the challenges when you ask for it.
What I need this year is to give kids in my community equal access to the quality of life that other communities in Chandigarh have. As a result, I don’t think twice about approaching city officials, volunteers and community members to (gently) demand that we get more dustbins, iron supplements, English programs or funding. And I don’t mind doing it in a roughened cotton kurta and sub-par Hindi.
The interesting part about recognizing my personal evolution is the ability to clearly redefine my needs, just as I’ve done with my community.
Six months ago I was hell-bent on creating an artsy, expressive space in our community library that would be the opposite of the authoritarian school atmosphere. I established dancing, drawing and story writing as part of our activities. Then I saw kids struggling in basic writing, failing in math class and disengaging from higher-level courses when they switched to English textbooks. Hip-hop moves couldn’t directly address that.
The solution was clearly to balance the approach. We got a bit stricter and more traditional, but remained true to self-expression. Slowly, it has been working.
Realigning my own needs was a similar story. When I needed comfort back in the States I used a foolproof remedy: best friends, cheesy movies, and cookies.
But my childhood friends are not here to lounge on a nonexistent couch. I’ve been turned off of TV after seeing it suck life and hours out of the children’s days. And cookies—well, let’s just say a kerosene stove is not an oven.
After years of thinking I needed these outlets to relax and let go, it took a few tearful nights to look further into what gives me comfort. As it turns out, I’m pretty self-sustaining. A long, slow walk in the warm sun and a hot gulab jamun did wonders for my homesickness.
Springing out of my self-pity and into teaching a yoga class gave no room for wallowing. And talking to my mom, even if it was through counterintuitive G-Mail chatting, was the final cherry on a pretty awesome Sunday.
People often talk about finding yourself and knowing yourself and defining who you are. However, I’ve found that this definition I’ve created of Ankita over the years—loving, creative, hesitant, a little bit on the hippie side—seems to be about as consistent as recent monsoon seasons.
I still don’t want to be a teacher, and not just because I hate being called ma’am. But this time I’d prefer not to take that role because I’d rather be a student. I’d rather be a student of India, of my family and friends, even of my own students, so that I can continue to learn and change. And that’s one quality that I can assure you will not go away any time soon.
Ankita Rao is an August 2010 Indicorps Fellow. Based in Chandigarh, she is partnered with Yuvasatta and focuses on creating positive after-school learning environments.