Life as a Romance

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Reunited with Cameron

A month ago now I got to travel to Delhi and visit with one of my best friends from UNC. There is something inexplicably special about college friendships. I suppose four years of intense personal and interpersonal transformations is hard to describe. Cameron and I lived in the same dorm our first year of college, traveled in India together 3 years ago, took the same leadership class sophomore year and then taught it together senior year, and in general have been each other’s checks and balances, consistent breakfast date, shoulder for a good cry and “go-to” for a much needed laugh. He’s the kind of person I can have a conversation with about everything and nothing late in to the night and the kind of person I can sit next to and say nothing for hours.

Something Cameron said during one of our late night roof-top conversations inspired the topic of this post. After a full day of jittery conversation over our favorite dosas and quiet contemplation in front of a Sikh temple he told me that he wanted his life to “be like a romance.” Somehow, surprisingly, this resonated with me.

I am not a romantic. Public displays of affection tend to give me the creeps and I favor the forever-feared long distance relationship. Sentiments like, “oh crap, we’re supposed to do something that requires me to spend money for this holiday?” and “but do we really have to hold hands?” certainly puts me at the top of most people’s ideal date list (insert snark mark, my new favorite punctuation mark indicating sarcasm.) But after giving Cameron’s analogy a chance, I realized that I’m not lacking romantic bones in my body, simply I’m already head-over-heals in love with the world.

A Sikh temple and beautiful place for reflections
A Sikh temple, beautiful place for reflection

From mundane smiles of contentedness to butterflies churning in your stomach and your heart exploding out of your chest, from the avid infuriation over something you believe to be wrong to the moment that frustration gets flipped around in your face, from the moments of comfort uprooted by spontaneous adventures, life right now feels just like I’m falling for the first time. Every day is filled with something new that inspires and makes me fall a little more in love with the world. And somehow – unimaginably, romantically so – the daily frustrations, little quirks, upsetting moments, and big questions help me appreciate the world – and fall in love – a little more.

Often I think falling in love with the world can be conflated with the honeymoon phase of falling in love with YOUR world. But, I do not think that my life or job is perfect. I am not infatuated with the monotonous breakfast pongal nor am I blind to certain school biases. It is what I am learning to accept – and discovering I cannot – that makes me fall deeper and deeper in love. I’ve already written on how much I love my students, and how many proud mother moments I have had here. So instead of focusing on what we know of as love, I want to explain the moments where the joy is hidden. Ultimately, this hidden infatuation makes way for more profound appreciation.

In most relationships there is a first fight. Ignoring the fact that I’ve never been in a fight per say, I can speak on the tensions of disagreements. I vividly remember the first near-argument I had during a college relationship. I started getting incredibly animated over his and his housemates’ use of offensive language. But, before either of us could convince the other of our beliefs, he ended the discussion under the verdict of not wanting to make me mad. What if it was something that deserved being mad about?

Walking that tight-rope of teacher, friend, mentor, and administrator :)
Walking that tight-rope of teacher, friend, mentor, and administrator

Here, my non-confrontational manner has been forcibly tested. I am constantly trying to determine what is worthy of my anger. Walking the line of cultural difference is like balancing on a tight rope. One small misstep can cause plummeting of great depths. Therefore, I have to decide if it’s necessary for my anger to beget action. Disagreeing on a punishment rarely enrages me: ultimately what is the difference between one ragi ball and two? When it comes to believing in the student’s capabilities, however, I have stopped being able to keep my mouth shut.

I am a strong believer in positive reinforcement, but management and discipline do not always work that way here. Rather than highlighting children’s successes and rewarding good behavior, it is custom to repeatedly reprimand misbehaviors. I refuse to accept that putting students through weeks on end of “all study no fun” is really going to change their grades and behavior that much. But, that tight rope that I’m walking includes the balance between following my beliefs and not upsetting the structure that has worked for so long. So sometimes, tongue biting is still necessary. When falling in love, however, it is important to not let arguments consume the relationship. Instead, I have learned from these disputes, and let them teach a lesson.

Support is a huge element of my job: both giving it and remembering that I can seek it out. I am talented at internalizing everything. If I can be taking care of someone else, why would I possibly be focusing on myself? This too plays a major role in relationships. I cherish being able to care for others – to ask the right question, be the listening ear, or give the perfect hug. But this past month I faced a task I never could have anticipated. One of my darling 2nd graders, Aswhini, a rambunctious trouble maker and problem solver, passed away due to epileptic seizures. Our whole community was hit hard. No one knew how to react or what to say. Jamuna, Aswhini’s best friend, stood up during the memorial service to tell us all that “Ashwini was a brave girl.” I watched tears flow freely from some of the strongest adults that I know.

Playing with some of Aswhini's classmates
Playing with some of Aswhini’s classmates

The weeks that followed Aswhini’s death were filled with a very unique form of love and support that often accompanies grieving. These children are wise beyond their years. When I read bed-time stories to the 2nd graders they brought me Ashwini’s stuffed animal for me to meet and paused the story whenever her favorite color, animal, name etc. came up. They told me humorous stories of her bravery, like the time she caught a bandicoot or the time she killed a jackal. But, they also remind me how I was the first one to start crying when Dr. George announced her death. I sat on the edge of the stage, looking out over a sea of young, sullen faces, listening to the words of bold little Jammuna, trying to be strong “for their sake,” and crying regardless. They don’t let me forget that I too am human. I am discovering that it is just as important to give out love as it is to let it in. Ashwini and each of these children keep me humble; they remind me to let the love in.

They make it easy. There’s a lot of love to let in: when I listen to them laugh at every movie night as if they are being recorded for sitcom laugh tracks, when I watch them play soccer and make sportsman-like decisions few highschoolers could, when the small children beg me to come exercise with them, when they make reference to something they learned in one of my classes, when they admit they made a mistake, my list goes on.

Shadows loves to sit on my shoulder
Shadows loves to sit on my shoulder

And, to top off my lessons on simultaneously giving and receiving love, I have adopted a cat. One night he woke up the older girls with his incessant, pitiful meows, and since has been given a bath, some food, and a warm bed known as my pillow. Everyone, meet Shadows. I love him even when he’s still being potty trained, I love him even when he claws me awake at 5am, I love him despite the fact that no one domesticates cats in India and just like everywhere else black cats are exceptionally auspicious. And in return, he loves me. Having a tiny kitten greet me with pitiful meows when I come home after a long day, having him perch on my shoulders as I get ready for bed and curl up on my chest purring as I read before I fall asleep, is better than any partner I could ask for.

The romance in my life right now is strictly a social experiment with the world. Overseas care packages deliver my chocolates and small children delight me bouquets of wild flowers. Love letters come in the form of minion drawings and the milky-way sends light goodnight kisses. I could not feel more full, complete, content, or in love as I do now.

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