She was thirteen. The age that I was when I began high school. I think back to myself two years ago and see slightly shorter hair, big eyes, a lankier frame, and the graceful beginnings of an adult clumsily beginning to emerge from the body of a little girl. I remember my first kiss, experiences with bullying, my farewell to braces, the death of a friend, and my admission to and first few weeks at Andover. When I think of thirteen, I think of the opening of adolescence, and the anxiety, excitement, discovery, and insecurity that came with it. Thirteen. Two years younger than me, and probably half as large. Even through her beautiful, loose red dress, I could see the concave where her stomach should be and the bony limbs jutting from the hem of her embroidered skirt. The womanly figure that should begin to materialize at that age was nowhere to be seen in her skinny, childish frame. Her knotted hair was carefully tied behind her head, creating a wave of thick ponytail cascading down her back. By the objectives of her features, she could easily pass for an elementary school student. Her face lit up with delight just as much as the younger children at the hand games I introduced them to. But the quiet dullness in her eyes, subtle wrinkles carved into her forehead, and maternal protection over the younger girls in the group conveyed maturity beyond her years. Like myself two years ago, she seemed caught between childhood and responsibility. While a part of her still clung to the laughter and innocence of communicating with an outsider, another piece of her seemed to lean toward the wary observation and restraint of the older women glancing at us from balconies and open windows. When her elders were not watching, she seemed to slip into the comfort of carefree laughter. But once she felt their wandering eyes return, she immediately pulled back and reservedly focused on maintaining order among the boisterous cluster of children.
She only spoke a few words of broken English, but she excitedly led me around her village, showed me her house, her friends, and her life. A crowd of children began to follow her, and eagerly pointed out the tangible pieces of their existence. Every single child was beautiful, excited, and happy. All of the judgments, statistics, and academics flew out of my head in a flurry of names, ages, stories, games, and laughter.
Despite the gaping eyes and tiny frames that I have learned to associate with malnutrition; despite distinctions in culture, practice, clothing, language, and opportunity; and despite a chasm that may be too wide to ever breach; I saw mortality. I saw kindness, compassion, family, anger, and love. I saw myself. These kids weren’t the faces of poverty, examples of an unjust system, or mortal manifestations of suffering. They were children, and they were people. I was able to see the faces behind the numbers, facts, and books that I have been wading through over the past few months. This is the humanity behind the NGOs that we have been visiting, behind the 25,000-rupee water tower about to be constructed, behind the community centers developing across India, and behind the teachings of brotherhood and compassion. And it was just that: simple, beautiful, ordinary humanity.
Over the past week, I have experienced so much. I have met infinitely wise and compassionate people, and I have glimpsed different worlds. I have begun to question almost every aspect of my life, but I have barely scraped the surface of my emerging emotions. No matter how hard I try, I can find nothing more than observations to write about; I have no analyses, explanations, or answers. There’s so much that I can’t put into words, and there’s so much I can’t figure out yet.
Thirteen years. Two different worlds. One humanity.
So much is different, but so much is the same.