Something Missing

On Saturday night, as nighttime gathered over the sprawling city of Mumbai, the Niswarth group excitedly reunited in the presence of our Cathedral School hosts.  Joined together 'across the seven seas' over dinner, Andover students, Cathedral students, and speakers from Akanksha and the Setco foundation reflected on service learning and the educational landscape in India. After refreshments and calamari were served throughout the glittering restaurant of the hotel one student from the Cathedral school rose in a sparkling sari of rich patterned fabric. In front of the thirty some students she explained the confusing world her Niswarth guest had introduced her to: the world of Dharavi, the world of Mumbai's contrast. Her moving reflection crescendoed to a personal note: "I know that the people of Dharavi, people less fortunate than me are grateful and content for what they do have. And all I want is more, more, more. And I've started to ask myself why that is." The next morning, the Cathedral and Niswarth students from the night before met again, but this time with the company of students involved in Akanksha's Student Leadership Project. An important exchange occurred amidst the swirling murals and red, blue, and green partitions of the immaculate Akanksha office. The morning was an important meeting of two simultaneous Mumbai worlds: students of the John Cannon & Cathedral school, one of the city's most selective and prestigious private schools and driven representatives of the millions of Indian students forced to better themselves through the troubled municipal school system. Eventually, Mr. Mundra posed a question about the pressures or fears that the students in the room faced. In this question, Andover, Akanksha, and Cathedral teenagers united.

Andover: worries about disappointing themselves, about disappointing the teachers that invest so much in educating their students.

Akanksha: worries about disappointing their family, bravely sharing that they had experienced so much pressure in 10th grade as to contemplate suicide.

Cathedral: the immense pressure of simply not knowing. Not knowing what's next, in education, in life. Breakdowns before exams, the stress of balancing a life of extracurricular and academic expectations, not to mention our own needs as growing human beings.

In discussions on the Niswarth trip and back in Bulfinch classrooms at Andover, I have been surprised at how often these fears surface, by how prominent they are in our lives. When a forum for honest, intimate discussion opened over dinner on our first night on the trip it was our doubts, our deep insecurities living with us at Andover that we first reflected on. The self-portraits of a year-end English project, too came to a tearful sharing of the looming fear of disappointing family. It is not that we should not talk about the heavy, fearful moments in our lives. We must. I am surprised, however, that when the opportunity for honest conversations open it is not our hopes, our joy, or our dreams that tend to surface. Instead, like the Akanksha session it is the constructions of our immense fears that command our attention and our actions.

It is the moments at Andover when shop owners in the town ask how school is going. They've heard stories. They can see the bags under my eyes. And often their smiles remind me that something is missing. It is the kind and articulate janitor that always finds me in the Elson Art Center working alone. Sometimes he walks in on tearful conversations with my parents and seems to offer a glance of pity. There is something missing.

As I retraced the two weeks here in India, reminded myself of these conversations at home, at the Intercontinental, at Akanksha, I recalled one humid night in Ahmedabad. Sitting under the fading sun, on the sea of beautiful grass at ESI, I watched the eyes of my peers intently watch Manav Sadhna leader Jayesh Patel. We cannot control what comes next in our lives. We cannot alleviate all the pressures we face as teenagers entering the adult world.

Jayeshbhai offered one of the few things we can control, one of the first steps out from under fear and expectation to purpose and contentment: "love yourself."