The Puzzle of Phillips Academy

Familiarity can be found in the most unexpected places. But as a drifting nomad, I never thought I would find a sense of myself in one of the largest slums in Asia.

Home to about one million people, Dharavi is about the size of Andover campus. Except the streets are filled with winding alleyways and busy traffic lanes, metal roofs and chipping blue houses, goats and cattle and children peaking their heads behind small windows, and a bright green sewage stream running through it all, like some sort of surreal jungle river. As our tour guide explains over the honking cars and working machines, this is what they call “organized chaos”.

I try to imagine all the people, all the babies, toddlers, teens, women, men, and animals from Dharavi living at Andover. Twenty people per dorm, one thousand people eating in Lower Right at Commons, ten thousand meditating on the Great Lawn, another fifty thousand sleeping side by side on the football field under the bleeding blue Andover sky.

And yet, even if every single person from Dharavi was picked up and placed on campus, there would be space left over. Unaccustomed to so much privacy, someone from the largest slum in Asia would not feel at home at Phillips Academy.

At Andover, you are told to be a leader. You are told to be different, to stand out, to make a name for yourself, to go against the flow. Wherever you come from, whatever your background, race, gender, sexuality, or nationality, every student enrolled at Phillips Academy is told to wear their identity on their forehead with bright shiny blue letters. This is the story that I have learned to associate with my school; this is my story.

This is not a good or bad thing. It is one way of looking at life, one opinion, one mentality. But this is not the only way of living. Coming to India, I have learned to examine life through a different type of lens.

One of the aspects that most stood out for me about Dharavi was the togetherness, the sense of community and belonging that permeated the air. Everyone seemed to have a place to go, somewhere to be, a task to get done, a wife to love, a daughter and son and baby to get food on the table for. Every plastic manufacturer, every leather maker, every mango seller, every basket weaver, every teacher -- it all fit like some type of complex, ever-changing puzzle.

I do not pretend to know the slightest thing about Dharavi, the slightest iota of daily struggles faced by its inhabitants. The only story I know of this slum is the one tour I took on one morning of one year. I have one story about Dharavi, one viewpoint, and it is one of an outsider.

If I got anything out of this experience, though, it is a feeling of connectiveness, of clarity, of unexpected familiarity, that I didn't even know was there. The sense of community I experienced in Dharavi made sense to me, like a mathematical equation that I had solved without knowing I had been trying to.

Despite being far from Madrid, I have learned to find home at Andover. I have learned to identity with its ideals and to stand alone with my head high and my voice loud. I am proud of who I am, and I am not afraid of speaking up when I feel the need to.

But what if every action I did was not only aimed towards me and my needs, but the good of the whole community? What if every task throughout my day was for someone else for a change, a family member, a teacher, a peer, a friend? How would that change Andover's puzzle? How would that change my puzzle?

I will never truly understand the way of life in Dharavi. I know that. But that does not mean that I cannot learn or identify with certain aspects of its belief system. I am one piece in a much larger puzzle, a much more complicated puzzle that I am even aware of, and I will forever be changing the lens through which I look at life. I will forever be searching for a sense of familiarity in the most unexpected places.