Symbols, signs, a construction of the mind to obtain meaning. Organizing the cosmos. No different with letters, words. I think of the film the Miracle Worker, black and white, little Helen Keller lost in her mind, enraged, confused. No meaning in this place, she must have thought, what to do but be idle, be frustrated with a world that I can’t comprehend. Until she found the answer in water, her teacher signing in her hand feverishly, understand little Helen, find the two as one, I have given you the symbols, the word, now know the world. And she did.
But I am no Miracle Worker. I had no knowledge of the difficulty of my own language. Its complex origins of Latin, Spanish, German, French…the list is long. We make rules only to break them. A prolific language that creates itself, procreates into the largest in the world. And I struggle to teach her ‘water,’ to teach her ‘wet.’ Hembei squints when she doesn’t understand, puts a finger to her lips, almost scared to tell me an answer whether wrong or right. I do not scold or show disappointment. Any of that I hold for my person alone in my failure to be what she needs.
A small composition book holds sketches of faces, the human body, colors, weather, English words pointing to eye, rain, blue. I give it to her for a reference, for future notes. She has no books at home to read daily, no English newspaper dropped at her step. Those aren’t things to be afforded, luxuries that aren’t needed. Everyday begins with a ten minute refresher. I ask about the weather, point to parts of my body, I ask how she is. This becomes familiar and she gets comfortable, I feel better when I know she is relaxed. And in the background is Kay, holding up a letter card, waiting for the other women to say “L” or “S” and identity a picture.
So frustrated was I, and other volunteers, to discover the resources at our disposal. How am I to teach an adult woman with Dr. Seuss books and elementary school ABC flip cards? Why does she need to know the word for hamburger when it isn’t something she will ever eat, will ever be relevant to her world? It is all too simple, too irrelevant to life, it is words for a Western world, not for a woman in Dharamsala. We were told not to bring materials because likely they wouldn’t be tools easily purchased in the town or India. However, once we all arrived, the story was a bit altered. They would have permitted us to bring resources if only we had been willing to leave them there. And so many of us shouted, “WHY SAY THIS NOW! IF WE ONLY HAD KNOWN!”
My flatmate, Haley, was teaching special ed children. A program developed in Dharamsala by CCS, and no other like it was provided in the mountain town. Haley talked of all the things she could have brought for them, to have, and the regret in her voice was in all of ours as well. We would have filled suitcases with teaching materials had we only known. But Haley pulled from her creativity, and always managed to find craft activities and lessons to engage her students. I was always so proud of her diligence, her patience, her unbound love for those children. And she would visit their homes, meet their parents, feign drinking from the beverage glass they kindly offered. She knew them, their world, and it only seemed to make her appreciate all around us even more. I learned much from this California native.
I made copies of Seuss’ words, cutout articles from the news, scoured the net on one of two computers at CCS hoping to find free TEFL resources. Lesson planning was a haphazard affair. I wanted her tongue to get used to the words, moving her mouth differently. And my month in India would only manage about two and half weeks of actual teaching. I was in a panic. Feeling a great pressure, realizing I was only a minute piece of a long continuum, but who would be there for her when I was gone? I should have stayed longer. Two or three months if for no other reason than to teach her. Between travel to and from Delhi, monsoon rains, sickness, a wedding and a funeral, our short time was even more shortened. It doesn’t take much for a small town to shutdown. It doesn’t take much for a foreign belly to fall ill. And all I was hoping for was to give her the words, give her the motivation to want to learn more after my departure, even if that meant finding a way to do so on her own.
And it was the day I was trying to teach her ‘wet.’ Bella and Jaggi were sitting in, listening to Kay and my lessons. This was the first day after the blowout; they wanted to ensure we could coexist in one room for several hours a day. I kept pointing to a picture of water, and saying ‘It feels wet,’ running my hands against each other, then trying to replace it with other things to express ‘feel.’ But Hembei wasn’t understanding, I wasn’t explaining it very well, and she’d say, “It feels water.” It was a logical association, I was indeed pointing to a picture of water. Finally, I reached for my bottled water, poured some in my hand, and touched it, “Wet.” Then I asked for her hands, poured some in hers, said it again, made her touch it, “It feels wet.” And in her eyes I could see the ‘aha,’ the moment of comprehension, and she nodded, smiled, and says, ‘feels wet.’ Thank you, and I sighed in relief.
I often wish I had taken her to the bazaar, spoken English in her familiar places. She could have learned much more, at least, that is what I believe. Put her in the context of the meanings, and how quick she would have caught on. This faith I always had in her. When I left, I gave her my English-Hindi dictionary, small but precise in its included words, and told her to just keep reading, to speak, and she would come to understand it.
But my difficulties seemed ridiculous in comparison to other teaching situations. My other flatmate, Jaye, was so tender in heart. It affected her dearly to see dozens of children everyday, pull from meager resources, watch them eat the same plate of chickpeas each lunch. And when summer came, classes over, the school buildings held something similar to summer camp. Except the water was cut off. It wasn’t something funded by the government, so no water for a few months. and the volunteers had to find ways to bring in water for arts and crafts, washing tiny hands. It wore on her. At her home in Florida, she had been a Montessori teacher, she had faced so many problems as a teacher, but none compared to the ones in India.
One day, I came home, and found Jaye washing her undergarments in the shower bucket, scrubbing her Victoria Secret underwear with a bar of soap, and she was crying. No matter the reason, I had felt them all as well, India is a vestibule to a myriad of emotions. She said she had come with no expectations to this place. And I said sometimes we don’t know our expectations until we’ve been disappointed. I told her she should send her laundry out to be cleaned like I was so she wouldn’t find herself crying over a bucket of wet, soapy, panties. She laughed, and in moments of great emotional intensity, just the ability to release it in one breath of laughter can be the greatest relief, the best method for remaining grounded, or coming up from a state of despair. And the paradox was becoming us. To cry and laugh in the same moment, no sense of a sound mind were we, and we were learning to find solace in the crux of the paradoxical.
And somewhere in the Himalayas, in his meditative snowcapped cave, Shiva too is laughing…and only now do I see, darshan has found my eyes.