Anna G Stevens
…for many students, the fundamental shift in perspective and personality does not take place right away.
Dear Parents of Team India Students,
I am writing with a note of gratitude. Perhaps it is unconventional in nature, but I hope you are able to enjoy a cup of chai as you read these words written from a small village in the Indian Himalayas.
I am sitting looking at a mosaic of words that your child and their peers wrote during our mid-course reflection earlier in March. In front of me sits over thirty small slips of paper that share anonymously written fears & excitements, challenges faced and lessons learned:
I am excited for breathing in clean mountain air, star gazing, looking out train windows.
I am afraid of leaving India without a clearer sense of who I am.
I’ve learned that health and cleanliness are very important.
I am nervous about time going by too quickly or too slowly.
I have learned I love taking my time.
It has been a challenge for me to open up in a way that I am most comfortable with, so that I am not bottling up my emotions. I fear that I won’t be able to do everything I want to over the next month.
It has been challenging being sick in such a new environment.
I learned that life at home continues when you’re away and that’s okay.
It is most challenging for me to be present.
I have learned that there are more Indias that the one I am witnessing.
So much variety in such a small group. An accurate representation of the diversity of thought, need, and lifestyle within our community.
I am not a parent in the sense that I do not have a child who depends on me regularly for emotional or financial support. I have not witnessed my child’s first breath or tracked him/her/them through the phases of life: crawling, walking, talking, fighting, pushing boundaries, experiencing heartbreak, developing strengths, acknowledging weaknesses, discovering their identities in this fast-moving world. I can imagine it is a slow, beautiful, complicated, process to witness and be a part of. I look forward to when that is my reality.
For months of each year, though, I do have the opportunity to be in loco parentis; to act and react as a parent may, to advise and counsel, to listen and hear, to inspire and frustrate, to discipline and let go of. Thank you, for giving me the chance to act and live in this way. I could not do it without you–truly and literally.
Witnessing your child’s tears when she/he/they came home from school having been wronged by a classmate during the day; experiencing utter joy at watching them play in mud puddles, their fascination with the–what to us adults may be–seemingly mundane; sharing moments of vulnerability as you offer stories of your own high school hardships: I bet that each of these moments offered to you powerful insight into parenthood and its complexity. While not comparable, I have experienced many of these same emotions over these past three months. I have felt fiercely protective when my students have felt discomfort in crowded situations; I have laughed to the point of tears listening to stories about misunderstandings in how to use squat toilets; I have been frustrated by their lack of punctuality; I have felt tenderness in listening to tearful worries and concerns. I have lay in my bed, late into the night, wondering: are my students (read: children) healthy? Safe? Motivated? Happy? Sleeping well? Scared? Excited? Confused?
If this is not parenthood, I am not sure what is.
The timeframe post-high school is a fragile, complicated period. Young adults are told by our American and Canadian societies that after living 18 years on this earth they can vote in elections, purchase and smoke cigarettes, enlist in the military, give consent to marry another, drive a vehicle, work a full-time salaried position, and gamble away their money. They have legal freedom, if they choose to take it. Yet many, upon ending high school, do not have a sense of awareness for the future: they are unsure if they want to go to college, or more realistically why they want to go to college. With newfound privileges and real legal rights, these newly deemed adults have, in a sense, ultimate opportunities. But how to navigate the multiplicity of paths that are lain before them, to tease apart the meaning of a high-school education, to understand the next path that presents itself is neither a straightforward nor an enviable task. You, as parents, have experienced this time. You know the nights fraught with anxiety and confusion. The pull between wanting to do what your peers do, wanting to please your family, and wanting to understand a little more fully who you are and what your purpose on this planet is.
Taking a Gap Year is a more recent phenomenon that is gaining popularity. This year away from formal academics does not mean a year away from learning; quite the contrary. I have only had the privilege of knowing your sons and daughters for 70 days, however I have witnessed them learn skills valuable for living: from technical skills like how to cook meals and clean clothes to interpersonal skills like how to provide feedback to a peer and self-advocate for personal needs. While I do not yet have a system in place to check, I would bet that if I spoke to each of these students in five years, they will not be able to remember significant dates from the US Civil War–excepting they become a US historian–or apply the Pythagorean theorem to an every-day life problem. Engrained within them, though, they may have the lived knowledge of how to have their basic needs met when in an unfamiliar place or how to have a hard conversation with someone they care about. That is my hope, at least.
Critics of Gap Years think this time away traveling has merely been an experience of being transported from one hotel to another, eating at restaurants, and shopping. I would be lying if I said we have not partaken in these activities. But below the surface of these statements lies an experience that is not as easily shown: like when your hotel is actually a guesthouse that sits at 11,000 feet and took five hours to walk to, and you share a room with seven others, all of you sleeping on the floor, hugging waterbottles of boiled water– that you used your broken Ladakhi to ask for–so that you can stay warm while sleeping. Or when shopping means buying enough food for a group of fifteen so they have sustenance on their 24 hour travel day, 15 of those hours are confined to a moving train, which has the potential to be delayed for an unspecified amount of time. Sure, we partake in consumer culture, but there is intentionality behind it. The critics can look at this time and make assumptions, but they cannot know the worth of these experiences.
Even you may not recognize the value of them, but for many students, the fundamental shift in perspective and personality does not take place right away.
As your children physically re-enter your lives they will appear the same. But there will also be differences. They have had experiences that they will not be able to explain because they have not yet had the chance to make meaning of them. There will be moments of excitement to see old friends, sleep in their beds, and eat comfort foods. But there will be moments of sadness and confusion as well, as awarenesses begin to surface and take root, and newly acquired values are applied to old spaces. For some this time-frame may take days, others months, many years. Even I, at 27, am still discovering the immense value my Gap Year–which I took ten years ago– played in shifting my identity as a woman in this world. Just as you have done before, do again: be patient. Give space. Ask questions. Give hugs.
That is, really, all I have been trying to do during our three months together. In moments of confusion or uncertainty, your children have had the answers within themselves; they have just needed the time and space to discover what those answers are. They will continue to live out the answers, especially to questions they have not even discovered yet.
So, all of this to say: thank you.
Thank you for trusting your daughters and sons to listen to their needs. Thank you for trusting me to be a witness of their transition into adulthood and to offer guidance, when it has been solicited and when it has not. I am merely a small piece of the puzzle in their life’s tale, as they are in mine, however there is a symbiosis to this experience that is bigger and more significant than our defined period of time together.
I would not be able to exist as I do without your support of your children’s well being. I would not be able to live life as a learner and educator, both existing at once, every day. I am grateful for your generosity, your support, your willingness to raise engaged, aware children.
In the first few days of our course I shared these words of Ranier Marie Rilke with your sons and daughters:
I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually,
without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Their decision to take a Gap Year has only helped launch them into the abyss of living everything. I feel immense privilege at sharing in that experience, and I wish you all the best in helping to facilitate the next phase of this journey. With the most sincere of intentions, thank you, dhanyavad, jullay.
Anna G. Stevens