New Kid on the Block

We all know it.

It’s hard to be the new kid on the block.

It’s hard to be the one no one knows. The one who doesn’t know where to go or with whom to talk. Let’s be honest – being the new kid is a memory that most people try to forget.

That is – unless you’re a tall(ish), blue-eyed didi who stands out like a sore thumb in the crowded streets of India. In that case, when you enter a primary school, you’re likely to be swarmed by very, very curious children. After they stare gap-mouthed at your unlikely presence, of course.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my entrance into an Akanksha school summarized in three sentences.

~~~

I am spending my 10 months as an AIF Clinton Fellow working in Pune, Maharashtra with the Akanksha Foundation, an educational organization that runs schools and after-school centers for underprivileged children in Pune and Mumbai. Between the two cities, there are 15 schools and 15 after-school centers that provide educational support to approximately 4600 children. Although my time here is just beginning, I am continuously impressed at the dedication, thoughtfulness, and overall goodness of the men and women whom I now call colleagues.

Seriously, being the new kid here rocks.

The best part of being part of the Akanksha family is undoubtedly being at the schools. Bright paintings decorate classroom walls; thickly padded mats cover library floors; and makeshift sports fields are established in courtyards. While the infrastructure at each school differs, the energy of the children is constant. It is infectious; the yells of excitement (and subsequent drill tones of teachers), trilling laughter, and pattering of racing feet are such a happy cacophony of sounds.

I was fortunate to begin my first school visit during a sports period. Before my amused coworker knew what was happening, I was navigating my way through a class of 4th standard students engaged in a fierce battle of kabaddi and then joining them for the next few hours of school. Each learning environment is different, but there is something infinitely endearing when you have a gaggle of young girls force-feeding you Marathi food and running their hands through your hair, calling it “maggi style.”

Kids do not worry about being overly polite. They grab my hands and pull, tugging me this way and that, up staircases and into classrooms. Girls shoo away their curious and naughty male counterparts, waving their hands dismissively and exclaiming, “Didi, he’s making fun of you! Don’t listen to him.” They teach me Marathi words, doubling over with laughter as the unfamiliar Marathi phrases mix with my jumble of newly learned Hindi words, all tinted with a thick accent. My flat American accent is hard and jarring, a clash against the musical trill of Indian r’s. It provides endless amusement for students.

When it is time to leave, they gather around for hugs and hugs and hugs. “One more!” some beg, when laughingly I point out that “one more” was about 3 hugs ago. Unbridled curiosity and a passion for learning marks Akanksha schools, and I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to be here.

But I also recognize the great responsibility that comes with joining the Akanksha family. It reveals itself in the students’ eyes when they ask, “Are you leaving? Are you coming again? When? Which day, didi? Which day will you be back?” It reveals itself in the unwillingness to let me leave, girls holding my arms and legs and torso in embrace. It reveals itself in the questions uttered in their young voices.

Too often people come and go. Volunteers offer a bit of time, and then blend into distant memories in young children’s minds as new volunteers replace the old. I am also a transient fixture here, but I hold that responsibility – the unflinching trust of youth – in my heart and mind as I settle into life in Pune.

Jessica is a current Master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she focuses on economic development and NGO management. Jessica began her career as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in South Korea, where she taught 800 students per semester, designed curriculums for 10th and 11th grades, established an English program for disabled students, and mentored North Korean defectors living in Seoul. After returning to the United States, Jessica worked at the Nationalities Service Center, a refugee resettlement agency in Philadelphia, assisting their employment and human trafficking departments. She served at the Refugee Advancement Mentoring Program, which is designed to match highly trained refugees with American professionals who could help them transition into the workforce in Philadelphia. Simultaneously, Jessica also worked with victims of human trafficking as they readjusted to regular employment and participated in citywide efforts to promote anti-trafficking legislation. Most recently, Jessica worked with BRAC's Social Innovation Lab.

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