After navigating a particularly tight squeeze between two homes on, what I’m assuming was, a walking path, our truck came to a stop in the middle of a small hamlet. My window faced a metal gate that once must have been a bright beacon of cobalt in an otherwise monotonous landscape. I was charmed by its current state of rust and decay: a mezcla of inviting blues and reds that made me want to stare at it for hours. I couldn’t help but think that a couple of shabby-chic designers were probably ordering something just like it to liven up an otherwise beige McMansion in Waco. I thought it an appropriate welcome mat for a rural government school: entreating the children to enter through to the buildings inside with its reticulated kaleidoscope of primary colors.
My musings on using exterior features as interior furnishings, and just how much money something like this gate could fetch at the right flea market, was cut short when my guide for the day, Prakash, opened my door with a loud creak that bespoke of years of unrequited love for a good oiling. A large smile on his face, Prakash motioned for me to head inside with an elegant wave of his hand. Dismounting from my aging chariot, I carefully stepped through the indicated child-sized opening in the corner of the rusting gate, feeling as if I was going into Alice’s rabbit hole.
It had taken me about an hour to get from my hotel in Khariar to this bucolic scholastic cloister. Most of that time had been spent driving on single-lane dirt roads cutting through rice fields that had turned the color of the craggy hills that limited my view of the horizon: a brown color that most chefs would declare well-done. I had no concept of where the truck had been or how the driver discerned which turns to take. All that I was confident about was that I was somewhere in Nuapada District and that I had a busy schedule for the day.
I was jostling through the countryside of northwestern Odisha that hot, dry morning with the express goal of seeing five hostels. Lokadrusti, LAMP’s esteemed partner in the area, facilitated at several government hostels throughout Nuapada District for the children of migrant workers. I was originally going to accompany my mentor into the field that day to observe a few learning enrichment programs. But, due to a scheduling conflict, we had to split up for the day. So, my mentor decided on a valuable back-up plan for me: visiting a few hostels and making observations on their management based on AIF’s new Child Safeguarding Policy.
I found it hard to hide the pride creeping across my visage. I was being entrusted to give feedback on a process that, up until my fellowship, I barely knew existed. After only a few months of observations, I would be providing valuable information on the welfare of children in a government-run, Lokadrusti-facilitated hostel. After we finalized my secondary itinerary, I went to sleep that night feeling contented and useful. I would spend the whole next day meeting hostel staff and migrant workers’ children and gathering information that could actually help make circumstances better at these government-run hostels. I felt that I may just be getting into the groove of LAMP.
The once blue gate grew smaller behind me as I walked further into the compound. As I approached the largest building, I could see little faces staring up at me, arranged in perfect columns and rows—youngest in front, oldest in back. I walked into the small room and every child stood in their spot. They quickly formed a crooked queue, then on one-by-one welcomed me: some with a smile, others with a “I don’t know about this man” firm lip. I was then asked if I would like to see them dance, as it’s their favorite activity. How I could I refuse? Thirty minutes later, after watching four very well-choreographed dances from various groups of girls and boys, I was forced to bid the children farewell. As I stepped back out into the school yard, Prakash and the school administrators behind me, I clutched my pad of paper and removed the cap of my pen. It was time to see how the hostel fared under the new Child Safeguarding Policy.
Five days and a plane ride later, I was walking down my street toward my favorite café in Ahmedabad. I needed to write a report for my mentor on the five hostels I toured while in Odisha, and there was no more productive place for me to work than in the sunlit, climate-controlled café in the hotel a block away from my flat. It was April, and the temperatures in my flat were sufficiently oven-like that my laptop couldn’t register my sweaty fingers on the trackpad.
As I made my way through the gates toward the security guards, I looked up at the entrance and was stopped midstride. There, in front of me, was a gleaming metal and glass door—a modern thing I had seen at least two dozen times by then. In and out of it walked business people and foreigners, quickly entering and exiting posh cars as they zipped to offices or the airport. Inside I could see all the trappings of capitalism: perfectly dressed people behind streamlined furnishings chosen by a corporate design firm to suit the palates of the business elite.
I had seen this door many times before. And never before had I stopped. Never before had I taken a hard look at it. I had just breezed in like all the other patrons were doing in front of me. But something had changed since the last time I had been there. Rather, I had seen another entrance. Another way inside.
I couldn’t help but think how different this entryway was from the one I had just seen in Odisha. Where this one was austere, the rusted gate was warm. Where this one was designed to keep people out, the blue and red gate was designed to invite people in. I suddenly saw my reflection in the mirror-like glass of the hotel. Looking into my eyes, I realized that I preferred the once cobalt gate in the middle of the small village where the fields end to the shining urban thing in front of me now.
This epiphany stunned me. At the beginning of the Fellowship, every time I went into the field to see schools or hostels, I would hone in on the issues I saw through my American lenses. I would question bedding choices or kitchen provisions. I would ask pointed questions and internally smirk when my suspicions were proven true. But, in time, I realized how jaded and unhelpful these observations were. I saw how much the workers cared for the well-being of the local children. I heard stories from parents and employees about how conditions had improved in the past years. I saw smiling child after smiling child sitting in a school that they likely would not have been attending but for the interventions of the local governments and the LAMP-affiliated programs.
I realized, simply, that I had been wrong. That there is a difference between gotcha remark and constructive critique. That I had to let go of my preconceived notions and learn from those who actually knew. To accept that I was the one who was ignorant. To acknowledge that I didn’t have the answers at all. That, to succeed, all I had to do was listen.
It was with this realization that I started to understand the true work LAMP was doing in communities across India. Every time I listened to a stakeholder, to a worker, to a child, a small chunk of my Americanized expectations fell away. It was this erosion of my wall of ignorance that eventually allowed me to do a solo tour of five hostels in Odisha. To ask pertinent and helpful questions. To limit my suggestions to the realistic. To praise the hard work I witnessed loudly and openly. It was why I trusted that I could handle the job alone. Whereas the Caleb of October was woefully unprepared, the Caleb of April was ready.
Standing in front of that gleaming door, I realized that I had changed. My paradigm had shifted. Now, a welcoming rusty gate was more valuable to me than a modern glass façade. I remembered how much wonder filled me looking at that gate, walking through the grounds of the school, watching the children dance and laugh. That rusted old gate had a story to tell. Staring through the glass door into the hotel lobby, I couldn’t help but describe what I saw as hollow.
Looking at my reflection in the hotel entrance, I would argue that my experiences in Gujarat and Odisha had changed me for the better. That this year in India had transformed me into a more aware person: more open to, more accepting of my own ignorance. Into a better listener. Into a better facilitator. But, I guess some might find these assertions a bit too subjective. I mean, who can really say if they’ve been changed for the better? But, because of my time at LAMP, I most certainly know that I’ve been changed for good.