09/03/2013 10:49 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

My Kind of Happiness


Each day began with a greeting of, "Good morning ma'am!" from every direction and every voice in the room. Of course, I smiled back and responded, "Good morning!" as each child giggled at the sound of my funny accent. There were children who held their heads up high when they tapped me on the shoulder greeting me in their own private way. I rewarded each of these courageous children by smiling right back at them and enthusiastically saying, "How are you?" Sparkles glistened across their eyes as the white of their teeth shined through. Of course, they wouldn't respond to my foreign words, but they'd smile and hide behind their friends to conceal their uncontrollable laughter. I had never seen someone so happy to be acknowledged, especially by me. My "hello" seemed beyond appreciated and I never really knew why.

There were many things I didn't like about India but more specifically, the city of Lucknow. As soon as I stepped foot in this "home land" I smelt the various (mostly outrageous) smells of the city. Men looked at me, even at the age of 13, as though I was a grown woman. People were dirty, not only within their minds but also physically. I was absolutely uncomfortable in every way possible. As an 8th grader, going to dances and buying clothes made me ecstatic; however, I could do none of those things while in India. The only place I did find comfort in was the village, Amethi, that had been previously owned by my family for generations. Since I enjoyed playing with the children in the village, I figured that I would spend my days there rather than going to the homes of distant relatives.I had traveled to many places but being so close to the heart of the poverty struck me in a place that had never been touched before.

India isn't a place for lesson plans, so I never had one. Some days, I would simply observe the cracks in the cement and the poor quality of material used in the school. Other days I'd look at the dirt ground that the children sat on as their "classroom floor" while they were shaded by tarp that covered half of them. I'd take each activity after the next and stopped when I wanted to. Some days, I taught for hours and then played games in the scorching, hot, sun but other days, I just talked to the kids. It was generally easy to keep track of the children because most of them only owned one pair of clothes so luckily, my eyes didn't have to adjust to new outfits everyday. I felt as though I was their older sister and being in a leadership role thrilled me. I was curious about the every day lives of these children and what they were to become.

On one occasion, a few sisters who I had talked to a couple of times invited me into their home. As I entered this dirt-molded structure, I was overwhelmed by the family's greeting and food offerings which I had to refuse because of the unsanitary condition. I saw the rice sacks that were used as beds for the younger children and the single miniscule bedroom the family of nine slept in. I saw the droppings of goats covering a majority of the ground floor and the bathroom consisting of a whole in the ground as a toilet and a bucket to fetch water for baths. I'd seen numerous Oxfam and Unicef commercials but this was reality in its rawest form. What I did not see in those numerous commercials was how easy it is to give these people who have nothing, something. The smiles on each of the family member's faces showed me that they didn't mind the condition they lived in. They showed me that of all of the things that were wrong and so cruel in their lives, they looked forward to the things that would make them happy such as bringing a "ferangi" or a foreigner into their home. I realized then why my acknowledgement meant something. In a place of 1.2 billion people, voices are unheard. Individuality is an abstract concept and dreams can only be dreamt so far. Simply engaging in eye contact and a quick hello with one of these silenced voices is not taken for granted but instead, remembered. These smiles showed me something that I had not seen in a very long time, unmaterialistic happiness.

In the typical teenage world I live in, it's so easy to worry about things like my appearance, my social activities and the way people think of me. While teaching in India, I found happiness in going to a village with no makeup on, clothes that didn't match and a huge language barrier. Every day I was thrilled to wake up at 6 a.m. to teach 400 kids simple English words. The only time I got frustrated with the kids was when I asked them to write compositions and 50 students swarmed around me waving their notebooks in my face screaming, "Madam, meri copy!" (My notebook.) Even then, I laughed to myself in the midst of the chaos realizing that there was no way possible I could be mad at their uncontrollable enthusiasm to impress some regular girl from Boston. It became my greatest desire in the world to make these children who had nothing happy and to give these children hope that each of them were special and unique in their own way. I was so submersed in trying to better each of these children's lives that at the same time, I was bettering my own. Somehow, I forgot about my own happiness; yet, in a way, their happiness became my happiness. Through long days of teaching 400 students at four different schools divided into seven different classes in 100-degree heat, I found happiness.