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This article was first published 8 years ago  » Getahead » The summer that changed me

The summer that changed me

By Nishna Singh
December 01, 2015 13:13 IST
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'These kids are brilliant. They had mature and interesting conversations with me. They told me about their families. They looked over my shoulder when I was correcting books and pointed out errors.'

Indian-American schoolgirl Nishna Singh reveals how volunteering with underprivileged children in India changed her life.

IMAGE: Children at the Akanksha Foundation school in Mumbai.

Kids are annoying.

I have always maintained this; kids are just annoying. They're cute when they're born, of course, and cute when they say their first words and cute when they crawl and even cute when they first begin walking. They're cute up until they aren't.

I have always maintained this.

Which is why, when I decided to volunteer at an Akanksha school in Mumbai, India, I thought I was signing my life away -- at least for those few weeks. A place where I cannot be mean to kids to have my way. But I figured I owed it to myself to at least try.

Interning with the Akanksha Fund in New York was an experience of its own, but it was limited to deskwork and dinner registrations. I wrote descriptions of the fund for other people, explained what we did over the phone, and sent out packets of brochures full of photographs from Akanksha schools in India, but I had no direct contact.

Akanksha works with underprivileged children and focuses on English, Math and life skills for these students. I knew this in theory, but I had not seen it in action. I was curious, I was curious, I was curious.

And the perfect opportunity presented itself when I was in Mumbai for the summer. I wrote some e-mails, made a few phone calls, visited the main office, and then found myself standing in a crowded municipal school just minutes away from my aunt's air-conditioned bedroom.

As a volunteer, I was not allowed to speak in any language but English with the kids, and, of course, was not allowed to use violence as a means of teaching.

They put me with four year olds.

The first day, in a nutshell, was exhausting. It was hot, and there were many little kids all over, constantly calling me didi, didi, didi. I was the assistant to the class teacher; I wrote English letters on small, personal chalkboards, wrote numbers on some more, and was put in charge of a smaller group within the class.

The smell of coconut oil filled my nostrils and I realised these kids were more comfortable speaking in Marathi, a language I had studied for two years, but learned nothing in.

A for apple, C for cat, T for tree.

They surrounded me, the way kids seem to always do. Kept trying to touch my hair or my jeans or trace the mehendi on my hands. Some were angels, doing their work quietly and correctly, and some were complete ruckuses. But I knew the rules. I had to be nice.

Patience is not a quality that comes naturally to me. I have never been one to wait on the side and be calm in tense situations. But I had to learn.

But there's more under the surface. I've learned so much in such a short amount of time, but it is not obvious when people look at me. I haven't learned lessons, and I have not gotten over my fear of little kids, and I have not learned how to be a teacher.

But I have learned their morning prayer. And I have learned the prayer they say before they eat.

Nobody in their right mind would not have been moved by seeing all these tiny, adorable kids give thanks to whatever God is up there for the food they eat. For the clothes on their backs and for the education they are receiving. For their teachers.

These kids have nothing. Many come from broken homes, from slums far away and from families that do not necessarily believe education is the most important thing.

Each kid had two outfits that they constantly repeated. Two shirts. Two pairs of pants.

Three weeks. And then I would come home to my overflowing closet.

I guess it's safe to say I became infinitely more grateful. I am lucky to have been born in the family I was born in. I am lucky to be able to live the way I do, to receive the opportunities I do.

The funny thing is, these kids are brilliant. They had mature and interesting conversations with me. They told me about their families. They looked over my shoulder when I was correcting books and pointed out errors. They greeted me happily every day and bade me goodbye as though it were the worst thing in the world.

I know they will not remember me in a few months, but they made me feel valued and wanted and I hope to God I made them feel the same way, even if for just a few hours.

I learnt that giving money to the underprivileged won't help. Simply donating our clothes and shoes and handing over money is a temporary solution. It helps their present, yes, but it does not at all help their future. We can make them as comfortable as we want, but eventually it's going to be up to them to do it themselves.

Charity is one thing. But they don't want our charity. All they need is an education.

Nishna Singh

Kids are annoying. It's true. They're annoying and loud and disruptive. But the way I feel about them has been tweaked in the most amazing way.

Kids are annoying. But they are also insightful and loving and wise beyond their years, and they thank God for the scraps on their backs and get excited about my earrings.

They run towards me and give me a hug around the knees and force me to pick them up and swing them around. They cry easily, and they are stubborn. But they include me in their games and fight to be on my team.

What's sad, though, is that these are a fraction of the kids in the same situation. There are millions more working in factories or at home taking care of siblings or on farms.

These are the select few Akanksha has touched.

They are brilliant. And they could all have the brightest futures if they had access to the same things I did growing up. And if I enjoyed Akanksha last year, I fell in love with it this year. The teacher I was helping was devoted and unconditionally supportive and kind to her students, and the helper ladies were affectionate and loving.

Akanksha is doing something I think can only be described as honourable. I can't imagine anything more worthwhile. Giving these kids, so hopeless by birth, the resources they need to be whatever in the world they wish to.

They see the kids for the human beings they are.

Nishna Singh is a high school senior in Scarsdale, New York, who loves to write, travel and spend time with family and friends.

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Nishna Singh
India Abroad