C4: artistic endeavours

If you would like to view just the workshop report, click here.

Since I last re-vamped my blog and sent out emails soliciting assistance from friends all over the world, I’ve had a lot of encouraging and touching responses from people offering to contribute in a plethora of ways. So many theatre people – Lovell, Hannah B, and Maggie from PST – have offered theatre resources; BML even offered to put me in touch with his mother, who teaches elementary school! Some immediately offered to donate (thank you, Bryan and Zeesh!), while others have sent encouraging emails/wall posts or publicised my blog. My friends at home are generously donating chunks of their own free time: my kids at Kakkaiyankulam still ask about Esh; Irfadha has offered to come once a month, despite even working Saturdays, and even roped in her uncle to help translate articles (he even sent chocolates and jellies for the kids); Abhi translates on a regular basis; Sha, T and Sugs will probably be making the trek out to V-town and beyond over the next month.

My help has come from people I don’t even know – each week I am blessed with someone who can translate during the workshops (so far, Mr Farhan, Kamal, Maheshwari, and today Bala), people who help me lift my heavy luggage, drive me to and from the station, and to and from the villages. Despite all the hiccups, I’ve had clean rooms, good food, comfortable beds, cold showers, picturesque train rides (sometimes equipped with a/c, meals and wi-fi), incredible adventures, safety in unknown places, and no cockroaches.

I write all this because it’s easy to stop feeling grateful. I can’t do this alone, but having funding for the moment can make it feel like I’m Engendering Change All By My Awesome Lonesome. When Princeton’s beneath your wings, you can make the mistake of thinking you are just incredibly talented at handling those air currents. And I have often done that. The past year has been a difficult one, in terms of figuring out what I’m doing with my life (I’m still all over the place) and it’s easy to feel dissatisfied, not really taking into account all the people who make my life, better, easier, more interesting, more comfortable, more exciting, every day. Like yesterday, when the meter taxi driver told me he wouldn’t close the garden gate, I spent ten minutes being cross with him instead of letting myself be grateful for all the people who have ever driven me around and who have never said that. But today, after a fun workshop, it’s easy to feel pleased, so I’m writing this now for a time when I’m not so quick to see the good in things.

This week’s mistake was sending thaththi two texts in a row on Monday – the first one being, “Buy me these specific train tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday” and the second saying, “Also the printer isn’t working”. I am quick to jump on words like “Also” (blame both my love of English and my propensity to spend too much time on the phone) but my dad has a real job with real stresses, so he missed the nuances of the second text and didn’t buy my tickets. Oops. Also, getting to the station with 15 minutes to spare means nothing, I discovered, if I have to pick up tickets booked online. I could have still missed my train while waiting in line, and at that point I didn’t have time to book tickets for the way back. It is because of ReachOut’s generosity that I could afford to think, “Well, if there aren’t tickets for Wednesday evening I could always come back Thursday morning”. But I got my tickets in time, boarded the train, and enjoyed the view in air-conditioned comfort.

There was a curious cat on the train who I could have sworn looked like M.I.A’s brotherif she had one (so of course I racially profiled him and decided he must be going all the way to Vavuniya – and so he did). He had an interesting collection of tattoos – stars down his right leg, barbed wire around his right arm, and some undecipherable words down his left. There must have been other curious cats in the carriage, but I could only see M.I.A lookalike. As a result of one too many international texts, I believe, my phone service was also barred just as the train was pulling into Vavuniya – another thing to be grateful for was that I knew Premadasa would be at the station and that people are generally good about lending you their phones to take emergency calls. The train got in earlier than last week, but not by much – by the time I got to Thai Hotel, showered, and settled down to sleep (this week’s pillow was quite comfortable), it was almost 11.30pm.

I woke up late, and decided to consume this week’s tea buns on the way. By the way, Mr Kamal has a curious habit of asking me for money to pay for diesel for the van (which he then deducts from my bill) because he is too lazy to go get money himself. I had learned that the regional train ticket counter would be open by 7am, so we made a detour so I could purchase my return tickets. There were only ten tickets left, so it was providential that the counter opened so early. I think that so many things in my life so fortuitously go right that I don’t really quite begin to understand how much of it could potentially go wrong. But with train tickets in hand, a driver who could speak both Sinhala and Tamil, and one who had a phone I could use to contact the Major, at that, I didn’t have to give much thought to what could have happened if everything didn’t fall so nicely into place. We nearly had a small hiccup, however; I’d asked Major Edirisinghe earlier if I could possibly use the bigger school in Nattankandal, 5km away, when I begin the actual “Building Bridges” workshops at the end of this month. He misunderstood me and was just about to bring the kids over today before he called me and I told him that I was close to Chiraddikulam (which I think in Tamil is actually Siraattikkulam). They’d gotten an army truck ready and everything – I winced a little to think about how everyone is a little inconvenienced by my do-good workshops. At times like this, I feel like one of those benign but benighted NGO ladies who think they’re doing everyone a great service, but really they’re being a terrible nuisance and everyone is just too polite to tell them how annoying they’re being.

Today’s workshop went rather swimmingly (even if my comments below may sound critical, because I am judgemental like that). One of the truants, Prasadh, returned today and seemed to be in a pleasant mood. Yalini and Nirmala, simultaneously 11 years and 12 years at the same time, turned out to be in the 6th grade but turning 12 soon. They keep coming though, so I decided to just keep them in the workshops. We started with the relay game, which they enjoy even though they’re still still grasping the idea of clockwise and anti-clockwise (or widdershins for those of you Pratchett fans). Also, despite wanting to win, only two of three ever put their Competitive Faces on – they pass incredibly slowly and dither a bit about picking up the ball when it falls. Ladies’ College apparently did a darn good job of preparing me to run literal and metaphorical races, it would seem.

We moved indoors, and I introduced them to the walk-stop-clap game. At this point, I honestly can’t remember if the Kakkaiyankulam kids were really any better, but I was struck by how difficult it was for them. In general, however, the Chiraddikulam kids have difficulty paying attention for long periods of time (i:e: more than five minutes). If I look at one part of the group, the other half start talking amongst themselves. So while responding to “Walk”, “Stop”, and “Clap” were not too, difficult, they struggled immensely when walk meant stop and stop meant walk. They kept doing the wrong thing. Also, they did the most curious thing at the start – when I first said, “Walk!” they walked incredibly slowly in straight lines. And they never stopped looking at me. I had to wave my arms around a lot and tell them to walk all over, and looking at me made no difference to how hard it was for them to compute reversing two commands in their heads. We played the game three times, but with very little perceived increase in success rates. At the same time, though, they hated getting out, and got quite pouty when the other kids pointed out when they failed, especially Nirmala. The kids at K’kulam tend to not listen when they’re too involved in being a car as they walk, or if we’ve been playing too long and all the boys are starting friendly fights amongst themselves, William-style (in context, it’s good to remember that they really are William’s age!). In Ch’kulam, I am getting the vibe that they really are struggling to pay attention – the combined effort of concentration and computing paradoxical commands is too much for them. And I don’t think the solution is to keep playing the game over and over. I guess it is a good thing that my sessions, as is, are shorter than those in Kakkaiyankulam; I’m not sure these kids are quite as adept as the K kids at enduring my gruelling sessions for that long.

We then played Fruit Bowl, which was much easier to grasp and was an excellent way to both have to pay attention (to simple commands) and also release energy. I get the feeling that these kids need games that are just games far more than those in Kakkaiyankulam do, and I worry that my programme is far too short to really make any kind of difference with them. Also I worry that I am not really professional enough to be allowed near them, but that is a different matter.

We took a quick snack break, and then we turned to drawing. Funnily enough, my interpreter-driver struggled to make sense of my drawing prompt (Draw something that makes you happy) and at one point I really wanted someone to tell me why feelings are such mysterious things to all these people. It quickly degenerated into “Draw what you want”, and the children displayed their propensity to draw flowers (at an arts workshop CI held earlier, the children all drew flowers). I get the feeling that they have perfected the technique of drawing one thing, and now they find it hard to move away from it. Next time I’m going to make them draw Thai Pongal or Deepavali or something (“My favourite holiday”, perhaps?) just so they can’t draw flowers. Deshan told me on Friday that he had an art teacher who used to take away the black from his box of crayons/paints, and I’m tempted to do the same (except take away both the black AND the white) from these kids. It might really throw them for a loop, though. Baby steps.

I know I’m comparing these kids to those in Kakkaiyankulam, which is horribly unfair – the K kids have been displaced, but didn’t have the LTTE looming over their heads all the time. At the same time, though, they’re all I have to compare with – what other displaced children have I ever taught? So while the propensity to need to draw outlines when drawing is similar, I’ve noticed that the Kakkaiyankulam kids, despite their young age, will help me with my luggage while the Chiraddikulam children look on. The Chiraddikulam kids will conscientiously and politely shake my hand one by one at the end of each session while demurely chanting “Tankew”, while the Kakkaiyankulam kids will all chorus together in a terrifying cacophony, “Sthuthi! Nandri! Tankew!” and then hoot and howl and race after the van as I leave. The Kakkaiyankulam kids never stop saying good-bye, but the Chiraddikulam kids are much more capable of saying goodbye once and then moving on. They are also slower than the Kakkaiyankulam kids to become attached – until their very last session with me the kids never stopped asking about Eshara (and Kamal, on the days he wasn’t able to make it). The children at Chiraddikulam accepted without question that Irfadha would not be coming this week, not asking where she was. The kakkaiyankulam children are also much freer with their hugs and affection. It’s not fair to play favourites – I’m hoping that despite the fact that it is easier to like the children of Kakkaiyankulam (who doesn’t like kids who give you hugs?) that I can be empathetic to the children of Chiraddikulam, despite my phenonmenal inability to be empathetic under normal circumstances.

I napped on the way back, had a delightful shower (whose invigorating effects were quickly attenuated by the subsequent long train ride), ate chicken fried rice while watching bits of Van Helsing (in English!) and discovered on the way to the train station that I appear to have been over-charged for the van hire. (Despite my general feeling of being grateful, I will take it up with dear Mr Kamal when I talk to him next – it doesn’t make sense to charge a customer Rs. 6,500 for an air-conditioned van one week, only to charge them Rs. 7,000 for a non-a/c van the week after that. Fortunately I save all my bills, like the hoarder that I am.

I’m willing to bet I’m one of the only person to spend most of a train ride (in regular second-class) blogging, since the Sri Lankan landscape is rather a marvellous thing to watch whooshing by, but it is because I blog that I am able to record the person who I saw reading The Great Gatsby (an old-ish looking gentleman in rolled-up shirt sleeves and leather slippers), as well as the hordes of white-clad people who alighted in Anuradhapura (it is Poya, after all) apparently unable to distinguish their carriages and their seat numbers. It’s certainly the first time I’ve noticed this kind of chaos, and people standing around in the second class carriage for a while before figuring out where to go.

Lastly, I would like to note that going to V-town every week is like a mini going-to-Princeton every semester; it certainly feels like a different country, the train ride is as long as a plane ride (if not as long as CMB-BOM-BRU-EWR), I’m funded with the money of rich and generous alums, I live in a room with full service, and everyone lets me believe I’m saving the world. I write this because I’ve been doing these workshops for about two months now – a long enough period to naively feel like I’m Making A Change, even though change takes much longer and is never single-handed. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading a very incisive article on TFA a few days ago. When TFA fails, it is because it believes it’s single-handedly saving America, that its newness and freshness and youthfulness (and maybe sometimes Ivy-League-ness) are inherently better than what is in place. TFA fails when its CMs and administration stop being humble, and stop thinking of the teaching profession as a service, not as a resume-builder or “crusade” fought by righteous youth. I could quite easily fall into that trap (I think I’m already mired in it, and struggling to acquire the humility I need to escape it). So it’s a good day to be grateful. For a father who pays my phone bill without asking why it’s higher than usual. For people who are both bilingual and generous with their time. For a guest house that is clean and safe and provides well-cooked food. For the absence of creepy-crawlies. For army personnel who don’t stand in the way of my outrageous schemes. For a new computer with excellent battery-life. For friends who are quick to volunteer their help. For train tickets that are not sold out when I need one. For everyone who reads my blog. For meter taxis. For people willing to give hard-earned money to a project they’ll never see. And most of all, for children who keep coming for these workshops, week after week.

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