During the entire program it was ironic that Jessica, one of the (supposed) leaders was the one to get really sick. So sick, in fact, that she ended up in the hospital for three days after spending one of the only nights she actually stayed in our room shitting and puking her brains out. It happened at the beginning of the first program, too, which gave me a chance to bond with the kids by default. Something I later on had a sneaking suspicion to be a big part of what turned her into the devil. Still, I’ve always felt bad thinking about how traumatizing the experience in the hospital was for her. Being poked and prodded in so many ways while in intense pain, worried about unsanitary needles making her even more sick, being kept in for money against her wishes… Chris (as usual) took advantage of his position by making excuses as to why I couldn’t go check on her while he did time after with a level of concern noticeably above the norm; especially for him.
Cue my continuing to deny how obvious the favoritism and fact that they were hooking up was. Partly because I celebrated connection, which made me want it to be OK, and partly because I hadn’t figured out anything I could do about it. At least not yet.
In addition to the situation with Jessica, Chris continued to take advantage of his position in multiple ways. One of which was constantly making excuses to leave to meet with Raja for what I saw signs to be a boy’s club of sort that consisted of drinking beers and hatching some kind of competing program that I’m still not fully aware of but have a sneaking suspicion was a direct betrayal to EEK! Besides how he treated me, it was just so crazy how much he took advantage of the company’s trust and resources. I still get pissed on their behalf.
While the times the two of them were around was just about always some kind of horrible, I had plenty of time alone with the kids and my local guys to bond and run the show the way I wanted to. My way appeared to resonate, thank god, and they all seemed to enjoy it. I tried for way too long to find a way to work as a team with Chris and Jessica before finally raising the white flag when constantly trying to back them up, even against my best judgment, and still didn’t get anywhere. Eventually I got the message that I would never be able to do right in their eyes and learned to stay in the shadows as much as I could when they were around.
Back to the good. My favorite experience of the year was when we had a mentor group called Story of Self that Chris had suggested as a success from the year before. The focus was for every kid to tell the story of a challenge currently being faced and one that had been overcome. One of our amazing girls set the foundation by going in raw and exposing the vulnerabilities of her pain by talking about having to take care of her mom with MS. Opening that door for the rest, the room instantly filled with tears and continued on as the kids talked about being torn between cultures (Jewish in a Christian school, one parent French and the other American, etc.), diseases they’d survived, scars and some of the things in their lives that filled my heart with even more love for them as I fought like hell to keep my composure. They were so desperate to be heard and helped, each one looking directly into my eyes as they told their stories. Standing there, I thought about how much of a foundational age they were at and how moments such as those were so desperately need yet come so seldom. Scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, I was humbly grateful for being able to be a part of that for them. To see teenagers let their guards so far was one of the most meaningful moments I’d had in years. Maybe forever. There was just so much love and support in that room. It was one of those magically surreal moments where I knew I was doing something that really mattered.
While our mentor group was amazing, Jessica’s was the opposite. A couple of the girls came to me later upset about how she had made the stories about herself when telling her own relating tales after every kid’s turn and had gone so far as to shut down one of the girls who made a positive comment as an attempt to fix the damage one of the other girls unintentionally did by tuning her heart-breakingly horrific story into a situation that downplayed others as she had pointed out that they hadn’t been through anything compared to her.
Both of those situations looked to cause further damage during a time of emotional vulnerability when they had been reaching out. Though not OK with it, it was one of the times I tried (unsuccessfully) to make Jessica, Chris and I seem like a united team while also making the girls feel heard and validated. Unsurprisingly and despite my well-intentioned efforts, Chris was defensive and slightly hostile (as usual) later on when telling me that I should have brought it to both him and Jessica, not just him (I mentioned that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings unnecessarily) and that I should have shut them down from saying anything at all. It was around then that I reached my breaking point any told myself that I was going to do what I believed to be right by the kids regardless of what they (and what Chris represented EEK!) to instruct. If we were not on the same page, I was just going to have to live with getting fired or worse. What I was seeing was just too far off too often from what I believed to be the right thing for taking care of them and they were what mattered above all else. EEK! had dropped us there all but isolated with little to no check-ins, even when going to HR with a shockingly left-field letter of personal attack from Jessica that Chris and the regional director had blown off, so I was going to have to trust myself. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for that gem.
Feeling like I was the only one there for the kids and loving my time with them so much, I felt guilty when it finally came time for my one day off (as opposed to Jessica’s four) but it was essential as it gave me a little destimulation time. For the first time, I finally had a few hours to make it down to the local bizarre where I was able to have a chiffon Punjabi suit made and then make it to the McLeod Gang market for blissful pizza eating at a spot called Namgyal Cafe while writing away for my last few desperate moments as an outlet in the way I process. Finally a sweet, sweet reprieve from the chaos and the same stock food constantly provided at home. Among other things, it was during that time that I happily realized that I had made it halfway through my time in India on $300 without scrimping. Included in that was all the times of going out with Raja, Chris and Jessica before the kids got there, buying souvenirs, paying for taxis and taking our super homesick little lady out for our day on the town at the beginning of the program.
I wasn’t the only one who loved the McLeod Gang market. The kids did even more than I and we managed a small victory by getting there three times before they left. As their last couple days with me came to a close, I reflected on all the great pictures we had taken around that beautiful town (it was supposed to be a photojournalism program after all) along with the amazing workshop I had put on matching word to those photos (even if no one would see the final product thanks to Chris stealing the content) and fun down time when we were hanging at home. Something that often included the local guys and some of our kids playing chess. A game I used to love but didn’t get to participate in myself given how few moments I had where kids weren’t coming to me for different things.
Minus a lot of the kids being bummed that they hadn’t had traditional clothes such as salwars and saris made for the group picture at our end-of-program celebration, we had a blast. We watched a Bollywood movie, had henna art drawn on by local ladies and were given a great show with lessons of traditional dance that brought down the house. The dancing was especially highlighted by Ahmad’s amazing skills (check out the video in the previous post) and Ishan’s endearingly awkward moves. I had been surprised that none of us had broken our neck on that beautiful but constantly slippery marble floor of our humid home in the clouds and became even more so as it was absolutely soaked from the body heat of everyone getting down. It was my last night with them. The next morning they left for a whirlwind couple days of travel with a brief stop at the Taj Majal and Golden Temple with Jessica and Chris. I stayed left behind in tears of love and goodbye.
It’s been months and I still miss them. How I wish I could watch them grow and hear a hello with an update from time to time. I would never stop telling them how much they mean to me and what a difference they made in healing the scars of my battered heart.