The summer that I had always imagined was finally taking shape. It was the first Saturday of August, and it marked the halfway point of my month-long vacation in Kerala, India. The gloomy monsoon season filled with hours upon hours of rain had ended and was replaced by blissful summer days. However, all this changed on that Saturday morning, when I heard an ear piercing thud echo through the lawn. Instinctively, I ran towards the direction of the noise and saw my neighbors’ collapsed roof.
Once a modest hut, my neighbors’ home was now barely recognizable. All that remained of their roof was rubble and dust. With the slow pace of activity in the village, coupled with the family’s very limited financial means, it would be awhile before they could fix their house. Since there was no luxury of government aid or insurance companies at the family’s service, I wondered about their fate. Their lives were hanging by a string without shelter. The end of the monsoon season was a time to be celebrated in South India, yet for this specific family, there was only sadness and newfound anxiety.
Gigi, the third grader who lived in that home, stood by her mother’s side. When I heard her speak between sobs, I discovered that she feared she would be unable to retrieve her backpack and school papers, which were still sitting on a desk that was likely covered in dust. Gigi’s mother could only placate her daughter with the half-hearted reassurance that it would not rain in the near future, ensuring that her school work would not be ruined.
My instinct told me to leave the family in peace, but my conscience led me to talk to the timid third grade girl. I knew that she merely saw me as the “American girl” visiting the house across the street, yet when our eyes met I said, “Hi, Gigi.”
She apathetically responded, “Hi.” I told her that I was sorry about what had happened and continued the threadbare conversation by adding that if she needed help with her schoolwork, I would gladly lend her a hand.
It was at that moment that Gigi’s eyes lit up. She asked, “Can you teach me the multiplication table up to ten? I have a math exam on Monday.” And so with that, I was transformed from the “American girl” to her tutor. Gigi was meticulous with her memorization, attempting to indelibly drill the entire multiplication table into her brain. As we went on, I would quiz her, and she would respond with few mistakes. Even though the tutoring lasted only a few hours, I felt she was able to gain an understanding of material that usually comes with weeks of instruction. When she skipped toward the gate, my thoughts shifted. Gigi seemed happy and carefree, yet she was still heading off toward what remained of her dilapidated home. Where would her family eat and sleep that night? How long would she have to live like this?
The ramshackle home was repaired after two weeks, a few days before I left India. Until then, Gigi had the strength to endure the hardship because schoolwork became her refuge. Back in the States, schoolwork had always seemed like one aspect of a child’s world, but in India, school and knowledge meant the world to every child. Gigi grew up without a TV, a computer, a phone, or any other luxuries that have been ingrained into my Western lifestyle. India opened my eyes to an unfamiliar standard of living. The monsoon season inevitably brought rain, and the rain was bound to cause some damage. It was only a matter of chance that a house like Gigi’s would remain fully intact. While walking on the streets of my family’s native state of Kerala, I would pass beggars who could not feed their families, locals who struggled to maintain their businesses, and shoeless children who dribbled and kicked with the same battered ball every evening on the streets. Education seemed to be the answer to all these problems as the only constant that could allow these individuals to move forward. Knowledge was the key with the potential to open doors to a better quality of life, and I like to believe that I played a small part in keeping that door open for Gigi.
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