In light of all of this civic engagement excitement, I was reminded of my own brush with community engagement. It was not my own community, however–though it quickly became such–it was a small orphanage in India. I went there to teach English; however, in a cliched paradox, I learned much more than I taught.
Hungry hands grabbed at my post-flight, wrinkled clothes; grasped at my aching, dirty hands; and pinched at my clammy, flushed cheeks.
“Chellam! Jena, you chellam!”
The small, excited bodies crushed around me as this ready-made fan club multiplied, growing until I was drowning in a sea of adoring girls. The upturned, hopeful faces stirred me; never before had I seen such poignant features, ones that could fill a heart and burst it. The whispers that the more timid girls cupped to my ears collided with the delighted squeals of the more gregarious girls; the din blasted through my head like a migraine, but the voices sounded so inviting that I felt I was suffering the most peaceful headache. My jet-lagged mind struggled to decipher each of the thousand words being flung at me, and my heavy eyelids fought to keep from slipping shut.
I was in India. I was in India. The thought sent a jolt through my limbs, a shiver down my spine. I grinned at the cherubic, expectant faces that surrounded me and held tight to the two hands that slid into each of my own. Then, for the first time in much too long, I followed; I let the girls pull me along, away from my American mindset and into their world.
As soon as the girls deemed me suitably acclimated to their orphanage—after roughly fifteen minutes of breathing that sweetly dusty Bethel air—a cluster of girls settled around me, entertaining themselves with my American, sleep-deprived nuances. I felt a small tug on my shirt, and I turned to see a young girl with a grin comparable to sunshine. I smiled too, infected with her joy.
“My name is [insert what could only be perceived as a jumble of letters],” she said in practiced, clipped English.
I smiled politely to cloak my confusion and said, “Umm, what?”
“My name is [?!?!?!].”
I blinked at her, waiting for some nonverbal clue, as I struggled to hear beyond her thick Indian accent. The surrounding throng of girls giggled at my befuddled expression. I gazed down at my unnamed beauty.
“Baby girl, I have absolutely no idea what you just said.”
At this, the girls erupted in fireworks of squealing laughter, but the smiling girl simply repeated herself, just as incoherently. An idea cut through the culture-shocked fog of my brain.
“Ohhh,” I said, feigning comprehension. “So, how do you spell that?”
“You are an idiot,” I thought to myself, feeling pretty stupid for not understanding such a common name. Trying to recover, I hastily responded, “Oh, that’s a beautiful name! So, what’s up, Bria?”
Any confusion evoked by my innately rapid English vanished when I spoke her name; the instant I uttered the word, she beamed, warmer than the scorching rays of Indian sun. I had met my very own angel. She suddenly grabbed my hand like a vice and locked her mahogany eyes on mine as if the intensity of the gaze would communicate anything lost in translation.
“Jena, don’t forget my name.”
I flashed an easy smile so no one would know my heart was tearing at its seams; it had dawned on me that I would only have two weeks to see this face. I squeezed her hand and spoke nonchalantly.
“Bria, come on, I could never forget your beautiful—excuse me—chellam face. You should know I certainly won’t forget your name.”
With another catalyzing smile, she softly touched my face. (This was a big deal; not pinching every gram of blood from my cheeks was an entirely new concept to these girls.)
“Chellam, Jena,” she said, with that characteristic dimpled grin, “You very beautiful.”
I could not see it. Bria radiated a better beauty than any that could ever be excavated from me: it was in everything she did; it was in each word she spoke. I had never beheld such a selfless, thoughtful gem of a child. Even as I fell in love with each personality, with every face I saw in that orphanage, Bria was the only child to urge my sleep at the slightest yawn, to anxiously beg for my happiness whenever the corners of my lips took a brief hiatus from stretching to their limits, to whisper “chellam” every single time she graced me with her presence. Bria swallowed the thick, dry thirst for attention that rose in the throats and hearts of all the children of Bethel, inveterate and unquenchable. Silently gulping back that intense and overwhelming need, Bria placed my comfort and happiness above her own.
My last day at Bethel appeared out of nowhere, piercing through the blissful peace of India, directly into my chest. Bria came to me with tears brimming in her wide eyes and said nothing. I pulled her easily into my arms, feeling our hearts breaking simultaneously. I wracked my brain, wondering how I could return the divine acceptance she so effortlessly granted to me. My mind just flipped through blank images, ideas of desperate nothing. I just wanted to give her a piece of me to which she could cling when doubt of my promises ebbed at her optimism.
Gently, I let her go. Fighting the flood trembling at the edge of my vision, I slipped off my peace bracelet. The indentation left by the band remained in my skin, a deep rut encircling my wrist, broken only by the imprint left by the worn metal of the peace sign. I pressed the bracelet firmly into her hand, but our eyes remained locked. I wished she could know how I never took that bracelet from my wrist, not once. I wished she could know how I treasured it. But I could not speak: a sharp constraint had crippled my throat, winding up my windpipe like a serpent. The pressure laced each laborious breath with thick despair. I held my breath and let it out slowly. I gave away my constant companion, my faithful reminder of serenity. I left in her hand the most tangible piece of me I could give. Then I moved my hand to her tear-stained cheek.
“Chellam,” I choked out, and the sob rose in my throat to sit precariously just at the edge of my mouth. With a complacent patience, it waited for me to break.
A shadowy ghost of that trademark grin passed over her sobered features as she tried to smile at my pathetic attempt to speak her language. She put the bracelet on her wrist deliberately and solemnly; for a moment, I think I caught an understanding in her actions that broke through our language barrier. I think I caught hope.
I have no idea what my presence gave those children. So desperate was I to nourish those impoverished souls, to fill those starving hands; yet, that girlish sea of personified hope crashed upon my ethnocentric ideology. Maybe I offered a handful of trinkets and bubblegum or a few laughs at my American colloquialisms, but I cannot imagine that I gave those ineffably luminous orphans anything comparable to what they gave me. They gave me a renewed faith in humanity, a first-hand vision of God’s graceful hands, and two weeks of which I am striving every day never to forget a second. Memories fade, though: I rarely remember what I had for lunch today. But—even if I forget my childhood, my world, or myself—I will never forget her name.
Right this second (and for all subsequent seconds of summer 2012), Jeni Prats is interning for Mobilize.org as a social media medium. A rising junior at American University (AU), she is majoring in Public Communications and Graphic Design and minoring in Cinema Studies. Jeni lives for her annual world outreach trips to Guatemala and India. Other activities include involvement with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), the DC Read’s Life Pieces to Masterpieces program, and the public relations/graphic design department at ATV (AU’s television station).