“What did you do this summer?”
It’s the question that every returning Yalie asks and is asked hundreds of times in these first couple weeks back on campus. “Where did you go?” “What did you see?” “What did you learn?”
These questions are borne of expectation and eagerness for interesting stories. Those I can supply: I went to Nepal. I tutored English at a refuge for abandoned children. It changed my life. It should be gratifying to see my friends and acquaintances nod their heads, see their impressed faces, how they think I did something so wonderful, that I have proved myself noble. But instead I find myself wanting to stay quiet, to talk about the weather or the movie we just watched. Anything but just how impossible it is to tell the truth about Nepal.
What I tell people is all true, but there hovers in my empty words the glaring reality that I’m romanticizing and dramatizing a cold, harsh and utterly unromantic reality.
Society likes to teach us to care, and to do good. To volunteer. Across the nation high schoolers work to join National Honors Society, do their 30 volunteer hours and smile proudly with an extra sash at graduation, add another line to that resume. Here at Yale, Dwight Hall is proud to say it is the largest non-profit umbrella in American universities.
Students pour hours and hours into projects, into doing good. They travel abroad and come back telling romantic stories, picking and choosing the good bits from the mundane. I talk about the day that I won a battle over cheating with one of my students. The way the little ones clung to my hands. And it sounds pretty. But no matter how much I loved my summer, I feel a twist of guilt every time I talk about it, every time I hear myself saying what will interest and draw those around me. I find myself unable to explain the realities I faced.
Life isn’t always vibrant. It’s full of the kind of truths one tends to ignore in the face of the story. Our own thoughts stay buried below, too complicated to bother to understand. It’s quick, easy and impressive to tell the Reader’s Digest version of life. Painless, for both the writer and reader. Inspiring, even. Everyone is delighted to hear my watered-down stories, the false newsworthy version that is the only one I seem able to tell.
When I decided to teach English — something I’d never done before — in a country I knew nothing about, I wasn’t nervous. I was excited. It was to be such an adventure. I could learn as well as give. I imagined the positive impact I could make on the lives of the children at the refuge at which I was to work. I imagined I would do some good.
But now I’m not so sure. I bonded with my students, a bond of genuine mutual interest and affection. Their English improved as we struggled together to overcome their ingrained mistakes, taught by their teachers, non-native speakers who themselves struggle with proper English.
But each day was just a day. There was no moment of revelation, no change in the lives of those involved, other than the minute changes that occur every day in everyone’s lives. And though it changed my life, when I left I knew that the world had not been shaken.
Helping people, we expect, should be easy. Doing good, people tend to feel, isn’t like other accomplishments that we have to fight for, throw our energies into, fight the urge to give up. Because it isn’t something we do for ourselves, but instead are donating for the good of others, it should be rewarding in itself.
The trouble seems to be that once you actually get out into the world that needs help, it’s not so easy to make any kind of change, especially one of great measure. I found myself able to change a few hours, a day or two, a child’s understanding of perhaps three words, one kind of sentence construction. Major changes eluded me, not only in practice, but also in theory.
What kind of change could I even desire to make? Who am I to decide what needs to change? Is progress even possible without a huge price?
I flew home uncertain, unsure, with my life altered, and the lives of those I touched the same. Isn’t that backwards?
Timmia Hearn Feldman is a sophomore in Morse College.