It is the first day of school, and I’m half an hour early. In Indian Standard Time, this means I am actually an hour early. A doormat sprawls across the floor in front of me, and I kick off my shoes, knowing that I will have to remove them before I enter the room. I sit outside Principal Ma’am’s office like I’m waiting for punishment. My sari rustles against the floor. I scissor my feet beneath it, unsticking the edge of my petticoat from my legs. The power was out for an hour this morning, for longer than the usual fifteen-minute rolling blackouts that occasionally grace our flat, which means my hair is half-curled in a sad attempt to retain my Texas roots, and also that every inch of silk is stuck to my body with sweat.
A sweeper woman calls, “Amma!” down the hallway. “Amma! Bailey Ma’am!” I turn and stand, astonished someone knows my name. “Principal, Assembly,” she says in broken English, makes a hurried humph noise, and takes the stairs down two at a time, beckoning for me to follow. I run after her, holding the thick pleats of my sari and praying I don’t trip down three flights of stairs the first day of school. She motions again for me to follow, and I step outside to see the entire school is already there. Typical.
“M’assalama alaikum,” Principal Ma’am tells me, kissing me on both cheeks. The vice principal (I think?) grasps my hands firmly and grins widely. “The American is here!”
“You will speak now, introduce yourself,” they say. I nod and follow them outside onto the concrete, and realize that I am still barefoot. I also realize that my sari is long enough that no one will notice. So I think. A teacher asks me where my shoes are, and I am forced to run back up the stairs, holding the pleats of my sari like the clock is striking midnight and this whole place is about to turn into a pumpkin. I slip them on halfway and run back down just as Principal Ma’am announces my full name on the microphone. I hop the ramp (forgetting I am still in a sari), smile, and introduce myself to the entire school. They clap enthusiastically, whisper to each other as I pass. “Bailey Elizabeth,” they call me, “the American, Bailey Ma’am.”
Principal Ma’am grins at me as I walk offstage. “Welcome to your new life.”
And before I can even catch my breath or put my sandals back on, thus it begins: my new life as Bailey Ma’am. Fifty students in each class, each class one of four sections, four sections in each standard, for three standards, equals around six hundred students that I see each week for around 30 minutes a class period. Equals around twenty thousand “Bailey Ma’ams” a week. Every exclamation makes me feel like I’m in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The King and I: India Edition. Minus the whole Yul Brynner thing. My coordinating teacher, I’ve been told, is in Canada. We are unsure of when—or if—she will return. Until then, my interim coordinator tells me, I am covering all of her classes. No observation period like the rest of my colleagues get at their schools, no discussion of lesson plans, no partner teaching. Headfirst.
The Indian education system is actually pretty similar to how American schools function. My school is comparatively well-off when considering where my peers are teaching; the girls gab endlessly about their iPads and “gadgets.” The school is indoors—with fans!!—, instead of the typical Indian classroom that opens to the outdoors. It has a fingerprint security system and they’re putting in an elevator by next term (which is September). My students’ English, on the whole, is already considerably advanced, and their parents regularly speak English with them at home, something we were warned in orientation would be an exception, not a rule. However, unlike America, children here actually want to be in school, versus the moody American teenagers who would rather be launching their Vine careers. There are no participation ribbons so that no one’s feelings will be hurt, and they are a thousand times more supportive than I have ever seen classmates in America be towards each other. There is an infallible reliance on rote memorization—referred to in slang as “chalk and talk,” or “commit and vomit”—of material that my girls will be tested on in exams verbatim, and as my coordinating teacher is in charge of teaching those lessons (and, again, is still in Canada), the fate of their advancing to the next standard rests, for this term, on me. This is made all too apparent when two girls enter my staff room with a stack of sixty test booklets, slap them on the desk in front of me, and turn to leave.
“What are these?” I call to them.
They giggle and look at each other. “Ma’am, they’re the cycle tests you’re supposed to grade by next period.”
I laugh remembering the Pinterest-worshipping, latte-drinking people from home who said they consider themselves pretty “go with the flow”—India INVENTED the flow. Teachers call me out of my break periods “to come introduce themselves to their classes,” tell me, “Oh, you can just take this class. Teach them about America,” and walk out to go take a nap. Classes never start on time, and no one can really tell me a start time for each period to begin with. Our Hindi teacher points to me in the staff room and says, “Bailey. I hear you sing. Sing a Tamil song for us.” I silently thank Rangarajan for the Tamil karaoke and eek out the three lines I remember of “Chinna Chinna Aasai.” She nods. “Good. I will train you to sing Urdu song. You will sing it at assembly for whole school on Independence Day.” Later a teacher I have never met walks up to me, links my arm, and says, “Bailey. Wear a sari on Monday. You are singing the Tamil song for my eleventh standard,” and walks away. This has happened a few times, where people ask me to spontaneously sing something for them; I’m convinced that they think I am here on world tour instead of to teach.
The way I tally it, I vaguely know what’s going on around 15% of the time, but I love every second of it. Like when Hindi Teacher asks me the first day if I play throwball. I tell her I have never heard of it. She grins and writes my name down. “Great. You’re on the team.”
The confusion continues. Students are sent to my classroom in the middle of a lesson. “Excuse me, Bailey Ma’am, Arabic Teacher wants you to come play throwball.”
“…tell Arabic Teacher that I’m in class right now.”
Five minutes later: “Bailey Ma’am, Arabic Teacher wants to know if you’ve finished the lesson yet.”
I give up, wrap up the lesson, and tell my girls that they can come down to the courtyard with me to watch if they wish. Many gladly oblige, and the few that hang back wave at me on the court from their third story window, chanting my name. Hindi Teacher points at me, throws me the ball, and says, “BAILEY. YOU SERVE.” Every ounce of my manicure-and-mimosa-bred body and every careful pleat of my sari says this is a bad idea, but I shrug, tuck my skirt between my legs, and do it anyway. Throwball is not a hard sport, if anyone is wondering, especially against a bunch of teachers, and the girls all come up to me afterwards like I’m Michael Phelps, shaking my hand and telling me that I “played so sweet, like the Olympics!” The kindergarteners come up and ask to touch my hair, eyes fascinated on my braid as it swings against my face.
These girls are fiercely intelligent, wonderfully compassionate, and extremely funny. They are ferociously quick learners, full of questions, from “Where are you from?” to “What is your favorite monument?” “Are you the Princess of America?” one of them asks me. I tell her if I was a princess I’d have a much grander sari, and they nod in agreement.
I ask them to complete an assignment where they write things about themselves. One sixth standard girl decidedly writes, “I was pizza. I am pizza.” as her favorite hobby. A row of girls write down that their goal is “to take a selfie with the entire school of Crescent!” One of my eighth graders looks dejectedly at her paper when I ask her to write her ambition.
“Bailey ma’am, I don’t know what my ambition is. I don’t want to be a doctor or an engineer.”
“Well, what is something you would love to do with your life?”
She looks at me, her round face framed by her green hijab and eyes shining. “Inshallah– God willing–I want to give food to the poor and care for the old.”
“In America we call that social work.”
Her face lights up. “Social worker! Is that a good job, Bailey miss?”
I smile. “Yes, Sherin. That is a very good job.”
Girls ask for my autograph, for my Instagram; their eyes widen in surprise when I speak to them in Tamil. They tell me I look like a Bollywood actress (Hansika Motwani), like Merida from Brave, like Anna from Frozen, like Jennifer Lawrence, like a queen, like a president. I get letters telling me I am their favorite thing about school, that I am “so fairy! So beautiful!,” that “they hope I never get married and leave them for America.” A girl in ninth standard asks me for a picture of myself in both traditional and Western dress with no explanation, and returns the traditional dress picture to me, saying “she needs one of me in a sari, because her parents think I am very cute and sweet and have some questions for me” (which we are taking to mean that she is trying to set me up with someone in her family…? So maybe their fears of me getting married and leaving are to be assuaged after all??? #SOS #help) I am surrounded, day in, day out, by the calls of “ma’am! Miss! Bailey ma’am, look at this!” as they clamor to ask me about my favorite member of One Direction, to see a picture of my mother, for me to do “The Cup Song” from Pitch Perfect in their class again. They get a kick out of me, the American who smiles too wide, talks with an accent somewhere between Southern and Indian, sticks pens in her hair, and dances while erasing the board. (Saris, by the way, are not conducive for writing on chalkboards or attempting to walk in any way quickly; their constriction factor is second only to those floor-length denim skirts we wore in the nineties.)
This first Saturday morning, I am called to the school to watch a speaker. Instead I end up called onstage to speak at an assembly of a thousand people and am told to stand for the video camera as I am given a bouquet, equal to the woman speaker who holds two doctorates with an identical bouquet beside me. Students and parents ask for selfies with me, then full body pictures of just myself in a salwar, holding my flowers and a cup of chai and smiling against a wall like I’m Miss India. At orientation, the Fulbright people announced to us that we were the newest ambassadors, the faces of America around the world, in the trenches of diplomacy. I laughed then. Me, the face of America. But it’s proven all too true; the unabashed stares on the streets and random features in the news have been replaced by the endless stream of curiosity of my school. “You need my passport-sized photo for…what exactly?” “No, sorry, I don’t know your uncle who lives in LA.” “You want me to hold your baby?” “Yes, we eat meat in America.” “Oh, I’m your new Facebook profile picture?” It’s absolutely hilarious, being the American in Madras.
But being the face of America, princess or not, is also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My students know more about America than I ever knew about India—in a game of Hangman, they guessed “Barack Obama” without a single letter or a category prompting them, solely by counting the number of blanks. (“What state is he from, does anyone know?” “KENYA, MISS! KENYA!”)But I have to fill in the blanks of history, and in doing so I have become even more acutely aware that America is one of the easiest illusions to shatter. In the first week, I’ve already found myself explaining that Americans used to keep people as slaves based on the color of their skin, which is a weird dynamic in a place where students ask me, “Bailey miss, how do you get your skin so fair? What whitening cream do you use?” Parents have come up to me to tell me that I should never allow the girls to speak in their mother tongues—Tamil, Hindi, Arabic, Malayalam, Kannada—because “English is what they should speak, only.” And it doesn’t stop at school.
My Muslim auto driver from the mall asks me, “You are American? You believe that my people are your enemy.”
“Oh, no,” I tell him, “We do not believe you are the enemy. I teach at a Muslim school and I like Muslim people very much.”
“Ah. You are Protestant?” he asks. I nod. “Protestant Americans do not believe that Muslims are their brothers and sisters. They tell me I look like Osama bin Laden. Same face, different height. Muslim. Terrorist. Not your brother.”
“No,” I protest. “You are my brother. I see Muslims as my brothers and my sisters.”
His eyes meet mine in the mirror, crinkling in a wan smile. “But America does not.”
These things are heartbreaking on a daily basis; only some of them are reparable.
“No, class, Kenya is an African country, not a US state…President Obama is not from Kenya.”
“We don’t keep people as slaves anymore, and under laws Abraham Lincoln made, everyone is equal!”
“No, you don’t want to be as fair as me! In America we want to be tan. I am so pale that my skin burns! You are beautiful the way you are!”
I translate words into Tamil when I can tell the students in the back don’t understand a word I’m saying.
“M’assalama,” I tell my astonished auto driver, and give him 100 rupees for a 25 rupee ride before I go upstairs to stand in the shower and cry because he is absolutely correct.
In instances like the last one, I feel helpless and heartbroken. I am not America. I do not believe these things. But oftentimes the narrative of America through the centuries reinforces these notions—equality, except English only, white only, Christian only. Still today we have options to choose this narrative, like when racists vie for a presidential nomination, or when we think Confederate flags are “nostalgic Southern pride,” or when we focus so much on “the Islamic State” and the “attack on Christianity” that we refuse to realize that in a nation of religious freedom, the only direct terrorist attacks on places of worship have been from the very white, English-speaking, gun-bearing, Christ-claiming, “true Americans” we aim to protect. We can choose this, and often we do, etching hatred like scars on the face of America.
Or we can choose to flip the script. I am not America’s actions. I am only my own. A sentence, seventy-five rupees, and an Arabic goodbye don’t change that. They don’t undo a thick history of hurt, but sometimes they are the only things I can do. I make a conscious choice every day to rewrite the narrative through laughter, creating good moments, never bad, no matter how absurd they are—because sometimes I have to be completely out there to make things stick. Answering their crazy questions. Acting out the vocabulary words, making moose sounds to help better explain Canada (necessary, duh), singing Taylor Swift songs on command, making the girls stand up from their cramped desks for a ridiculous dance break. Laughter, at least, is the same in every language. Through this, in the very least, I hope I am leaving even just the idea of a legacy of hope, leaving more good than bad. Taking inventory of joy everywhere it can be found.
At the end of the day, I shake the chalk dust from my sari, fold it (most likely incorrectly), and prepare to face an empty ledger page tomorrow. Hope, Inshallah. Joy, God willing.