It was July 10, 2015. It was my last day at Teach For India, the organization I fell in love with and still love. It was the place where in June 2013, I was very aptly welcomed by someone saying “Welcome Home!”
This time, I was a Program Manager, coaching a group of 12 new Fellows in their first five weeks of residential training. Next morning, I would be leaving for my new home: a journalism school in Bangalore.
I woke up at 5am (the usual time to wake up was 6am) to prepare my farewell notes for my Fellows and colleagues. The mattress was covered with coloured paper, coloured tape, scissors, leaky sketch pens — all symbolizing the amount of love and the number of words flowing out of me at the time.
Every June for the last three years, I had been here in Pune. June in Pune holds a lot of significance in my heart, thanks to the cool weather, which is the opposite of how it is in my hometown Delhi in this part of the year and the beautiful campus in the hills where this training takes place. Not to forget the unbelievable family culture we have, with nonstop love and gratitude making life easy despite 18- to 19-hour workdays. This was a sad day.
Having been here thrice, I knew there was something coming my way for my farewell, but there seemed no secret conversations anywhere, no secret message cards exchanging hands. Yes, there was a slight moment when I felt a sheet of paper with “Dear Ta…” written over it was frantically slid below a file by a colleague when my eyes wandered there, but I did not think much of it.
It was 5pm. I crossed the recreation room, where they used to play foosball and tennis, and suddenly I was mobbed by people — it was evident they wanted to stop me from entering the room. Something was being prepared.
7pm: The phone call I knew would come, came. I was called for “an urgent meeting” where I needed to be there. I let my sly smile go in favour of the innocence in the request. I went.
The cake was huge; it was a miniature square city with greenery and streets, fences and houses. There were skyscrapers in the form of Diwali crackers. Cherries and birds tried to let their presence felt, while “Miss you T.” made me spellbound. Then rained the gifts. I got a booklet with 12 pages, each with a long message from each of my Fellows. Juhi had drawn birds, each bird drawn with precision and liveliness that only one who has been with birds as if they were babies, could depict. I was asked to guess which message was whose.
We went to a room with a projector screen. The wall lit up with a childhood picture of mine. This was followed by a message from my parents saying how proud they were of the work I had done for two years. The first teardrop had started knocking on the white doors of my eyes.
They had called up my parents to get my old photos and their messages. I had seen the photos years ago. I never knew they could make them cry. As photos came and went, cheers of love and admiration filled the background behind my silence and sadness that leaving the organization meant for me.
The evening was my best gift ever. I wept, so did my team. I still tried to speak, but failed. Gifts had not stopped, but nor had my life with Teach For India.
With a lump in throat, I read out what I had written for the “Story of Us” presentation earlier in the day:
Institute was somewhere a last ditch effort to stay here, a little more time. That time, too, is now over. Perhaps they call it the “Story” of Us because it has been too fantastic to be real.
Twelve people, and I myself, came together to see a Program Manager in me. There is this thought that overwhelms me in retrospect, that I know for sure that this is going to be the most transformative experience in the lives of these twelve people. And despite whatever little impact I’ve had to chance to create, decades later in the greyness of their hair, they would still look back at me as the person who led them on the first five weeks of that life-changing experience.
This was a short time, but a rich time. This was a hectic time, but a hearty time. These were harsh times, tough times, but these were also the best times. Twelve diverse people entered me through the orifices I thought I could never have: the orifices that allow you to take in the wisdom to understand and work with people different from you. They taught me to create those orifices even if our mindsets and working styles did not match.
With lives and backgrounds as different as how our faces look, the love we were able to create after hearing our life maps was uniform all over: it was as similar for all of us as the uniform beauty that runs through our twelve different faces. I felt successful in creating the first experience as a group in a way where my Fellows saw the purpose of knowing the life maps deeply.
There were moments when I felt I was a failure. I kept asking questions in my LCs, but at times it seemed that each time I asked “Why”, the words they heard was “Guys, sleep with your eyes open and stare back at me”.
But my people helped each of us bounce back. I was happy that we were able to create a culture where they could hit me with difficult feedback, feel free in their personal space, and interact with me as if I was their junior. I never imagined I could have twelve LDCs, with each of them featuring instances of brutal honesty, integrity, and courage: some told me the LCs were meaningless, some shot back telling me I didn’t give them enough feedback, some tirelessly proved to me why they were on a 1 on collective action even when I thought it was a 2. Two years back at Institute, I couldn’t imagine myself having the courage to scandalize my PM by saying that I had no intention of doing much in the education sector after my Fellowship.
The joy this group has given me has helped me enhance my sense of humour from non-existent to lame. Today as I leave you all and we bring a close to the Story of Us, I wish to get back to my serious, emotional self. Thank you for being my first twelve. You will stay in my heart always.