Courage is a strange thing. I know many people who have courage. They are not afraid of jumping out of airplanes thousands of feet above the ground. They are not afraid of going far away from home to a strange place. They are not afraid of spiders or snakes or walking home alone late at night. A person can be unafraid of so many things, yet there is still something out there that they fear. For me, I’m not afraid of much, but there is one thing I have consistently been unable to stand up to throughout my life. Never have I been able to speak my mind. I’m that person in your class where participation is part of the grade who still sits in the corner and never says anything. I’m the person who chooses the individual project rather than the group project because I was too afraid to go up and ask if I could be a part of your team. My parents never read my college application or any essay that I have ever written because I never let anyone near my writing unless forced to. I’m an extreme introvert and I know that it has limited me in some ways.
That’s why I felt so happy when the parent of, Anugreh, one of the students that we had been working with for the past month came up to Sofia, Bill, and I and said, “I was really worried that my son was an introvert and I’m so happy to see that he has become more confident through this program.” We had given a student an outlet to test and overcome his fears. I could empathize with how much that difference could mean, as I have been striving towards that goal my whole life. Recently I have been thinking more and more about the idea of comfort and the near obsession that we seem to have with it, and more and more I tend to agree that the time we learn the most is when we step out of our comfort zone. Testing that boundary takes a great deal of courage and many individuals get stuck somewhere during that initial moment of hesitation. In the moment we cross that boundary we are taking leaps and bounds forwards rather than the baby steps we were using to inch by before. Though Anugreh’s parents said that he could see the difference in his son after the one month-long Propeller Program that LEAP just finished up, I could not help but think about how great that difference actually could be. One month seems like such a short amount of time to learn what generally takes people a lifetime to learn. When these students step into new, uncomfortable situations, will they be able to recall the skills that we exposed them to in Propeller? I know too much from my own experience about how easy it is to recoil back into your safe zone and to feel like you have made no progress despite all your past efforts.
I never talked to people on buses, trains, or airplanes. If they talked to me I would answer politely, but I wouldn’t add much more than that. This past weekend we took our first trip via train in India to visit Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We spent one day visiting the Taj and Agra Fort and the next day touring Fatehpur Sikri. By the end of our trip we had had enough of being swarmed by vendors everywhere we went and we spent a peaceful two hours roaming around the park across from the Taj Mahal. On our way back from Agra the next evening, Bill was exchanging polite conversation with a man in the row behind me and I was pretending to read and sleep in my own seat to avoid any awkward conversation. The train jerked several times, “waking me up” and the young-looking Indian guy sitting next to me said, “Indians talk so much, don’t they,” referring to the man chatting with Bill. I laughed and said Bill talks much more and suddenly we were talking about everything. He told me about how he had started off as a software developer and then quit his job because he hated sitting in front of a desk all day. Then we talked about traveling and how much we both prefer to travel in big open-wide spaces and to see the natural beauty of the world rather than spend our time in cramped and busy cities. We talked about work-lifestyle and about Indian stereotypes or “Indianisms” as he liked to call them. Though we got off the train in Delhi and will probably never speak again, my head was still rushing from having what I thought to be a somewhat meaningful conversation with a complete stranger. All it took was one person to plunge into the ice and then an entire memory was made. Just like I can’t say that this past one month of lessons will make any lasting impact on our student’s lives, I also can’t say with certainty that one experience chatting with a stranger will forever change the way I use public transit. What I can say is that it was absolutely worth it for that one journey.
Bad habits die hard as they say and maybe there never really is a single step that can change anyone. Each person has their own idea of discomfort, whether it be living with no electricity or running water, going after your dream job, or making a speech in front of all your friends and family. Only those with a great deal of courage can make leaps forward into whatever they find to be most uncomfortable. If I want my students to be vulnerable and allow themselves to demonstrate this courage, I know that I have to a better job leading by example. Part of that is sharing these stories. Another part is practicing my Hindi. Chalo!