The “Old Lady’s” hopes and expectations

Well, I’m the “old lady” and it stings.  There is a Bengali term for old lady, used affectionately or insultingly… One of the girls was angry and called me “Boori” or something like that (Not bodie, which i know).    Children will say anything, and probably they have said worse to me and about me — while I enjoy the ignorance of not knowing Bengali.  But this expression set off a chain because she took the phrase from what others (staff) had been calling me, and that led to other unpleasant terms, and my realization that my sense of isolation was not imagination, my sense and open complaints of disrespect were not unfounded.  I was the crazy old lady who thought I could do something with these children, and some people wanted me to fail, and to leave.  It is complicated and simple at the same time. 

At first i took the insult literally and said she would be lucky to be such an old lady at my age…. and that there was nothing wrong with being an old lady.  But that wasn’t the point… and that was only one of the difficulties that came to the surface in talking with the girls.  Other staff had told the girls I was too strict, that I was ruining their lives, that i expected too much of them, that I was trying to make them forget Bengali (ignoring that I chose Bengali medium for our education)… and many other accusations which sink easily into the minds of children, especially when they are facing discipline, and a foreigner (a white lady) for the first time in their lives.

Some of my readers may believe i’m too strict.  There is no formula for what i’m doing.  Oddly i’m accused of challenging or violating the “culture” in how i’m driving the children academically.  But which culture, which Indian culture?  Is the the Indian culture of the educated who enroll their children in the best schools and then add hours of teaching after that?  Is it the Indian culture of the US, with which I’m most familiar, where Indian children study harder and longer than their American counterparts and do better.  The culture I am really challenging is one with low expectations and a sense of hopelessness in what can be done for these children, the culture for whom these are the throw away children.   And I am the old lady who thinks she can help them.  And I still refuse to beat them or allow others to beat them; I don’t allow withholding of food, or pencils…

So, for the record, what are my hopes and expectations… What do I want for these children, who I now call mine?

1. I want them to be educated enough and well-behaved enough to have choices in how they live.  If you are mad at your boss, whether she is a principal or a cleaning supervisor, you cannot call her an “old lady” and expect to keep your job.  You also cannot throw books at your boss, or simply tell them they can’t make you do something.  They can’t make you do something, but they can fire you.  I dont fire the kids, so I just tell them l/we will have to slug it out until I win.  They will be well-behaved eventually.

2. I want them to value personal connections and whatever sense of family they have.  If they marry, I want them to be good wives and daughters-in-law, but if they are ill-treated they can come home. 

3. I want them to manage issues of sexuality, to which they have been much too exposed.  One of our girls loves to dance in pure Bollywood style.  My goal is for her to have a good life, in whatever way she can, but NOT to end up dancing in a cage in Mumbai.  She is gullible.  She could go off with a stranger.  I tell her about the cages.  I have to.  My girls are prey.

4. I want them to experience a stable life now, with enough food, with education, with good health.  If they choose or feel forced into the life they came from, I believe they will want better for their children.  These girls are full of doubt about their own worth.  They know they were discarded.  They have been used in all sorts of ways. There is no way to feel good about that.  Sometimes they are, and will be, self-destructive.  They all wish their lost siblings could have this life.  So some of their rebellion and pain comes from guilt — that they have what their siblings don’t… the guilt of the survivor.  They have too much on their minds.  They have begun to write stories and poems.

5. Coming to specifics, we have one or two potential nurses, technicians, maybe a doctor or lawyer,,, maybe a teacher or two…. one mathematician, a couple totally unskilled, but hopefully experienced in working with handicapped children… specialized “unskilled”.   We have potential artists, dancers, musicians, actresses.   I expect a few weddings.  Remember, it’s only been 14 months.   We don’t know, and can’t know.

I started by saying the insults sting, just cuz that’s how life is.  I used to complain that no one was telling me what was happening.  It was true.  it was more about me than i’d realized.  But with all that, I have to come back to the present moment.  I am where I want to be;  I am doing what I want to be doing.  It has been very hard.  It will always be very hard.  There is no formula, only purpose and effort.

I have come through many battles.  It has been hard on my kids, my two daughters and son-in-law in the US.  They are upset when I tell them, and worried when I don’t.   We are at a new plateau, a level of openness, as I prepare for their visit in July.

When I was undergoing chemotherapy I lost all my hair, and my husband at the time told me I looked like an old man.  So I’m reminded of his words, and of my trusting people who feel so free to try and hurt me.  I wrote a poem:Hair2-Finalw



Hair, Hair, Everywhere

Hair hair, everywhere

Floating down the drain,

Guess its time to shave what’s left.

I look like an artist!

I look European!

I look like a baby,

I look like an old man – but with pretty hanging earrings

Please, just look at the earrings,

Try to ignore the rest.


November 18, 2000

I keep thinking of what we tell each generation of children about insults:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  What a lie.  Words can break our hearts and our spirits, and sever the ties that bind us  They can take up residence in our minds, and serve as constant reminders that we are not safe, loved, or protected.  My children have so many words in their heads.  I don’t expect them to disappear.  I do hope the girls can find balance, other words, good words that balance, that also remind them of who they are and what are their possibilities.  We need to create the “Old Lady’s List” of words and ideas that give them strength, words that build and soothe and shore them up against the insults they already hear inside.







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June 2008
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