When I was 16, I wanted to be a preacher.
This isn’t entirely facetious. At the time, I had been helping coordinate and teach Hindu Family Camps at my temple, Radha Madhav Dham, for over four years. I had been an active member in the temple community since its founding in 1995. I could think of nothing better than a life filled with dedication to a higher power. I wanted to have that strong sense of purpose badly – I come from a home of divorced parents, immigrants, minimum wages and bad neighborhoods – I needed to have a strong sense of control in my life. Being a preacher, removed from the concerns of the world, spreading the good word and giving Indian kids in America a sense of identity seemed like the best answer I could hope to give to that ever-troubling question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Looking back nearly a decade later, it’s easy to see how misguided this desire was. I didn’t want to be a preacher to serve, or at least, that wasn’t the main reason. It was all about escape. The fundamental teenage dream, really, the fundamentals of most dreams, are built on this principal notion of escape. I wasn’t going to be a preacher to help anyone other than myself, and I was helping myself by escaping. I thought if I was renounced, I’d magically be taken away from family problems, a frustratingly barren love life, school, bullies, ragged clothing and a crushing sense of inferiority. I knew I wanted to teach, though. That desire stuck through all of the pretensions of service and renunciation like a sore thumb.
At some point, fortunately before I graduated high school, I figured out enough parts of this puzzling want-don’t-want situation to send applications for college and describe my feelings about preaching in my admissions essay. By the time I got to Allegheny College, all the way north in Meadville, PA, I felt exhausted. The candle that burns the hottest, after all, burns out the fastest, and I was coming into freshman year looking for a way to fix things for myself.
It was tough. There weren’t many (read: any) Hindus in my corner of Western Pennsylvania. Allegheny was a small school, with barely 2,100 total students. Leadership opportunities were far and few between, and the same went for mentors. I was cut off from my family (the nearest relative was an uncle in New Jersey) and all of my friends. I had told myself when I left Texas that this was a good thing; it meant that when I had a problem I had to solve it on my own, that I had to grow up without a safety net or a support system. But it also meant being alone, with uncertain prospects, in a strange place with increasingly frigid weather.
But I figured it out. I saw how committed my Resident Advisors were and I knew I wanted to work in Residence Life for the whole time I was in college. By the time I graduated I was a Community Advisor in charge of 400+ students in 4 different buildings, and I helped manage the international student housing to boot. I was serving, I was giving back to the community, I was planning events and managing a staff, and I was loving every second of it. I felt like a person that could be relied upon, a great resource of knowledge and experience that students of all ages could turn to for a variety of needs. I found a way to fit into a larger framework and make it work for myself and for the college.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, but fortunately, someone in the Columbia University School of the Arts thought my writing was good enough to warrant giving me admission to the MFA program there. I was ecstatic – I had majored in English at Allegheny firmly believing that I would never make it as a writer but I was going to try anyways, and here was solid proof that my trying had paid off. So I moved to New York City, found a broom closet to pile my books, clothes and bedding in, and started looking for a job. Of course, the first place I turned to was familiar ground, the Office of Residence Life. But at Columbia, their RAs and CAs are pulled from the dorm-dwelling undergraduate population, not the graduate students. Again, I had to find a new way to live in a strange place (with even colder weather, if you’ll believe it).
In my two years in New York, I worked in over 8 positions across the city. Four of those were teaching positions, at Columbia University, The Door (a nonprofit for homeless kids) and the Harlem Children’s Zone. I taught high school students, middle school students, elementary school students and college students. I taught so much so fast I didn’t even have time to think how great of a time I was having. But I know that without the experiences I had teaching at Columbia, being a part of the community at Allegheny, and going through six years of nonstop higher education, I wouldn’t have learned the two most valuable lessons of my adolescent life:
- Community involvement is an ever-varying thing. At Allegheny, I found friends, coworkers and people with whom I had mutual interests, and made lifelong friendships through those bonds. In New York, given the nature of our graduate program, I didn’t have as many friends or associates in school. Instead, I made alliances with people in the neighborhood, in Morningside Heights, putting on theatrical productions and large scale puppet parades. I felt guilty about it, like I should have tried harder with Columbia or done things differently, but one of my last jobs was working in places like the Food Network, and one of the first things I did in New York was developing a transmedia production to present in front of the UN Envision Conference. I grew up, in New York, so I branched out.
- You don’t have to be a preacher to teach. This is a pretty obvious lesson, one that the temple has adamantly been telling to volunteers like me for years, but it took two years of intensive teaching in New York to really drive the point home to me. I am by no means an astute, powerful writer (I’m working on it), but I am a qualified writing instructor with enough tricks and techniques to keep a class interested for a long time. I’d been teaching at the temple for years, but it still took teaching on my own to show me that…well, that I could teach on my own, and that it was ok because I was good at it. I love teaching, whether it’s teaching at the temple or teaching writing, and it’s something I hope I can continue to do. I just needed the push to get there, and I’m forever grateful for my employers and mentors for giving me that push.
Now, as school is starting up again, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But I think I’ve grown to accept that fact, more than I did ten years ago. I’m happy to be a teacher in my community and to have an excellent group of students, growing and wrestling with the same questions I wrestled with. I’m happy to see where the road will go, for the sake of the journey, not the destination.