Before I got sandals
When the motorcycle rolled to a halt outside of the courtyard, about 75 students stood up in unchoreographed unison and turned towards me. I felt like an industrial-strength eye magnet. Again overwhelmed, an older gentleman greeted me and introduced himself as Gurunathan (guru meaning master, nathan meaning leader). Gurunathan, the retired headmaster of the local high school and recipient of the national teachers award, took me to my seat at a table facing the students and covered with bowls of candy.
Gurunathan (all-white) and the Kalaimagal teachers
Gurunathan kicked of the event with a few words in Tamil. For the first 20 minutes I managed to distract from the event more than add to it, as the boys sitting next to me seemed more interested in fighting to occupy the space near my chair than in listening to their fellow students perform. Gurunathan wrapped up the opening remarks by introducing me, then telling the audience that I would be giving a speech. This was news to me.
A few students struggling to make it to the end of the eventFortunately, Gurunathan’s frequent Tamil translations bought me enough time to string together a few coherent sentences about my background and the spicy Tamil food. When I finished, the head of the school presented me with a sheet of beautifully woven fabric (which I was told Tamil Nadu is famous for), and Gurunathan handed me a book written by one of his former students titled Heaven of the Earth: the United States of America. I took the gifts and tried to thank Gurunathan and the teachers, but they thanked me for coming, and then I thanked them for having me and we got into a thanking battle that they inevitably won. I hadn’t done anything to deserve recognition; the school had made me a special guest simply for growing up in America. Although I was surprised to hear the U.S. referred to so divinely, the graciousness of Gurunathan and the teachers, as well as the students’ enthusiasm, was right in line my experience in Tamil Nadu thus far. Tamil Nadu has given me a lot so far, and I am excited to start giving back.