"A Christmas Present" by Rekha Datta

On a brisk, sunny Saturday December morning, a group of young volunteers of a student club called ‘Students Advocating Girls’ Education’ (SAGE) donned orange reflector vests, directional cones, grabbed some hot cocoa and enthusiastically engaged in setting the course for the Second Annual 5K Race for Girls’ Education. The sun struggled to outdo the overnight frost, gold, blue and green balloons fluttered in the clod air, and the event loudspeaker played energizing music selected by the young minds to bring on early morning cheer. The beauty of unity in diversity was in action.

Only a few weeks back, many, including some of these youngsters were struggling to find their place and voice in the post-election America, and indeed, the world. Just like the rest of the country, friends and family found themselves at opposite ends of a fractious debate surrounding their electoral choices. It was in that emotional setting that we decided to have the race, to engage in community building, to think beyond our narrow interests and selves and to continue believe in helping others. The annual 5K, which they had started a year ago, and which kept getting postponed due to logistical challenges, would be a perfect way to celebrate our unity, to pivot, regardless of how the political process posited us against each other.

Given that term papers were due, finals were looming, December temperatures were intimidating, the turnout was expectedly low; however, the enthusiasm and generosity of spirit of those who braved everything and participated in the race were indomitable. Again, the thought that everyone was keeping their immediate cares aside and got together to help raise funds for education of underprivileged girls in local community was inspiring. It was only a couple of years ago when the founder of SAGE, after attending a meeting of the newly formed not for profit group, Women and Girls’ Education (WAGE) International, was inspired to form the student wing to promote education as an antidote to violence. WAGE and SAGE work with community partners to find alternatives to violence using education as a tool. They offer mentorship and resources to children and adolescents in communities that face adversity and violence. The proceeds of the 5K would help them in this mission, and support a local school.

United under this mission, overcoming political fractures, the walkers, runners, and organizers gathered under the morning sun, bundled up in their winter outdoors gear. As the first whistle marked the beginning of the race, it did not matter that the participants might have different political stripes, might be worshiping different Gods and Goddesses or no God at all, spoke different languages, represented different ethnic and racial groups. Everyone put up their brave fronts, but was obviously cold. Except for the winner of the race, who chose to run in shorts and a sleeveless vest, others were united in their vulnerability to the elements. The weather brought us close; we shared camaraderie.

Through this microcosm of experience in a community activity, it became clear how much we share in commonality in spite of our differences. Through our diversity, we enjoyed our unity of purpose, of our shared experience braving the cold, our common belief in doing out small parts in bringing about small changes, positive ones in someone’s life. When we do something for others, we are actually helping ourselves.

This Christmas morning, the first people I thought of praying for were my family. Next I prayed for my friends. Then the migrant children displaced over the last few years in violence.  I was thankful for those who found friendly homes around the world. Then the order and priority of those prayers got all jumbled up. Children facing violence have been on my mind since the wee hours. Restless, I reached out for the book that my daughter bought for me, and a line grabbed me. The book begins with a violent bomb blast in a busy market in New Delhi, taking the lives of two young siblings. Not something you would want to cherish on this holy morning of merriment and joy. Yet the reality of the fiction and the beauty of the language and the humanity behind it all haunted me. Through the morning stillness of the morning, children facing violence overwhelmed me.

I have been struggling to put words to my feelings to write this column for weeks. There seemed too much negativity, hostility, violence in thought and action, demonization of groups of people, doubts on shared humanity, the list goes on and on. I have struggled to find my voice. This morning it seemed to be coming back to me. Those who I work with through SAGE and WAGE, bring me a sliver, however thin, of hope, of belief. Magically, as I read the book and reflected on an apparently unexplainable world, I found a connection between our recent 5K and the fictionalized reality of the violent world that we live in. A world in which our commonality matters, our common humanity matters. Yes, we all bleed when pricked, this earth and its resources belong to all of us, regardless of what language and in whose name or under what documentation we claim them. We are all immigrants visiting and living on this earth for a few decades. In this shared destiny, we can only know how life is for everyone when we have learned how it is to live in others’ shoes. Our individual successes give us personal security, but we also have to survive as a collective. Aristotle had reminded us we are all political animals. We need each other. We cease to be human when we stop to care. The line where I stopped before I put the book aside and reached out for my laptop to write this blog was, “I just remembered something you said when we first talked. That your pain only went away when you started thinking about others.” – Karan Mahajan (2016).

December 4, 2016. SAGE organized a 5K walk-run to benefit girls’ education at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

December 4, 2016. SAGE organized a 5K walk-run to benefit girls’ education at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Posted on December 25, 2016 .