This was the summer before senior year: a summer meant for inspiration, for first love, for exploring the world and making something of myself.
This was also the summer I blew up a cup of milk using only a microwave.
But this is not the story of how I did it. This is really the story of how I got to be there (though, in order to avoid being accused of false advertising, I promise I will tell you how I did it too). This is the story of my two weeks at Agape Family Life House, an orphanage primarily for children with brittle bone disease (Osteogenesis imperfecta).
The first day I arrived, I was just about ready to pee myself because (a) I had no clue whatsoever about the ages and circumstances of the kids, (b) I had no clue whatsoever about the English language levels of the kids, (c) I had no clue whatsoever about how teaching and volunteering worked at Agape, and (d) I had no clue whatsoever about pretty much everything. It was like physics all over again . . . except this time, instead of being armed with a TI-84 Silver Edition, I had powdered milk. (Which was, clearly, not going to be a reliable source of comfort.) And in addition to my blank-slate-ness, I was leaving behind my family and friends and laptop, the latter of which meant: no Google, no Facebook, no Gmail, no YouTube, NO CONTACT WITH THE PLANET AS I KNEW IT MAMA MIA THE WORLD IS GOING TO END. I also left behind my running shorts, my tank tops, my favorite purple romper—in short, my entire wardrobe, due to the fact that Agape has an actual dress code (in other words, I spent two weeks in nothing but bizarre, mismatching hobo outfits consisting entirely of floor-length skirts, ratty V-necks, and moldy Converse sneakers). And to top it all off, I made the startling executive decision of leaving behind my face. Read: no eyeshadow, no eyeliner, no lip gloss, no mascara . . . nothing but slimy CVS sunscreen (at least it was SPF 50). All in all, I left behind everything that made me me. And looking back, I’m glad I did, because I think I was entirely too caught up in the person I thought I was. And when something like that happens, you tend to forget there are parts of you still waiting to be discovered.
With that said, I spent my first three days wallowing in homesickness (and separation anxiety from my face) as I struggled to fit in with the kids and various other volunteers. Adjusting to life at Agape was rough waters—I expected someone to tell me, “This is where you’ll eat, this is where you’ll teach English, this is what time you’ll teach English and what we expect you to act like,” just like after-school tutoring or STEMbassadors camp. But as soon as I was brought to my room, I was pretty much forgotten . . . and launched so far from my comfort zone that I couldn’t even find it with heavy-duty binoculars. But by Day Four, once I began to get the hang of taking initiative for everything (including things I usually wait for other people to do, like starting a conversation or figuring out how to drink soup with chopsticks), I had become buddies with the seven kids: Candy, Kelly, Laura, Joy, Joseph, Geno, and Stephen. By Day Five, we were close friends; by Six, best friends. And by the time the first week was over, I never wanted to leave.
All the kids are confined to wheelchairs (minus Laura, who uses a walker), but it’s obvious that they don’t find this frustrating at all. Geno tore down doors when dinner was called, Joseph pedaled around cheerily on a tiny pink tricycle, and Stephen beat me at badminton on a daily basis and frequently nosedived from his wheelchair onto unsuspecting couches (some of which had unsuspecting people named Angela on them). Candy and I took walks every evening, and you could always hear the busy clattering of Laura’s walker as she hurried up to remind Joseph that he hadn’t mopped the living room yet. Joy taught me tongue twisters (and subsequently laughed her head off when I failed miserably at them) and Kelly was the sweetest soul I have ever encountered in my entire history of soul-encountering. These kids weren’t just not-frustrated. Life with them was so normal, and natural (maybe this was just me, with the whole no-makeup no-face thing), and being with them—arm-wrestling with Stephen, trading insider Mario Kart secrets with Candy, racing paper airplanes with Joseph—each and every moment was iridescent. I got so used to seeing kids flashing by in wheelchairs and hearing them shriek with glee “姐姐!” (AKA: “sis!” as in “sister”) that returning to America felt empty, in a way. I know I’m just one of dozens of volunteers that come and go, and sometimes I’m almost scared that they might forget me. But then I think of all the kaleidoscope moments we shared, and I figure that even if they do forget me, just the fact that everything happened is all that matters in the end.
Before I left for Agape, my grandpa (a retired college professor) told me, “During class you are to be their teacher. Outside of class, you are to be their sister.” After the first week, when I finally had the outside-of-class part down, I started working on lesson plans. I was wary at first—on Day Four, I’d taught one full-class lesson that turned out to be an abject, miserable, God-awful failure, mainly because all the kids were at varying levels of English knowledge: Kelly could carry on a basic conversation, whereas Laura got stuff like “how are you” and “thank you” confused. So Sunday afternoon, I wrote up seven lesson plans, one per kid. And once Monday rolled around, I took initiative (taking initiative was the key at Agape, I was finding) and spoke to an administrator about my plans, then talked to the kids and had them add my lesson plans to their already-crammed schedules. That morning, I blew up a cup of milk using only a microwave. (Brief hiatus for explosion anecdote: I filled a coffee cup with water, dumped in a few spoonfuls of milk powder, and jammed it into the microwave. A couple minutes later, I found the cup half-empty and the microwave coated with a good half-inch of scalding hot milk. I mulled it over for a long time and concluded that the milk had boiled and overflowed, which was just another microwave incident I could add to The Popcorn Combustion Of May 2014, The Egg-Based Nuclear Bomb of 2012, The Invasion of the Rock Muffins c. 2011 . . .)
After I got the milk situation under control, I drew up seven eight-panel comics using English vocabulary of varying difficulties to suit the kids’ individual needs, then dashed downstairs to get started. And that was how Monday through Thursday of my second week worked: waking up at 6:30 to draw comics (and successfully make powdered milk), then teaching seven twenty-minute lessons one-on-one, snuggled on a couch beneath a sun-streaked window and listening to the strains of D-minor scales drift through the house. And after spending the full morning teaching, I would become 姐姐 again: playing (and losing at) chess, playing (and winning back some dignity with) Othello, playing (and arguing about) Set tournaments with Geno. By the end of these four days, the creative side of my brain was completely exhausted (my last comic told of a fat rabbit doing push-ups to lose weight), but I felt like the kids had learned something. CUE THE HALLELUJAH. Finally, by Friday, I’d racked up enough self-confidence after the traumatizing Day Four class to give a final full lesson during which we learned some vocab and played Pictionary—a surprisingly effective game for teaching, especially when candy is involved. So in the end, I only spent the second week teaching—and the first week learning.
This experience wasn’t just extraordinary because I loved the kids. This experience was extraordinary because I became the person I’ve always wanted to be when I was with the kids, and because of that, I think I’m the one who should be saying thank you.