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They went home to Chicago with mehendi on their palms and teeshirts bedecked with the colours of Holi

They went home to Chicago with mehendi on their palms and teeshirts bedecked with the colours of Holi

Sameera Khan
The Sunday Times of India
April 23, 2000
Title: They went home to Chicago with mehendi on their palms and teeshirts bedecked with the colours of Holi
Author: Sameera Khan
Publication: The Sunday Times of India
Date: April 23, 2000

Some weeks ago, high school student Danielle Klinkow, 17, left for India with plenty of warnings from friends and family- "Don't drink the water," "Don't get hijacked or blown up," and "Please, don't come back smelling of curry."

She has now gone home to Chicago with 13 of her school mates, mehendi on her palms, a gajra in her hair, a teeshirt still bedecked with the colours of Holi, a sari to wear to her upcoming high school graduation ceremony and a burning desire to return to Varanasi one day to study the Upanishads.

Ms Klinkow and her colleagues, all students at the Oak Park and River Forest High School in Chicago, toured India-parts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Mumbai-as part of a school trip, coincidentally at the same time as U.S. President Bill Clinton.

"It's been especially thrilling to have done such a trip so early in our lives," says student Elizabeth Jaeger, 17, who's now busy plowing her way through Jawaharlal Nehru's 'Discovery of India' and Mahatma Gandhi's 'My Experiments With Truth'. "The advantage is that now our India experiences can rub off on to other areas of our life, such as our subjects in college and our future careers."

Thus, Ms Jaeger now plans to become an anthropologist and many of her school mates have expressed the desire to become Peace Corps volunteers or to major in South Asian studies.

This truly serves the purpose for which neo-natologist and long-time India fan Dee Millard organised the trip. "This is probably the first organised American high school student tour of India," says Ms Millard, who has been making trips to India since 1969 when she first came to teach in a school in Tamil Nadu. "Americans are terribly insulated and arrogant about their view of the world at large. I wanted to open up the world of American youngsters." Ms Millard, whose son Tony is one of the students on the trip, helped put together the tour with Oak Park School history teacher Steven Goldberg and several Indian friends.

"This has been our most ambitious school trip ever," says Mr Goldberg. "Most students raised the money for it through summer jobs and fund-raisers."

Once chosen, the students spent most of last summer and the fall preparing for the India trip by reading up on the country and having regular meetings to discuss its history, culture and politics.

"Americans encounter a distorted image of India through their media. It seems constantly to encourage many misapprehensions about the country, such as the stress these days on how dangerous a country it is," says Mr Goldberg. "As a teacher, you want to change that image and bring in a more realistic idea of India."

Realistic or not, each student has packed up his or her share of India memories. "Varanasi was really the most beautiful, especially the boat ride at sunset down the Ganga," says Ms Klinkow.

"Varanasi was special because of Professor Veerbhadra Mishra, the 'Clean Ganga project' man," says Jeremy Lambshead, 18. "This was a man totally in love with his river and it was amazing to see how he balanced his roles as a temple priest and as a contemporary teacher. It surprised me how Indians manage to balance these two worlds of the traditional and the modern."

For student Elizabeth Meyer, it was the drive into Mumbai from the airport, the contrast of shanties and high-rises, of people sleeping on the road and dot.com hoardings, that was the turning point. " I realised that India has a different level of poverty, it's very different from the poverty in America, more grimy and disturbing here," she says. "You expect to see anger and violence where there's intense poverty, but you don't, and that's what struck us most."

"Instead, you see the biggest smiles in India," grins Mr Lambshead. "In big-town America, nobody talks to you on the streets, let alone making eye contact and smiling at you. India has taught me the power of giving someone an unexpected smile."

"I've learnt to be more open-minded about things," says Ms Meyer. "My goal is to go back and share India with other young people," says Ms Jaeger, who plans on setting up a web page outlining the 'Clean Ganga Project', social work opportunities in India and other ways to help India.

Mr Goldberg has bigger plans. Next year, he returns on a Fulbright-Hays scholarship to develop a course on Indian history and culture that can be taught at the Chicago high school-level as an elective. He also wants to devise workshops for history teachers in the Chicago area on India.

"Americans are very proud of their country and think it's very strong. As a result, they often close a lot of doors and find it hard to accept other ways of life," says Ms Jaeger. "It's so sad because India could add so much richness to our lives." Says Mr Goldberg, "if my students can go back with one difficult question in mind about India that works on them a bit, it's been a successful trip."

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