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Two days after leaving home this past June, I stood alone amidst thousands of people, not knowing a single one. I heard no English, saw no familiar sights, and was caught up in a dusty, polluted, hectic metropolitan whirlwind. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I was traveling alone for the first time.
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My first step into adulthood started not with a Bar Mitzvah or a Communion but with successfully navigating the Hong Kong International Airport en route to Kathmandu. While my friends back home were busy finding their freedom behind a steering wheel, I found mine crumpled up in the back of a smelly, over-loaded city micro-bus. I was a world away from my family, my town, my culture – from everything that I thought would hold the keys to adulthood – but, as I then realized, that was exactly the point.
Two weeks later, I looked out across the foothills of the Himalayas from the steps of a Buddhist convent, partway into my stay in a high-altitude Sherpa village called Bigu. If I had felt removed from home while staying briefly in the city, I was now truly a world away. The village was completely cut off from Kathmandu, let alone the United States, and the nearest town was a hard three-day hike.
My job there was to teach English to the nuns. After years of being a student, and with many more still to come, I was suddenly in charge of a classroom. While this was not my first time working with young children, I was now tasked not with babysitting or providing summer camp fun but instead with helping others gain a skill that could transform their lives.
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And not all of my students were younger than I. One of my classes included women who were two, even three times my age. Despite being known to them as the “Baby” Teacher, I was in a position to provide, not to receive, making my young age irrelevant. My identity as a high school student slipped away, and for the first time I played an integral role in the education of others.
Teaching four classes a day left me with plenty of free time, and I spent hours reading through the convent’s tiny library. I played and drew with the younger nuns and received from them my very own lessons in Nepali. I took every chance to help out in the kitchen, with a potato peeler in hand serving as my excuse to learn their cuisine inside and out. It was my time in the classroom, though, that truly transformed the experience, and I felt a greater sense of purpose during those short weeks than during any other time in my life.
Another two weeks later, I was back in the calm of my suburban town, with images of a classroom in the clouds tumbling through my mind and the chaos of a brief return to Kathmandu still ringing in my ears. I couldn’t help but feel uprooted. Yet, once home, I knew that my confidence in my ability to thrive alone in a new setting had increased tremendously. I returned for the first day of my senior year at Newton North High School with the perspective of a teacher, a new appreciation for a good education, and a reinvigorated sense of curiosity.
Perhaps most importantly, I came back with the knowledge that independence does not translate to maturity. When I arrived Nepal, I believed that if I could really travel all alone on the other side of the planet, I could bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Following my return, though, I realized that being able to take care of myself is only part of that transition – that being able to provide for others, instead of just taking, is the most important step in growing up.
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