Barefoot Lesson

When I was 20 years old, I went to Chennai, India, for the Semester at Sea program. In order to leave the ship and enter the city, we had to pass through a gate, into a crowd of people who were hungry for business: rickshaw drivers, tailors, beggars, money changers. There were hands over hands, reaching, voices calling out to be the first one heard. It was overwhelming. During the first day, I pushed through, found a cab and escaped to the clarity of my own agenda: Mahabalipuram, statues and sights.

But the disconnect between me and the community troubled me. Seeing temples and dining in restaurants lost its appeal.

The next morning I left the ship with a new agenda.  When beggars clutched my hands in the crowd at the gate to the street, I squeezed their fingers in return. Rather than speed past them, I slowed and looked down to see who was holding my hand.

She was about six years old, walking barefoot beside me in a frilly dress with stains. A boy beside her was a few inches taller, and laughing, pointing at the jasmine flowers in my hair.

Soon there were five kids walking beside me as we moved beyond the crowd. One boy jumped up and grabbed the flowers from my hair and ran into market stalls. The other kids smiled in a way that let me know this was okay. I didn’t understand their words.

The boy returned. He didn’t have the wilted flowers he’d taken from my  hair, but a cluster of fresh jasmine blooms.

He and another girl reached up and attached them to my hair.

“Mami!” they called me, though that was the extent of our words. We relied on smiles and hand signals and somehow this was enough to narrate an adventure among the six of us: one American college student and six kids who lived on the street. At the beach, I learned they were Dalits – not allowed to cross the Brahman sand. We kept walking until we found the one with access for the lowest caste.  There we played tag, dipped our toes in the water, and shared finger games like patty cake that don’t require words.

I remember best the six year-old, a girl who looked up at me with brown eyes like my own, big and dark like my son’s eyes now.  At the end of the day, as we walked back to port, she slipped a ring onto my finger.

She disarmed me with her generosity. My new friend owned one dress, one ring and she gave that ring to me.

It was plastic and worn with a chipped stone in the center, a gift that changed my life.

How could a homeless girl with few possessions be so generous while I contemplated what and how much to give?

She woke me up to my own selfishness, and my capacity to reach out more.

After that trip I choose to major in sociology. Two years later I began a life-long career pursuing equal opportunities for kids.

I wish I knew her name, the girl in Chennai who became one of my most powerful teachers. She’s with me every time I advocate for equity in classrooms, and when I work to create solutions to help students in high-poverty areas succeed.

* * * * *

I teach because I believe in equity. Why do you teach? What drives you in your work?


I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Dee Dee

    November 7, 2013, 8:21 pm

    This is a touching story. Thanks for sharing it. The tendency is to go one’s own way, giving little attention to the poor, but you embraced them and curiously came away with more from them than they got from you!

    • Tonya Singer

      November 7, 2013, 10:03 pm

      Thank you, Dee, for your insights. It is true that when we stop to listen and “give” we are really the ones to gain. I going to try to keep that at the front of my mind in my current work.

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