At Westtown School, we have found that the voices we most want to hear on graduation day are those of our students themselves — they are more powerful and evocative of the Westtown experience than that of any outside speaker. Each year, seniors write a personal reflective essay. Three essays are chosen to be read at Commencement by a committee of Upper School faculty. Kavya Dayananth was chosen to read her essay for the class of 2019. Her words remind us of the strength of our supportive and empowering community.
On Sunday mornings, my dad begins to cook all the food for the week. The process takes up the entire day so it has to be done on his only day off of work. The kitchen is a mess of large metal vats filled with sambar and cutting boards piled high with chopped potatoes, chow chow, and carrots all waiting to be cooked. Open Tupperwares of cumin and chili powder scatter the counter. It’s a storm of Indian spices that make your eyes tear and your nose burn. There is no certain recipe to these dishes. Just observations my father made while watching his mother cook when he was young. Years of culinary knowledge passed down throughout generations of our family.
On Sunday mornings, I remember my mother standing on a wooden stool waving a Time magazine at the screeching fire alarm as the dog tried to find a place to hide from the noise. I remember my sister and I running through the house opening all the windows and propping open all the doors. We would then sprint up the two flights of stairs to the third floor where the whole house fan lives, a giant fan that when turned on ventilated the entire house. The heavy wooden door that covers it takes two people to pull open. We would turn the dial up to three and start to hear the whine of the metal blades as they began to turn. The curtains would move to hug the mesh of the open windows as a low howl filled the house.
I rarely saw people who looked like me on TV or in movies, and when I did they were dirty, creepy men who drove taxis or scrawny nerds with thick accents. I hated it. I hated how the only other Indian person my friends knew was Baljeet from the cartoon, Phineas and Ferb. Baljeet was the nerd who got bullied relentlessly. I had no reason to be proud of my identity. I would scrub my hands until they were red and numb because I thought it would get the henna off. I even once told a classmate, who had asked why I was brown, that my parents left me out in the sun for too long when I was a baby. Anything seemed better than admitting I identified with the characters I saw on TV.
The whole house fan is a constant memory of my childhood. On Sunday mornings its monstrous breath would remove the pungent smell of spices that clung to our walls; it was able to suck the Indian out of our home in mere minutes. For many years, that’s how I lived my life. It was better to just hide my Indian-American identity. I was always turning on a tiny version of the whole house fan in my head.
But then I left my hometown in New Jersey and transferred to Westtown. My hang-ups and insecurities about my first-generation identity seemed to just fade away. For the first time, I felt comfortable telling my friends how excited I was to try on my new ghagra choli, and I would happily share the home-cooked food my parents would bring when they came to visit me. My two short years at Westtown have helped me grow and let me explore my heritage and culture without being ashamed. I’ve never had an affinity space for just Asian students before coming here. But groups like ASA, the Asian Student Affinity Group, and SOCA, the Students of Color Association, have allowed me to surround myself with others who understand and respect how complex an Asian-American heritage can be. My identity is unique and special to me, and the Westtown community has shown me that I am allowed to be proud of my experiences and who I am. Today I walked down the grassy steps of the Greenwood with a white lace sari draped across my body and jasmine in my hair. I am a proud Indian-American woman, I am a proud first generation immigrant, and I am a proud Westonian.