What leadership means to me

“And I shall rule the world!

The little girl breathlessly waved a purple scepter in the air, her plastic tiara dangling in between her flying braids. Little chunks of tanbark scattered in all directions as she stomped on the playground floor, the LEDs from her Sketchers Light-Ups flashing triumphantly. Her three friends, precariously perched upon the rungs of the monkey bars, clapped and whistled as the queen herself, in all of her seven years, claimed her throne — the old tire swing lazily hanging from the maple tree. 

In silence, I sat on the seesaw, and watched.

My story began from that seesaw, from one of those many afternoons in first grade, and founds its way into the playground that is the world — where the stakes turn out to be much higher than the end of the monkey bars, where we hit bottoms much scarier than piles of tanbark, where we reach for thrones far greater than tire swings. Yet despite all these differences, what I saw was always the same. In fifth grade we learned of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, his regal countenance glaring through the pages of our history textbooks. In seventh grade it was George Washington, guiding the American troops through frigid winters at Valley Forge, all the while delivering impeccably constructed speeches. Over and over again, I saw leaders change faces, change motives, change countries, but truly embody the same persona. They were gregarious, charismatic, surrounded by an impenetrable gaggle of followers.  And although they guided the masses, those leaders always seemed above them. A leader was never meant to associate with the crowd, but rather stand apart from it.

I am not that person. Since that recess from first grade, the traditional expectation of a leader has evaded me, time and again. On my middle school report card, I was described as “fascinatingly quiet”, and at parent teacher conferences, instructors had never failed to indulge my mother in a conversation about how I should “raise my hand more often.” But through success and failure, through living on both ends of a seesaw, what I think I’ve learned most of all about leadership is the ability to identify with the people we lead. 

I’ve never considered myself skilled in math. Ever since I was little, it was my older brother who solved physics problems with my father at the dinner table, and unraveled geometry puzzles in his spare time. Just as much as he embraced numbers, I retreated from them. The nuanced and complicated world of STEM was like the depths of an ocean; every question was punctuated by the fear of drowning. At first, I thought nobody saw the way I stared at my math homework after school. But my mother, with her hawk’s eye and careful recognition, noticed the way I struggled. With her, I cautiously waded through pools of multiplication tables and kicked through rivers of long division. She guided me slowly through deeper waters, and unconsciously, I think I learned to swim. 

Unexpectedly, I began to tutor kids in math, both outside and inside of school. Although teaching is arduous on its own, I feel more confident to surge ahead because I know what it’s like to be in the chair of the perplexed student. I am well acquainted with, and often still possess the wrinkled brow of someone simply confused. In some ways, struggling with math is what makes leading others through the same endeavor so much more rewarding. Two years later, I became a TA for a computer science class. Like my experience with math, it was so valuable to lead others down the paths where I had been, to decipher Java and HTML by their side. Ultimately, what I learned was that I needn’t be oblivious to struggle; rather, I could reflect on what I know to make sure others aren’t alone. 

As elementary and middle school gradually molded together into a fond yesterday, I learned to speak. Flashback to three years ago, as I, a terrified eighth-grader, mumbled my way through a debate about foreign policy. The watching eyes of four classroom walls felt like tremors as I spoke, my haphazard flashcards falling from my hands. Once again, the weight of my own self-consciousness had left me at the bottom end of the seesaw, watching as the other students delivered flawless arguments that transitioned into unbroken rebuttals. 

But I stayed with what I knew. Over and over again, in the confines of my bedroom, I practiced to my bathroom mirror. As hours turned into years, what I realized was that the greatest audience I could have was my own reflection, confident and prepared. As a sophomore, I now am an officer for spontaneous events, such as impromptu and extemporaneous speaking. Freshmen and middle schoolers, as hesitant as I once was, come to me for advice about public speaking. Leadership helped me step outside of my comfort zone and explore the strengths I never thought I had. By helping others, I felt as though I had reached into a Lost-and-Found box, and among piles of words and messages, found my voice.               

It was that same voice I learned to use for non-profit organization Educate Girls Globally.  Like countless other Indian-Americans, I grew up in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, staring at the footprints of tech giants and forming communities from the threads of cultural pride. Surrounded by my own social bubble, I was never really able to comprehend the struggle beyond the life that I already knew. Charities were always a part of giving back to my community, but I longed for my impact to be beyond the face of a donation box. What I want for girls who aren’t born into a life like mine is to not be perceived as burdens, but rather be recognized as emerging individuals with potential.With help from Ms. Anjula Tyagi, President of EGG, I lead the campaign, “Strength In Stars” with hopes to provide an education for  girls in poverty-stricken communities.  In the end, we managed to raise $1,625 dollars, which was able to cover the cost of sending sixty-five girls to school for one year. 

I am not the same girl from my years on the elementary school playground. Time and opportunity have allowed me to grow out of a previous skin. Math and Speech and Debate gave me the confidence to speak for myself, and my work with EGG allowed me to speak for others. But what I’ll never forget was sitting on the bottom half of that seesaw in silence. Because that is what leadership means to me. Years of being at the bottom have helped me empathize with and encourage others. Most of all, they have reminded me that any leader, from schools to offices to nations, can look nowhere but upward. 

Kanchan Naik

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