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Amita Vempati on Bringing the Silk Road to Texas

Amita Vempati is a graduate student in the Central Eurasian Studies Department and the School of Public and Enviornmental Affairs. She is the Outreach Graduate Assistant at the IAUNRC for 2014-15.

The morning rush out the door felt just the same: my Dad yelled at me to eat something while I filled my thermos with tea and grabbed a Larabar. The drive felt just as stress-laden as I dodged the Plano traffic And walking around the school I went to felt so similar. Except now I had on a visitor’s badge and was actually teaching class.

As the Graduate Assistant of Outreach at the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center (IAUNRC), it is my job to give presentations on Central Eurasia. Most of these presentations are given in schools, and I have been privileged to give quite a few around the Bloomington area. Frankly, it’s been pretty nice getting to teach kids about the area I’ve dedicated my life to studying ost of these students generally don’t hear about Samarqand and Bukhara, Timur, or the Mughals. So working over my Winter Break visit home (in Dallas, Texas) actually felt like quite a treat, and I wanted to organize a presentation for my favorite class in high school: Humanities.

My former teachers, Mr. McKinney and Mrs. Havins, were still at Shepton and were excited to have me teach “Arts of the Silk Road” for a day. The presentation draws from many aspects of existing IAUNRC Video Conference materials and divided the formerly unwieldy topic into four spheres of influence across the region: First, the presentation covers Hellenic influences in sculpture and philosophy. Second, it describes the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolic peoples as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen; understanding the importance of mobility translates into exploring music and dance from these regions inspired by nature. Third, the presentation contrasts the architectures of Arab hypostyle mosques against Timurid-era Sufi shrines , allowing students to better understand how different practices in different forms of Islam shaped different public spaces. Fourth and finally, the presentation describes Indo-Persian poems called ghazals and qawwals  in order to show romanticized depictions of God.

Needless to say, while I was very proud of this presentation, it was not lost on me that my opinion as a lone CEUS nerd may not be shared by high school student. When I showed up to their new classroom (it had moved downstairs eight years ago, but since I wasn’t there at the time, it was new), my excitement turned to nervousness. We set up the PowerPoint; flashbacks of high school awkwardness washed over me when I realized I couldn’t even operate the remotes without being, well, awkward. And as the first students of second period trickled in, I tried to comfort myself by remembering that if I forgot anything, being a graduate student now merited me the right to consult my iPhone during class.

But before long, my fears had dissolved into a pretty cool realization: I knew what these students would like because I had been them not too long ago (even if fifth period did gasp when they found out that was ten years ago. Thanks, guys). It was heartwarming to see them in action during the opening activity where they were supposed to design a week-long tour of the Silk Road. More than a few ideas left me in stitches, such a length of silk stretched between two camels on which the tourist would lie, a “cammock.”. And when I asked questions, they were enthusiastic about responding with themes from previous classes like by comparing a Hellenic statue of Buddha to a class favorite, Kritios Boy, and Renaissance-Era humanism to Sufism.

By the last period, my throat was sore and my jokes were lame (make of it what you will that I used the word “bae”). Sometimes, the students didn’t laugh or ask questions, but as a student myself, who was I to judge? But when they did engage and thank me for my time, it felt good to know that they might remember something new. And Mrs. Havins and Mr. McKinney were there the whole while to generously introduce me, encourage me, and even let me have lunch in the staff room (which only reaffirmed the tenuousness of my “adulthood,” but was still cool).

More important than the outreach, however, was the humbling experience of remembering my own time in that class. My former classmates fondly recall hilarious and creative group projects, going out to museums and plays, even some individual works we studied. My younger sister, also a Shepton Humanities alumna who once ran with me through the Uffizi ogling favorite Renaissance artists,can still hold her own in a discussion about art history. And we are all scattered now as different people doing so many different things.  But our shared process of learning to love and engage the new concepts we learned was inspired by amazing teachers like Mr. McKinney and Mrs. Havins who continue to inspire students we might never meet. Yet all of us will share these indelible experiences, and to be one such small experience only reaffirms a lifelong commitment to knowledge, its acquisition, and its enjoyment.

Despite all the rushed mornings, awkward moments, and sore throats, that is why I love my job.