By Rachael Held
Water. Pause for a moment and recall the last time you so much as briefly thought about the cleanliness of the water you pour from the tap at your home. Have you ever? Personally, I have always been blessed to have water when I needed it. Could it be warm rather than ice cold? Of course. Could it run cold instead of steaming hot in the shower? Sure. Was it occasionally mixed with a bit of a mineral aftertaste or the hint of rust from old pipes? Perhaps. But never for one day have I had to question whether I would have water safe enough to drink, bathe in, brush my teeth with or to use to wash my clothes. In fact, when was the last time you appreciated the luxury of brushing your teeth. For most of us in the first world, brushing our teeth is something we almost begrudgingly do, a task we’re almost annoyed at having to complete. As I break the seal of a fresh bottle of water to brush my teeth, the luxury of the act as a whole and specifically my health-required version is not lost on me. We take for granted our privilege.
We don’t do it intentionally and we needn’t malign ourselves for the passive way we brush through the casual tasks of our day that become routine, even though for others they may be luxuries. Nevertheless, I think it essential to occasionally take a moment to appreciate the minutiae. Part of having privilege is the experience of not being forced to recognize that privilege in the simple things that you, me, people in such positions are fortunate enough to do, take, say, experience when we need or want to. When I finish a meal, I go to the bathroom and turn on the faucet from which clean, potable water rushes forth. I take my toothbrush (an electric, whose head I change regularly,) spread toothpaste and brush my teeth until the little vibration lets me know that I’ve completed my task, at which point I rinse my toothbrush and my mouth in the running water, turn off the faucet, return my toothbrush to the charging station, wipe my face dry on a clean towel and go about my day. Even here in India, I open a bottle of water, using that in place of the tap for health reasons along with my travel toothbrush, which I bought new specifically for this trip.
Although I am here in India to coach at Crossover, I see basketball as only one facet of the program. I am captivated by the throngs of children enthralled with the water bubblers and the running sink water in the bathrooms of the American International School in Chennai. These amenities prove to be something more than I ever imagined. It is definitely a transition to train yourself to keep your mouth shut in the shower, to make sure dishes are well dried before any food is placed, to resist the allure of ice cubes and fresh fruit salad in the Monsoon season humidity and to brush teeth with a bottle of water. But as I repeatedly watch the organized chaos of 8 year olds shoving and sharing space with their classmates at sinks, scrubbing as much of themselves as they can manage without undressing, pouring fresh water into their mouths from an inch above (despite having disposable cups) out of physical habit, I realize how little I can possibly understand about the experience of finally having access to clean water. What would I do if I was suddenly given clean water, understanding that such a luxury will last only the duration of camp?
Luxury and privilege. Because of the health risks, my experience of India start to finish includes clean water. Even when that is an expense out of my own pocket, clean water is a must. And I have the privilege of being able to afford that luxury. It’s not really an option; it’s a shear necessity so as not to get sick. Despite the need and desire to try and live one day in someone else’s shoes, it is virtually impossible to do so. Being empathetic therefore has to come in some other form because putting yourself in clear danger doesn’t help in that endeavor, it just makes you sick and unable to continue doing your job.
As athletes back home in United States, we take the “water break” as mandatory. In fact, if as a coach you don’t give your players enough, shear madness typically ensues as does a slew of subsequent parental phone calls. Here in Chennai, the water breaks that I offer between drills or stations take on new meaning for me. Even forgetting the classroom skills, teamwork drills, basketball coaching through which we take the children every day at Crossover; we are offering them fresh drinking water, clean bathroom facilities with soap and water and the chance to splash clean water on their post basketball sweaty faces. I don’t consider myself to be sheltered and I have had many confrontations with my own status and privilege, but even for me, this realization was stark. While I firmly believe in Crossover and can see on an hourly, daily and weekly basis the impact of the work about which I am passionately committed, it feels impossible to be surround by such amazing children who are clearly transformed by their access to water and not question whether such access (it’s still hard to call that luxury) is doing more good than anything I can offer.
While I am here coaching and traveling around India, while you are at home, when I arrive home, I urge you as I am encouraging myself: to take a moment to recognize the minutiae and to bring those actions and items to the foreground of your thoughts.
Brush you teeth, turn on your tap or open your bottles and be quenched by fresh water, rehydrate at half-time; do all those things because they are good for you, because they make you more productive and more alert and healthier. And without feeling guilt for your ability to access such things, spend a moment to recognize that such privilege is just that and we must work together to help more and more of our global community have access to such privilege so that one day, access to clean water will no longer be a luxury.