Wait. One more thing…
Do you ever leave a conversation with someone and wonder how an important truth might never have been explored if not for your instinct to ask one last question?
This is exactly what happened when I sat down with Bay Maker Ananya Bhat, a student at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, who was nominated by teacher Molly Guadiamos for being a courageous, creative, kind, and effervescent budding activist.
As we sat down to talk about why she was nominated, I was immediately pulled in by Ananya’s warmth, enthusiasm, and charm as we discussed her inspirations.
One thing that sparks her spirit is the quote she shared with me in Kannada, the Indian language she speaks at home, after explaining a love for her family’s heritage.
“Set fire to the heavens because I am already here.”
Ananya went on to add that the quote reminds her to be happy right where she is because heaven is not some unknown sacred place—it is right here and right now.
Once my goosebumps settled down, I became momentarily distracted by this thought: Good God, if someone had interviewed me at the age of sixteen, I probably would have quoted Duran Duran lyrics.
This determination she has to find light and spread it to others comes through in her storytelling, the explanation of her influences, and in her steps toward activism.
“When something happens in the world, I process my emotions about it through my art. The outcome of the presidential election was difficult for me to understand, especially when I heard about plans to defund Planned Parenthood, so I picked up my tablet to express what my words could not,” Ananya explains.
Although she studied traditional fine art since the age of seven, Ananya’s preferred medium these days is the tablet, which she has learned to master through the inspiration of YouTube videos of artists she admires.
The result of this blend of technology and a young artist’s convictions is a piece titled “We Are Fighters,” which depicts a young woman in boxing gloves that conveys Ananya’s message graphically.
Next came the hard part: gathering the courage to put her art out on social media as a step into political activism.
“I’ve always followed politics, but this is the first time I challenged myself to make a difference. At sixteen, I am too young to protest on my own, so I decided to see if I could sell my art and donate the money to a cause I believe in,” she explains.
Her plan was to sell print copies of her artwork in exchange for a donation to Planned Parenthood. Her prices range from a 4X4 print for $5 to special requests up to 18X24. She covers almost all of the high-quality printing costs with her own money so that the full donation is given to the organization.
Ananya started by sharing her plan on social media and then confided in some teachers who are trusted mentors to her—teachers who reached out to their students after the election to remind them that their classrooms would continue to be a place where students of all ethnicities and identities would be safe and respected.
Her journalism teacher, Julia Satterthwaite, is one of those special teachers. She is also well versed in the wonders of Ananya through their work together on the school paper, El Estoque, where Ananya serves as an editor.
“Every once in a while I get to work with a student who makes me feel really excited about what the next generation will accomplish. Ananya is one of them. She’s a creative genius with a heart of gold. I know she’ll use her brains to tackle tough issues, her compassion to care for those around her, and her talent to make the world a better place,” says Julia.
Social studies teacher Bonnie Belshe is just as enthusiastic about Ananya.
“Ananya is one of the kindest students I know. She has a depth of sincerity and strength of spirit that is rare at any age. Her quiet, yet passionate, leadership shows in her interaction with other students and faculty on campus. She is thoughtful and displays an incredible sense of dedication to connecting with people around her,” Bonnie explains.
“I will never forget her email to me after the election. Ananya sent me the most thoughtful message thanking me for teaching students to be vocal, for teaching the history of underrepresented groups, and how powerful young women can be,” Bonnie adds.
When Ananya explains the impact these teachers have on her, the feelings are clearly mutual. Her eyes pierce with sincerity and the kind of twinkle that comes from true gratitude.
“My teachers have taught me so much about expression and the world, but I am especially glad for the feeling they give me in their classrooms. I feel safe and free to explore ideas that matter to me,” Ananya enthuses.
When I ask her about other influences in her life, she is quick to credit her sister and mother.
“My sister, Anjali, has taught me so much about the importance of surrounding myself with good people. She showed me that if you have the right friends, you can make a place for yourself anywhere. She is four years older than I am, so I look up to her for advice about friends and career plans and I am inspired by her involvement with women’s rights,” Ananya says.
Ananya’s admiration for her mother comes from her mom’s continued studies. After raising her children, her mom is studying Arurveyda, an Indian mind-body health system, and working as a medical wellness assistant. “I love people finding their passion at all different phases of their life,” Ananya explains.
Comments like this one demonstrate a wisdom beyond Ananya’s sixteen years. This wisdom, combined with her palpable and infectious spirit of optimism make her a force to be reckoned with.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I packed up my notebook, charmed and inspired by all of this young promise, wistfully thinking “ah to be young again,” when I asked her, “is there anything you would like to add that we didn’t discuss?”
Then, there it was. Like with all the most interesting stories, there was a twist.
“I want to write a book called Wake Up Call,” Ananya declared. “I want to interview random people about their motivations to wake up every morning and I want to illustrate it, too,” she adds.
Assuming that this kind of book isn’t conceived from pure creativity alone, I asked her why.
“During my freshman year and half of my sophomore year, I was too focused on a problems mindset. I was depressed and had daily thoughts of suicide. I was drifting away from people who cared about me,” she explains.
“But once I became an editor of my school paper, I had a purpose and a lot of responsibility. By having people counting on me, I had a reason to wake up and get out of my head every day,” Ananya adds.
“I have friends who have these dark thoughts, too. I want to create this book as a reminder to people who need it that there are so many reasons to live.”
Dear reader, I did not see that coming. And yet, I am so glad it did.
It is a reminder to me and to all who meet Ananya, or any other cheerful person who is infused with big ideas, that our happiness and sense of purpose are always a determined choice.
“Happy-go-lucky” is a lie manufactured by people who don’t want to take the time to appreciate the whole story.
Ananya Bhat is a Bay Maker because of her talent, her compassion, and her conviction. She is a walking, talking, creating, and sparkling example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
From your Bay Area neighbors, friends, classmates, and teachers, thank you for sharing your light, Ananya.
To see more of Ananya’s work, click here.