A rivulet of sweat trickled down my back, only diverted by the now soaked elastic waistband of my floor-length skirt. Fans whirred overhead, positioned so closely together that I wondered if their blades might collide, their sound a drone-like backdrop to the raucous street noise from the opened windows. Sixty high school students and 8 teachers, 3-times the number of students I had ever taught in one class, filled the space. Narrow desks with benches were lined up in 3 columns, only a thin aisle between. Days before I had realized my inability to tune out the chaotic symphony of background noise to focus on teachers and student responses. Now, I panicked. How would I answer student questions, if I couldn't hear them? I couldn't even move closer to students because the aisles were blocked, stacked high with backpacks.
A stream of sweat charged down the side of my face, stinging my eye as it headed South. I wiped it away with the scarf that helped cover my shoulders. My full face of makeup now marred the blue and white pattern of the scarf. I fingered the black eyeliner smudges on the tassels. I should have planned better for the heat. Oh, the heat!
I had been asked weeks before by my host teacher, Rita, to teach a creative writing class to upper school students at Carmel High School in Kolkata, India. I could choose the topic of my choice. I had prepared 6 different lessons and, standing before the class, was still unsure which one to teach. Character Development in Short Fiction? Rising and Falling Action? Flash Fiction? Prose Poetry? Writing Your Truth in Creative Non-fiction? None seemed quite right.
Can anyone say, "Intimidated?"
The students had filed in silently. I never thought that was possible and was a bit thrown off by their orderliness. I finally got a grip and began, only to be interrupted in the middle of introducing myself. A shy student presented me with a microphone. "You are not used to speaking loudly. We thought you might need this," she said.
I was not only deaf, melting, indecisive and stunned, but now I was tethered on a short cord with 3-foot radius. Could my day get worse? At least the mic didn't squeal when I introduced myself again and dove in to my class on Setting as Character in Short Fiction. Where did that come from?
The hour flew by.
I have never experienced students with such rapt attention. Every eye was on me, each pencil poised to scribble down my every word. Not one student fell asleep. Heck, they didn't even slouch. Even the teachers, seated so far away from me on the back row, I wondered if they were a mirage, sat perfectly engaged, jotting notes and nodding in agreement as I spoke. Then, I freaked them out. I told a personal story. A beautiful young girl on the front row wiped a tear from her eye. I'm not kidding! She shed tears in my class! What had I done or said that deserved such an emotional response?
They were also visibly and momentarily taken aback when I asked them to write a short paragraph using the techniques I had described. But their pause lasted only seconds. Pencils then flew across their pages, heads bowed in concentration. When I called time and asked for someone to share, 60 hands flew into the air.
Now, it was I who freaked out. This had never happened to me before.
I strained to hear the few we had time to hear, even calling a couple up to the microphone so we could all appreciate their efforts. They vaulted the backpack mountains with great dexterity. Their writing was lovely, expressive, emotional, much more polished than any writing exercise I had ever done. And their reading was eloquent. Their poise and elocution far beyond their years.
I ended class with a simple, "Thank you so much for inviting me into your class and sharing your beautiful writing."
They responded by standing and chiming in unison, "Thank you, Miss."
I turned to gather my things and put down the infernal microphone and realized after a couple of beats that...
No one had moved. No one had said a word or began packing up. They were still standing with perfect posture, waiting for something.
The tearful girl on the front row whispered, "You must dismiss us, Miss."
I did, but still, not one student left. Instead, they swarmed me, bare palms extended for an autograph. An autograph, of all things! "Why would you want my autograph," I asked.
"We will take pictures of it so we can keep it forever and share it on Instagram," one girl responded.
"Please tell me more about your writing process," another asked. " Do you write daily?"
"Is it difficult to come up with plots?"
"Do you have ideas about how to find writing time with a busy schedule?"
The other teachers, who had remained distant until now, approached. I'm saved, I thought. But no, they had questions of their own. No more autographs, but plenty of questions.
So ended...or rather began, a most joy-filled week of teaching. I still have no idea what I did that held their attention that day, or the following days when I taught. I presume the students had anticipated our arrival for so long, been excited about teachers from the US visiting their school, that we seemed very special to them in some ways.
I learned so much from the Carmel High teachers and students. In spite of their strict schedule, their hefty test regime, their uncomfortable surroundings, they love teaching and learning. They squeeze every ounce out of every day, only to return the next day to do it all again. They are disciplined and mannerly, determined and inquisitive, humble, gracious and spiritually centered. I miss them all already, Carmel High School, surely, but India itself. There is a spirit there, life lived in full color, that I've never experienced before, and a calmness that resonates through the chaos, leaving a simple and endearing peace.
I arrived home yesterday after almost a month away, first in India for 3 weeks and then in France and England with my daughter for a week. I had planned to write blog posts more frequently, but sluggish Internet connections prevented me from keeping up with that plan. It is probably for the best; it will take me years probably to process all that I have experienced on this incredible adventure. I'm sure I will blogging about it for years to come.
My immediate thoughts are that the world is a wondrous place populated by people who are, for the most part, doing their very best to survive and make the best of their life. The people of India, as well as the government, are challenged by the sheer number of people there. In Delhi and its surrounding areas alone, over 40 million people work to carve out their place in it all. 40 MILLION!! How does one city manage that many people? There are not enough resources, enough jobs, enough food, enough SPACE! I've learned that the education system has made it a priority to educate every child through grade 8, every child will receive an education, one way or another. And these children, the ones in school today, are the first generation to be educated. Can we in the US even imagine? The parents of this first generation of learners are not educated, so think of the challenges they face to help their children succeed, when they have not had that privilege. In some Indian states, ministers of education have given every child a bicycle to help them be able to get to and from school more quickly, since most children must rush home to help their family make enough money to survive. The states are also providing uniforms and monetary assistance to encourage parents to allow their children to attend school. It seems that the government recognizes that the only way for its people to have a future is to educate the children NOW.
In Delhi, the Minister of Education has also put into practice in all schools The Happiness Curriculum. This program, initiated first by the Dali Lama, focuses children on not only developing their mind, but also their body and spirit to help them understand what true happiness is and how to achieve it. (Not focusing solely on monetary success or selfish desires.) Every student learns and practices yoga daily in school, they spend time in silent reflection and learn to control their bodies and emotions through meditation. The benefits of the Happiness Curriculum has been discussed recently on many news channels and on social media. After seeing it in action, I wonder how our US students could benefit from such a holistic approach. The Indian students seem to be thriving and are very focused and calm.
I will continue to ponder what I've learned and I appreciate any comments or ideas you'd like to share. This experience has certainly deepened my understanding of the world and made me more mindful and grateful. It has altered the way I look at my responsibility as an educator and infused me with a new sense of determination to open the world up to my students.
Thanks for listening. Julia
My time to write has been very limited, every moment filled with activities, teaching and visiting places around Kolkata so we can learn even more about the unique cultures here. I have come to an understanding that we do not really have a true “American Culture” from which we can draw inspiration and personal grounding. (Other than the rich heritage of our Native Americans, who have maintained theirs, for the most part.) India, however, has held on to its many cultural traditions, from classical dance to traditional foods by state, from regional and sometimes village-specific languages to the richly nuanced festivals and marriage traditions that date back centuries. The US is home to people from so many diverse countries, it is hard to identify any single, truly American cultural tradition with which all Americans identify. We have no national dances to learn in school and share when people from other countries who come to visit. Our foods run the gamut of many countries, but other than hamburgers and hotdogs, I am hard pressed to think of one food that we can all call our own. We share Thanksgiving, but even that holiday is celebrated in different ways according to region.
All of this makes me wonder how this absence of cultural identifiers has altered the American populace. Since we do not possess these threads that weave together and unite us, that tick together our differences into a colorful and unique textile of American society, are we missing out? Are we, as Americans, from whatever ethnic or cultural background our parents or ancestors have come, being adversely effected because we rarely share a cultural identity of our own? Would having such traditions help to combat the vast divisions so many people feel? Would they help us to bridge the gaps of hate and intolerance that plague our society?
I realize that no single cultural identifier can dissolve the issues that divide Americans, but my observations in India of the very rich cultural traditions they enjoy have taught me that there is an acceptance here of diversity. Yes, even though the caste system was abolished, it does still exist and many people are marginalized or ignored. But it seems to be that the traditions and cultural norms of each group within this vast country are respected. Bengalis can explain the unique practices of the people in Kerala, northern Indians appreciate the traditions of those living in the west. We could learn much from the Indian people. I hope to share some of what I’ve learned with my students and colleagues back home.
Today we will drive north from Delhi to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal! Daily I feel like I need to pinch myself to believe this is really happening.
After an eventful day of teaching and observing at the Carmel School, Rita, our host teacher, took us to southern Kolkata to visit an NGO, The Institute for Mothers and Children. Started over 25 years ago by Dr. Sajeet, who was encouraged and inspired by Mother Teresa, The Institute is both an orphanage and a vocational school, a medical clinic and home for the physically challenged, a daycare and a place of rest and recovery for those suffering from severe burns and tropical diseases. It has also built over 38 schools throughout Kolkata. We have learned that the Indian government has made primary education to grade 8 compulsory, but often the schools are very crowded. Dr. Sajeet’s schools help to alleviate that problem and offer a more well-rounded education for students from the poorest parts of the city.
A medical student from Italy toured us around the facility and was soon joined by several other students from many countries who had come to volunteer their time and expertise to the organization. Dr. Sajeet receives over 400 volunteer applications a month from university students all over the globe, all hoping for the chance to serve the impoverished women and children of Kolkata. The Institute does not recruit these students, but instead, students returning from their time here spread the word to their friends and now there is a steady flow of volunteers, all eager to help out.
Dr. Sajeet travels regularly, presenting at universities and medical schools worldwide on the challenges of tropical diseases. People can donate directly to The Institute or they can sponsor a child, as Rita has done for the past 7 years. It was a pleasure to meet her sponsored child and to share in the tender moments they shared on our visit.
The vocational school teaches women and children many useful skills, including how to spin yarn and weave beautiful textiles for saris and other clothing and household items. They are then given micro loans to help them start small businesses, which will keep them off the streets and afford them the resources needed for food and shelter. Classical dance is taught to connect them with their heritage and cultural traditions. Many orphans who have grown up at The Institute return to volunteer and help others.
Of all the schools and organizations we’ve visited, this place resonated with me most. The love here is palpable, the dedication and passion of everyone is enlightening. While there Dr. Sajeets’s daughter received word that she has been accepted into medical school. The excitement lit up the whole facility. Here, this talented young woman, the daughter of the founder, will now follow in his footsteps and continue his work long into the future. The daughter had been Rita’s student at Carmel High School, so the medical school announcement thrilled Rita, who recognized her part in this young woman’s life.
I have already written so much about the sense of the magical here in Kolkata. Yesterday’s visit outside of the city to the Sundarban Tiger Preserve was no different. So many rivers flow into and mingle with the Ganges River here, which then flows into the Bay of Bengal, all making for a lush and tropical landscape of mangrove forests, the largest in the world. The day was perfect. The journey an adventure I never thought I would ever experience.
But juxtaposed against the beauty of the land and water is the poverty, which still startles me and brings me great sadness. There is no way for it to become commonplace. It strangles me with tears so close to the surface at every turn. The unfairness of this world is a tough reality with which to grapple. There is no excuse, in this world of wealth and great waste, for anyone to be subjected to such harshness. There is no justification that can make eaking a living out of nothing alright. I will not even try to discuss here the complexities of worldwide poverty and the failures in food distribution. What I did learn, however, was that, in spite of their surroundings, in spite of their struggles, in spite of their daily stress of figuring out how they will feed and shelter their family, the people of this strong and proud country seem happy and content. They go about their daily chores, working SO incredibly hard, and make it somehow. Like all of humanity they struggle and fail, they readjust and try something else tomorrow. Those who are lucky enough to have land, a home and/or a job are the most determined and disciplined people I’ve ever seen. Those who don’t keep going somehow. From where they find hope, I don’t know, but they keep trying.
For moments at a time I have been able to set aside my shock and sadness to look more deeply into their eyes. There I see all of humanity fighting the good fight. Struggling day in and day out to do what is needed and necessary. There I see Christ. I am inspired by these people, amazed by their strength. I wonder, but never want to find out if I, too, would be able to reach that deep within myself to do what it takes survive.
Noun — a harsh discordant mixture of sounds
Before coming to India I thought I understood the meaning and reality of this word, but experience has demonstrated that I was wrong. There is a life music here, a constant pulse, percussion, rhythm, and melody that ebbs and flows through the streets, as if a master musician is conducting a vast orchestral of remedial students. The sound envelops you the moment you step outside and your pulse quickens in an effort to keep up, to feel it completely, to embrace it and all it has to offer. Add to that the visual stimulation of life lived in the moment, life lived daily within this cacophony, and one is swept up into the rhythm in one great wash of joy.
I love Kolkata. Color is everywhere, chaos is ordered, and the people are pleasure personified.
Santa, (pronounced Shanta), is an upper level Geography teacher at Carmel. I complimented the beautiful lahenga she was wearing and discovered that she is a clothing designer with her designs showcased in several boutiques around Kolkata. We were privileged to be able to go to one of the boutiques to appreciate her work...and purchase some pieces. I was so impressed by Santa’s determination to express herself creatively. Not to mention that she is a passionate and beloved teacher at the school, one who is setting a positive example for her students in so many ways.
Today we will return to the school to celebrate mass with the Sisters and the Catholic parents. After lunch we will explore the rich history of Kolkata on a sightseeing tour.
Kolkata is lush, green and tropical, pleasantly less chaotic than Delhi. I realize that this information doesn’t make much sense, because statistically Kolkata’s population is as much, if not more than Delhi’s, but it seems more relaxed somehow. Maybe the warm sea air cools not only the temperature, but peoples’ temperament, too. It is also immediately obvious that Kolkata is more liberal than Delhi, as more women dress in western attire.
After checking into our hotel, we traveled post haste to meet the Carmelite Sisters at Carmel High School on Gariahat Road. The principal and vice principal, Sisters Nithika and Roshni respectively, greeted us warmly, serving us light refreshments in the school office. The school is comprised of a 4-story concrete building, the 3 lower floors for the school and the top floor for the convent where 8 Sisters live.
Our host teacher, Rita Banerjee, then took us to a beautiful club for dinner, where we realized another distinct difference between the two cities, and all Indian states, for that matter...the food. Bengali food is much lighter fare, coming from the sea and freshwater lakes and rivers that surround this tropical locale. Even the naan, an Indian flat bread, is lighter and a bit sweeter than that made in other states. (Correction from previous post: roti is the name of the other bread we learned to make. I mistakenly called it raga. I’m learning as I go along.)
Today the whole of Carmel High School greeted us respectfully and repeatedly with, “ Good morning, ma’am,” “Hope you are enjoying your visit, Miss,” “Is there anything I can do for you, Miss?” The girls, grades 5-8, are a confident and accommodating group, filled with a joy of learning and great pride in their school. The Sisters and staff have no issues with tardiness or absenteeism as the girls are all eager to spend as much time as possible in their wonderful school. All will go on to study at university and hope to become leaders in business, government and all manner of careers. They speak at least 2 languages, Bengali and English, and many speak a third, Hindi.
Tomorrow is a very special day in the school’s history, the 150th anniversary of its founding by the Carmelite nuns. Everyone is extremely excited about tomorrow’s festivities, so I will close for now to rest and prepare for the big event.