This past summer, my family and I spent 6 weeks in India. Apart from the wonderful moments we enjoyed with family and the extraordinary travels we embarked on, there was one experience that helped us all gain a little perspective.
Our son, Sunjay, turned 12 in June and decided that in lieu of gifts, he wanted to collect money to donate in India when we would be there. Once we arrived, we discovered that one of my cousins had volunteered in a school that needed help and it seemed like the right “cause” for Sunjay’s donation money.
The school was in Dharavi, one of the biggest slum areas in Mumbai. Families live in shacks one on top of the other, with an “outhouse” that drains into a creek. Due to the location and inadequate drainage systems, there are often floods during the monsoon season. It is estimated that anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million live in this one area of the city, so few children get the opportunity to attend school.
My cousin explained to us that the school she volunteered in was running solely on donations from charitable organizations and they offer free education until grade 7, but only for three kids per family. If you have a fourth child, you have to pay for their education.
When we discussed making a donation, it didn’t feel like enough. We wanted to visit the school ourselves and meet the children. Sunjay and our daughter, Maneesha, had also brought stuffed animals from home that they wanted to give the students. Communication between my cousin and the classroom teacher led us a small store in the local market, where Sunjay used his money to buy blank notebooks for the students so they could have something to write in.
That day at the school was one we shall never forget. The students were curious to see 4 foreigners walking in the hallways and while some were friendly, most were shy and hesitant. They were wearing school uniforms, yet some did not have shoes.
The classroom looked so different from what we are all used to…there were 3 kids to one desk, paint peeling off the walls, and no visible school supplies. The noise level when we entered was very high, and the teacher was trying to control the class by pulling some kids apart who were fighting. We learned that parents have very little time to supervise their children because they are often out working when the kids come home from school. It can then fall upon the teacher, to create a community of learners that not only trust her, but each other and the world around them.
Once we handed out the notebooks and the stuffed animals, the teacher asked if the students had any questions and one student said, “Why did you give us these things?” It was a hard question to answer, but we tried to explain how special the school was and how we just wanted to help. Really as I look back on the experience, they gave us so much more than we gave them.
Each day when I walk in my classroom this year, I am grateful. Grateful to have pencils, paper, chairs and an area where I can keep my own belongings. Grateful to have colleagues to talk to and learn from. Grateful that parents are able to send their children to school and they do so with hope, appreciation and respect for what we do every day. But most of all, I’m grateful for the 26 faces I see at the door in the mornings. They remind me why I’m a teacher.