Today’s post comes from EA’s Partnerships Manager, Meg VanDeusen. Two summers ago I had the honor of teaching the most optimistic and successful children I have ever met. Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project educates students from India’s Dalit, or untouchable caste, for 13 years of their lives and helps to develop them in to outstanding young citizens. By showing the world the success of children from the Dalit caste we will end the cruel cycle of poverty and class oppression. As Shanti Bhavan prepares to celebrate their 15th year anniversary, and I prepared to return to India for the first time since that summer, I wanted to share with all of you some of my reflections of this place.
When I got on the plane in Washington DC, and when I stepped foot in Bangalore 32 hours later, all I knew was that I wanted to make a difference. Just like the movies, I found a sign with my name on it, awkwardly and tiredly tried to communicate with my driver, and drove 3 hours in a rickshaw to Shanti Bhavan. Just three hours later I was up with the sun watching the graduating seniors’ basketball tournament. I sat down with some of the students, quickly silencing their whispers about the new volunteer, and immediately got bombarded with questions, excitement, and instruction on who to cheer for. The next day was graduation; standing before us were confident young adults ready to take on the world. One of the fathers of the graduates spoke, and roughly translated, explained how Shanti Bhavan gave value to their family: people stopped referring to Pravine as his son but to him as Pravine’s father. This small gesture of confidence was a glimpse at overcoming caste oppression.
After all the festivities died down I started teaching English literature, grammar, spelling, and writing to 6th 7th and 8th grade students. After getting to know my students I was able to utilize their energy and passion to construct cross projects that would excite them. Despite incredible amounts of whining against my high expectations, they excelled beyond my wildest dreams and strengthened my belief that children really are the answer to so many issues in today’s world. My first writing assignment for the 6th graders was a mock letter writing campaign. Each student devised a plan to raise money to help the poor, or the sick, to build a school or a hospital. Kishore wanted help getting elected onto the Supreme Court so he could stop child trafficking. It was in that moment that I realized these children have struggled through and overcome more hardships than I ever will. And yet, they remain giving, kind, and so full of life.
Kishore’s letter said that he wanted “to build a court to judge child labor because it seems unfair to keep young children to work for hours continuously without stopping.” How does an 11 year old think of these things? Later on in my summer I got to visit the neighboring village and Kishore’s home. We saw the local school, temples, homes, and cows, but, when we got to the side of the village where the broken down shacks themselves began to look disheartened, I was not allowed to enter. There was some invisible line that our tour guide would not let me cross – because that was where the Dalit’s lived. I was not permitted to see Kishore’s home simply because of long ingrained atrocities. If it wasn’t for Shanti Bhavan I never would have been in contact with my children I had so fallen in love with. More importantly, these incredible students would have never been given a chance.
Back at school Kishore bounded up to me speaking in rapid fire: “Did you see my house? Did you meet my mom? Did she make you chapathi? Oh she makes the best chapathi!…” How could I look this brilliant young boy in the eyes and tell him that I could do none of those things because society forced my skin color and his class apart. I could not. Instead I smiled and asked him how he was handling my homework; off he went describing the script he and his classmates were writing for their chapter of “Holes.”
It did not take me long to learn that the “difference” I wanted to make was nothing like I had expected. Everyone told me before going to India that I would learn so much, but as a naïve 18 year old that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was going for the students, not for myself. The minute I stepped foot in the classroom I started to get the eerie sense of being wrong. Kishore and his classmates were thinking daily about world issues that only sometimes crossed my mind. I threw all my ideas of “service” out the classroom window and invited a new perspective. I was only able to give all my time and energy to teach my students because I was feeding off of their energy to learn. I too, was only able to learn because I had never been happier to be so wrong. School was made fun because we were both learning.
It is impossible to engage with a community, to share your love and hard work, to share their home and life, without being changed for the better. Many people I talked to loved India but feared the pessimism or distrust they developed. I experienced the polar opposite. Between the light, the colors, the sentiment that a good life is a privilege not a right, and the ambitious students that I fell in love with, India provided me with a glimpse at the best person I can be.