2009 PFIG Recipient Charlie Redmon
College of Arts & Sciences
2011 Graduation Year
Internship: Institute for Field Research Expeditions
Notes on the first week
At the Bal Bhavan School in Jaipur, I teach 20-30 boys and girls ages 6-12, Tuesday through Saturday every week. The school is run entirely by volunteers and is maintained through government support and generous donations. As a result, the school is entirely free for anyone who wishes to enroll, but caters primarily to poor children from the nearby slums. Next week I will visit the students at their homes, and they are just as excited to show me where they live as I am to see. By now I feel I have gotten over the culture shock, but I do not believe I will ever get over or feel comfortable with the extreme poverty many Indians face. This is a reality that I know always will and always should tug at the heartstrings. I can only hope that as India continues to develop and the government invests more and more money in the lowest classes (which they have already begun to do), this affliction of poverty may be gradually alleviated. Bal Bhavan is already working toward this end, and has done an admirable service to the children it has brought in and finally given a chance to succeed.
My position at the school has become quite versatile, as I am one of just three summer volunteers who work with a native teacher who's there year-round. Everyday features the usual core of English and Mathematics instruction, but other activities include art, music, science, and physical education. In addition to my constant role in English instruction, I have also become the kids' basketball coach. On Thursdays and Fridays I teach swimming as well. There are a few particularly memorable anecdotes that I'd like to draw out of my experience with the program so far. The first features an 11 year-old boy named Mahendar.
Mahendar loves to count, not just because he's been particularly successful at learning the English number system, but I think he appreciates the always present opportunity to count higher and know more than he had before. He came up to me one day during our break between sessions and picking up a piece of chalk from the black board, began filling in the empty space with numbers, expanding on the ten number sequence we had just instructed. With each number he would say the name aloud and look over to me for confirmation and approval. Each time I nodded, smiling and pushing him further. Our goal was to get to 100, and he reached it pretty quickly, pausing only for a brief moment of celebration before continuing on to larger and larger numbers. By the end of the day he was running up to me during every break shouting: "Sir! One-three-zero... Hundred-thirty!" More than a success story, Mahendar is a perfect example of the intellectual curiosity and steadfast desire for learning that all of the children possess. They don't just sit down for instruction, follow our lead, and then turn off the switch as it were. These kids will practice their exercises and display their knowledge to you any chance they get, from the moment they arrive at the school till the moment they leave. The only thing keeping all of them from achieving up to the expectations of their age level is a lack of resources.
Joti is 8 years old and the sweetest little girl you'll ever meet. Always with a big smile on her face, she frequently comes up to me after she and the other children brush their teeth in the morning and shows me how bright and clean hers are. Poor dental hygiene is quite common in India , so we try to instill good habits early on so that these children don't succumb to the same health problems that are on such visible display in the area where they live. There are usually three mats outside on which we divide up the kids according to age and proficiency, each volunteer taking one group. I typically work with the younger students and those who may be lagging a bit behind, although I find it amusing that while Joti is never in my group she always runs over at some point and sits down next to me, showing me her progress and asking for additional instruction. I've never quite figured out the source of this connection, but I cherish the times I get to work with her on arts and crafts, as well as the moments during snack time when she offers me some of her chapati, which I always graciously turn down. I hate to deny an offer in India because the people often take it to mean there was something wrong with their gift, but the kids rarely arrive with much food, and so I make a point not to accept any of their food, even though I appreciate the gesture of generosity. Sharing just seems to come naturally to the kids, and so at snack time they always sit around in a circle, passing food back and forth, dipping chapatis in each other's sauces, and sharing cookies and chips should a kid happen to be particularly treated that morning. One day I will share a meal with Joti, perhaps give her the same generosity she has always given me.
Lastly, I would like to discuss my recent pleasure over the assignment to the role of swimming instructor. The swimming class is a separate group from the children I teach English to, but as with that group the class is comprised of many different ages and ability levels. The thing I appreciate most about teaching a physical skill such as swimming is that it is an ability that transcends barriers of language and culture. There is a young girl in the class named Tania, who is one such example of this quality of connection beyond language differences. She speaks no English, or is too shy to engage with me in any conversation, and my knowledge of Hindi is limited to basic expressions and commands, so nearly 100% of my instruction is facilitated by gesture. As she holds onto the wall I walk backward about 10 feet from her and motion for her to swim to me. When we began she just pushed off the wall, arms stretched out in front of her but motionless, just hoping to reach my hands where I would hold her up. I tried to show her the basic doggie-paddle stroke and got her to practice kicking while holding onto the wall. She made some progress and now kicks and moves her arms a little, but we still have a lot of work to do. I want her motions to be rhythmic, and her breathing to be steady, but that will all come in time. I'm very happy with the progress she's made so far. With the older kids I've been working on treading water, which is much easier to teach because they speak a little English, although my greatest enjoyment still comes from working with Tania. She has the desire to improve, and I'm confident she'll get there with practice.
These are just a few glimpses of my work so far, but there are sure to be more to follow. India is a complete world apart from the United States , but if there's one constant, it's the eager, smiling faces of the children. They are not only the focus of my stay here and my sole reason for coming, but beyond the rich landscapes, the bizarre food, and the stately monuments, it is the kids of Bal Bhavan who will undoubtedly leave the most lasting impression on me after I leave.
As of July 1st I have been transferred from my original school, Bal Bhavan, to another school that just opened after summer holiday, called Vidyashram Public School. I had been placed as an English teacher in the first school because almost all other schools were on holiday for the month of June and this school was open year-round. By July 1st though, the other schools opened and upon the recommendation of my internship coordinator, Karnika Datta, I transferred to Vidyashram because of their great need for an English teacher. And so, after a few days working at Vidyashram I feel I have ample information to share about my new school and the opportunities and challenges it has presented me.
Vidyashram is an enormous school teaching nursery through 12th grade levels all on the same grounds. During the morning the school caters to all the upper and middle class children in the area, but at 12 pm, when some of the younger children go home for the day, our staff of about 8 teachers arrives and teaches the poor kids from the area until about 6:00. The day is broken up at 3:00 for lunch, so my day is essentially divided into two parts. For the first part I teach a class of about 20-30 6th and 7th graders, and then after lunch I have a somewhat smaller 5th grade class. The instruction is completely up to me, as I am the only teacher in the classroom, which has certainly been a challenge but has also been a great opportunity to really develop my own educational program so that I can guide any progress they make over these last three weeks. As a model for each of the classes I will offer a brief description of two of my students, one from each age level. From the 7th grade class I have chosen Suraj, and from the 5th, Priyanka.
Suraj is your typical 7th grade boy. He's the class clown, the popular kid, the one who's lead all the kids follow. I can tell Suraj is very bright just from the level of our conversations outside of class, but he has difficulty applying himself. Indeed, all of my 6th and 7th grade students have trouble knowing the line between acting up and paying attention, which makes my job all the more challenging. Suraj, like all the other students, is very nice and always friendly when he sees me, he just needs to learn how to draw that line, and I think with each day he gets better and better at following my instruction in the classroom. With this group it's simply vital that I vary the manner of instruction every day and come up with a new and challenging lesson plan for each class period. As I said, they do get better and better each day, so I think my reflection at the conclusion of my teaching job here should be quite interesting.
If Suraj is the trouble-maker, Priyanka is the polar opposite. She, like all my 5th graders, is very attentive to my explanations of various grammar rules and pronunciation advice. When I give the kids an assignment and ask them to come up and show me after they have finished, she always asks me to put a star or a "very good" in the margin as I check her work. I laugh every time. A lot of the instruction is also one-on-one reading help, and most kids read the passage I show them and then go in and send out another student, but Priyanka didn't want to leave. She kept insisting that I allow her to read one more passage, which I was all too happy to oblige as long as I had time to see all of the students. Teaching the 5th graders, as I think Priyanka's example demonstrates, is always a wonderful way to conclude each day.
I hope this brief capsule of my teaching experience at Vidyashram offers a good comparison to the work I did for so many weeks at Bal Bhavan. I loved that school and was given a beautiful farewell party, full of dancing and pictures drawn by the kids, all brought to conclusion with a presentation of flowers before I left. But as much as I enjoyed that experience and will always be grateful to the people of Bal Bhavan for being so good to me, I'm glad I have this challenging new opportunity to run my own classroom and meet a whole new group of students and faculty. These next three weeks will be quick but already after three days they promise to be a very meaningful end to my two months in India.
There's a classic piece of advice that gets tossed around quite frequently in academic circles; it goes something like this: "the best way to learn is by teaching someone else." I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, and challenge any retractors to take a step beyond the somewhat cliche veneer and test out the theory. I may have taught some kids a handful of new words, or clarified a few grammatical rules, but I'd be wrong to say that I gave more than I received. Where I taught my Indian students English, they taught me so much more about life than I could have ever imagined I would learn in those brief two months. In America, I think we have a tendency to watch movies like Slumdog Millionaire and say: "Oh wow, it must be terrible to live there," or "I can't imagine ever growing up in an environment like that." And it's true, we couldn't ever imagine growing up in the slums of India, but this is not a time for sympathy (and to claim empathy is downright unfair). No, the one overarching lesson from my summer in India is that humans don't require or even request empathy. As nice as it is to take a walk in someone else's shoes, this is simply not possible. I won't ever know what it feels like to grow up in India, or to sleep everyday of one's life on a dirt floor, but in the end all that anyone ever desires is to be heard. Understanding comes later (sometimes not at all), and so it is only by listening that we connect to other experiences and cultural backgrounds.
For a week I walked around those foreign streets and thought to myself, "These people lead such unfortunate lives," but what was I thinking? I was trying to interject my own spoiled, materialistic perspective into the minds of the poor, but all this was wrong. I was wrong. When I started teaching at Bal Bhavan in Jaipur, I met 20 or so smiling, energetic, motivated children who were all from the slums nearby. One day I was fortunate enough to visit these slums, and it was that visit that changed my perspective completely. The moment I arrived I was greeted by a bunch of the children I taught at Bal Bhavan. They all ran up to me with the most excited expressions on their faces. I was given the grand tour of the village by an 8 year-old named Babloo who practically dragged me through the dirt paths as he tugged eagerly at my arm, all the while running around and pointing out the different houses where each kid lived. I met older brothers, baby sisters, fathers sitting around drinking tea and laughing heartily, women gathered together making chapatis and smiling about the latest news, and all this life at the crack of dawn. I've never met a friendlier group of strangers, and so to peg a group as unfortunate or worse off because of their financial circumstances is to not stop and honestly listen to the people. Yes, these families still struggle. There wasn't a night during the monsoons that I didn't worry about my students in their meager thatch-roofed huts, but these people are still full of life. The children still run around and play in the streets and do all the normal kid stuff that we tend to believe is only reserved for the fortunate.
What I mean to say is that I no longer try to assume what others are feeling just by placing myself in their situation and evaluating my own perceived happiness or satisfaction. I am not like my students- in many ways I am inferior to their simple needs and desires. And so while my project this summer was to teach children English, hopefully furthering their chances for success in the job market, I soon discovered there are some kids who just have too many cards stacked against them. It's hard to travel all the way across the world purely for a volunteer experience and know all the while that the children in these schools may never get the opportunity to even leave the country. I will forever pray that these bright, thoughtful, positive kids will find all the successes they deserve, but for now I can only be grateful: grateful that I got the opportunity to meet and learn from the students of the Bal Bhavan and Ashkar schools in Jaipur. Standard of living is not a measure of wealth, but an evaluation of a person's mindset. When you place stock in human connection rather than personal gain, all other material needs fall to the wayside. I only wish I could trade some of my blessings for their wisdom.