Village.

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One of Loreto Sealdah’s more involved outreach ventures is a program which provides support to rural village schools. In addition to training teachers from the communities through the Barefoot Teacher program, Loreto sends supplementary staff to the village schools every Saturday. Sealdah students in classes 5, 6, and 7 load up a bus each weekend, drive to the villages, and teach classes at the schools.

This past Saturday, Cynthia, Liz, and I were able to join the Sealdah students and visit the villages. It was a fascinating experience, mostly because our village visit was atypical, even for the Sealdah girls. About 20 students from Loreto Dharamtala, another Loreto school in a different part of Kolkata, came along to the village for the first time. Interacting with the Dharamtala students gave me wonderful insight into my experiences at Sealdah so far.

We arrived at Sealdah at 9 on Saturday morning. It had rained the whole night before, and it was still drizzly. We had been instructed to wear long pants, crew neck shirts (so as not to reveal too much skin), and closed-toe shoes. Other volunteers had told us takes of trekking through Indian jungles and climbing through mud, so we wanted to be prepared. I stocked my bag with bug spray, sunscreen, Purell, toilet paper, Sudoku puzzles, and my battery-powered fan. I was expecting the very worst.

Sr. Cyril brusquely ordered the 3 of us and the other 2 volunteers to board the bus and take window seats. Like nearly every other vehicle here, the bus was at least 50 years old and totally falling apart. I squished into the back corner of the bus, right next to the window. No screen, just a horizontal bar to keep people from climbing out, I suppose. It was hot, so I left the window open, but it was also still raining. My seat was soaking wet.

The Sealdah and Dharamtala girls boarded the bus according to Sr. Cyril’s instructions. Girls were sitting on laps and standing in the aisles. All in all, there were probably double the amount of passengers on the bus that there should have been.

I was sitting next to a whole row of Dharamtala students. They introduced themselves, and I figured we’d make polite conversation for a little while until they lost interest in me. Was I mistaken! The young lady seated next to me, Alia, became my tour guide of Kolkata. She’s vice head girl at Dharamtala, and she’s in Class 9. We talked about family (Alia is the youngest of 5–all her siblings are out of college) and school (the Dharamtala girls going to the village were part of a social service club), but Alia was most interested in telling me about Kolkata. She and the other Dharamtala girls were so proud of their city! It was really sweet to see them getting so excited while making recommedations for places to visit or foods to try.

Alia was a surprisingly perceptive guide. The bus stopped in traffic quite frequently, so we’d have lots of time to look out the window and discuss what we saw. She eagerly explaned mundane, everyday things and happily and patiently answered my touristy questions. Just a few examples of what we talked about:

–“See those broken clay cups? Those are used for drinking tea from street vendors. Usually people use plastic now.”
–“That goddess on the building is Kali. She’s a Hindu goddess and she’s special to Kolkata because the city used to be called Kalikata. The Kalighat Temple is where people worship her, and during the Durga Puja festival in October, people make altars to her all over the city.”
–“Those green and white packets hanging from the ceiling next to the shampoos are filled with chewing tobacco. Lots of cab drivers use it, and it’s very addictive. It’s banned in Mumbai, but people can still get it on the black market if they are willing to pay.”
–“Many people in the villages keep goats because they provide both milk and meat. The people don’t keep cows because they are holy.”
–“Horses, sheep, goats, and other herds of animals are kept in the pastures at Maidan, in the center of the city. The horses race at the racetrack across the road every Sunday.”

As we passed through a fruit market, Alia described some of the funny-looking, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables to me (“My mom peels those and cooks them in oil, but you can eat them raw as well.”). When she asked me about souvenirs, she tore a piece of paper from her notebook and showed me how to wrap a sari. Our conversation lasted the duration of the 2 hour ride. When Alia and a gaggle of other students disembarked at the first village, I decided to check on Liz and Cynthia.

They were not doing so well. Liz was having claustrophobia issues–completely understandable, considering the low ceiling, cramped legroom, and doubled capacity of the bus. Cynthia was in a rage at the driver–none of us have quite adjusted to the Indian style of driving. She genuinely felt that her life was in danger, which may have been possible since we were careening over skinny wooden bridges and bumping along a rutted dirt road at alarming speeds. Unlike me, Cynthia and Liz didn’t get great seat partners, so they were pretty freaked out. I probably would have been the same was if Alia hadn’t distracted me. I tried to help Liz and Cynthia calm down, but my efforts were unproductive. Liz was to the point where she was doing that “I’m laughing so I don’t start sobbing” thing.

It was good to get off the bus.

We arrived at a village school, but it really wasn’t very village-y. I had been expecting huts and jungles and tigers, but the school was a normal-looking 2 story building. It wasn’t fancy but it was decent-sized. Two wings of the building serve as the secondary school, which has 700-800 students. We visited the primary wing, which educates 200 students. The staff of the primary school numbers only 4. One of the 4 teachers doubles at the principal. Yikes.

The Sealdah and Dharamtala girls split up and went off to different classrooms to teach. I observed two 4th grade classes, each taught by 1 Dharamtala student. I was beyond impressed with the girls who were teaching. They had lesson plans and managed to stick to them–the kids in the classes learned a lot of new material. The Dharamtala girls had total control over their classrooms, too–none of this standing, wandering, disrupting stuff that I have seen in primary classes at Sealdah. Very impressive. During break, Liz, Cynthia, and I played with the kids. None of them spoke English (the girls taught in Bengali), but we managed to jump rope and play hand-clapping games in various languages.

I talked to a few different Dharamtala girls on the bus ride home. Their perspective on the Sealdah students and the Sealdah school was really interesting. The Dharamtala girls weren’t mixing much with the Sealdah girls, and when I asked why, I was told that the Sealdah girls are a little wild and crazy. “They speak in Bengali all the time–it’s informal and slang. Kind of like if you say ‘dude’. We like to speak in English to each other.” Loreto Dharamtala has between 500-600 students–about half of the size of Sealdah. It’s probably the size that Sealdah should be. It gave me some hope to hear that not all Indian schools are as disorganized as Sealdah. Dharamtala sounds like it has a lot of extracurriculars that Sealdah lacks, like a book club, a service club, and environmental club–all the sorts of activities that I associate with high school. Seeing the way that the Dharamtala girls perceived the Sealdah girls also validated my experiences with out-of-control classrooms and students at Sealdah.

The trip to the village was worthwhile mainly because I now have a little bit of perspective on types of schools in Kolkata. Cynthia and Liz survived the journey, but they were pretty frazzled by the time we made it home. I was so impressed with the way the Loreto students took on the teaching role–it was great to see that kind of hands-on service in action.

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