Saturday, January 3, 2015

Deb's teaching the children with GPM

GPM-JDC Entwine Fall 2014 volunteer Debra Feinberg writes this poignant account about her experiences teaching children in the slums.

For weeks I haven't been able to quiet my mind enough to sit and write about my experience here in India [as a GPM volunteer], but suddenly, I'm ready. Sure, I've jotted the occasional story about the madness of Mumbai, but I haven't shared what I'm really doing here...I haven't told you about my everyday routine where I wake up, catch a cab to the train station, take a 45 minute ride to a place so far off the beaten tourist path that when I step off the platform at my stop, everyone around looks in awe wondering, “What is she doing here?” More than once, a motherly figure has placed a hand on my shoulder to say, "Are you sure this is your stop?" Really, she is saying, "I don't think you want to be getting off here." ...I do.

“Here,” is Kalwa, the slum where I'm teaching. The people here are starting to expect us now...Us, being me and the other GPM fellows. Each day, we get off the train amidst a sea of brown's hard not to stand out. Somehow, word has spread that we are the teachers and in knowing our role, people accept our presence. The young rickshaw drivers outside the station eye us up and down and nudge one another, sharing comments that would probably leave me blushing if my Hindi was up to par; locals study us as we pass by, curiosity burning in their eyes. Many are quick to smile and say 'hello,' or 'good morning' and some even stick their hand out for a handshake or jump the gun with, "Hello, I am fine," before I've even had a chance to pose the question, "How are you?"

Always, I make my way to the small shed at the station entrance and look for my two familiar faces: Haley and Jacob. I suppose the best way to describe seeing them is to compare it to when I turn onto my childhood street and see the tunnel of trees that leads to my home; there's a comfort in the familiarity of the sight, and I know when I see those trees I'm back where I belong. When the crowd parts and I see Jacob and Haley, it's the same feeling, that this is where I'm meant to be. Haley is our on-site coordinator and translator while Jacob, a former consulate guard, serves as our security. Though I've yet to feel any discomfort in Kalwa, Jacob's broad shouldered frame serves as a comfort that, should a situation arise, he's got our backs.

After a big hug for Haley and a few minutes of silly gossip, we split into our teams to head to our respective classrooms. David, our other translator and security joins my team, while Haley and Jacob head off with Elana's. David is a jokester best compared to the naughty kid on the playground who likes to see how many people he can provoke before someone scolds him. According to him, I look like a Bollywood superstar Bipasha Basu, Bips for short. David also thinks of himself as a Bollywood star and even introduces himself to people as the famous Salman Khan...he's ridiculous, but the kids love him, and admittedly, when he starts busting out dance moves, it's pretty epic.

A ten minute walk with David along a busy dirt road leads us to what should be a walking path but also serves as a garbage dump, open air restroom, makeshift playground for the local children and game park filled with donkeys, wild pigs, goats, cows, chickens and hungry dogs. As we walk, the girls and I hash out the final details of our lesson plan, dodge fresh fecal matter - human and animal - turn our heads away from men dropping their drawers mere feet from us - though as soon as I turn away from one, my eyes happen upon another - and stop every few feet to shake hands with local children who have peeked in our classrooms and know we are the teachers.

As we head deeper into the slum, we pass naked children playing in garbage, sari'd women carrying baskets of food on their heads (often with a baby also in their arms), young men who, in the absence of owning workhorses or oxen, pull and push heavy loads on makeshift carts - manual labor in its purest form - and well groomed men in nice collared shirts and pressed pants heading to work for the day...You see, poverty is subjective, and the people who live in the slums include many hardworking individuals with real jobs, limited by their salaries, not their ambition.

When we walk past a shopkeeper I've dubbed "Buddha" (for his meditative posture and oversized belly) and the cluster of hormone driven teenage boys who linger just past his stand, I know we are almost there. One last turn past a group of kids sorting plastics brings us to our classroom, a metal shack only distinct from the surrounding slum homes because of the large number of beat up children’s shoes resting outside the classroom door. I slip off my sandals and add them to the pile.

Our "classroom" is actually the one room home of one of my students, Suresh. Education is a priority to his parents, so each day they open their home as a pop up classroom to provide a learning space for Suresh and thirty plus children from the neighboring homes. Think about the trust, commitment and love for community they must have to do everyday vacate their home with all their worldly possessions, invite in a teacher and enough students to fill every open space on the floor and just have faith that their home won't be a wreck when they return. The depth of my admiration and respect for this young couple is beyond words...
My students span in age from four to thirteen and have a range of ability levels. Each student in this little room has all the potential in the world, but here in Kalwa, survival takes precedence to potential. If a student's family is out of water, the child isn't coming to school, he's spending the day carrying buckets of water to his home. If a younger sibling needs to be cared for and mommy and daddy are out hustling, the baby needs watching... Essentially, when push comes to shove, if the foundations of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs aren't being met, education takes a backseat, and in the slums, many kids are losing out on critical learning years.

To counter this, the project I am here with incentivized families to send their children to school by offering students who attend class with a nutritious meal. Not only does food motivate students to learn, it creates new jobs and revenue for the community, from which eighteen women were hired and given a kitchen where they prepare the meals for the kids - now, these women are becoming entrepreneurs, cooking for the students by day, and running a catering business by night. Once a week I join these women in their kitchen before class and they allow me a glimpse into the effort put forth to prepare daily meals for over six hundred children in a rustic slum kitchen - between the heat from their primitive burners and the lack of prep space, what they accomplish is a miracle!

These meals help draw the brightest of personalities into my who are not only hungry for food, but anything I can teach. Sure, there are still the 'naughty kids' and teacher's pet types of every classroom, but here, it's not each kid for his/her self...every child wants every other child to succeed...and that's pretty special.

Laxmi, Manita, Suresh, Pawan, Krishna, Srinivas (Babu), Arif, Muskan, Preeti, Rahul...the kids are as unique as their names. Each morning as I slip my shoes off outside the classroom door, I listen to them finish up their morning national anthem, excitedly eying me and speeding up the words as they register my presence, just so the second they are done they can jump to attention to greet me with a spirited chorus of, "Good morning Teacher!" It gets me smiling every time :-)

Once the kids settle back onto their mats on the floor - no seats or desks in here - it's time to begin. The lessons range in topic, but we try to make mini units each week that build on a certain concept, skill or idea: Telling Time, Verbalizing Feelings, Inventions and Creative Thinking, The Experimental Process... anything to break these kids away from their daily lessons in rote memorization. Something like creative thinking may sound abstract, but for a kid who has previously been taught every lesson with,"mire peeche bolo" (Hindi, for: "Repeat after me"), skills like learning to find the answers in oneself, think outside the box and dare to be wrong are hard to come by. When children are taught to learn by repetition only, they come to believe that there is only one right answer for everything...when they are actually challenged to think for themselves, the answers are suddenly endless - and that's not something that can be taught in one day - it's like rewiring a robot - until eventually, something clicks into place.

Over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of watching some of these transformations begin...there's a light that comes on in kids' eyes and I can see the wheels churning in their minds as they create answers, rather than spit back something they were told. It's true that there are also days when the kids don't get something - with language and culture barriers, such moments are inevitable - but those days push me to become a better teacher, to figure out where the lack of understanding begins and what needs to be said or done to take a kid from confusion to clarity. Sometimes, I can figure out the issue in the moment and find a new way to teach the material, other times the girls and I spend the walk between our first class and second class reflecting on what went wrong. The thing is, teaching isn't about doing the lesson on the agenda, it's about doing a lesson that actually results in learning, and these bumps in the road have forced me to become a teacher capable of adapting to the situation at hand.

The day isn't done with my first class though, and as soon as I've slipped my sandals on, it's back to the walkway to head to my next group of kids. Along the ten minute route I pass another cast of characters...The old lady who stands in her doorway watching the world as she brushes her teeth...with her finger; the sugarcane man prepping his stalks for juicing; the 'wall kids' behind him who use a broken wall as their personal jungle gym and always pause to shout, "Teacher! Teacher!" ; Fat, hairy pigs bathing in garbage, feces and mud; Mothers washing their screaming children with a cloth and pail of cold water; Boys playing cricket in a field of garbage...the list goes on and on. Here, my second group of students live along the railroad tracks, and as I follow the path to the shack that is my classroom, my eyes dance from person to person going about their routines....this is life for them.

When I reach my class, my favorite student steps out the room to greet me - and yes, teachers have favorites! Manish (see above) is special, a born leader. One of the oldest in my class, I dream for Manish because here is a kid who, with the right mentorship, could take on the world; but, I also fear for Manish, because when he gets too old for this classroom, what will happen to him? It kills me to think that this kid who emanates, even radiates, potential, will lose the light within him because of the circumstances into which he was born, robbed of the opportunity to thrive out of a need to survive. This is the injustice of the slums.

Forty other children also await me inside that small classroom, and each of them has something incredibly special to offer the world as well. These children emit an energy like a magnetic force that pulls me into the classroom. "Teacher! Teacher! "Good morning Debbie Teacher!" "Teacher, me!" Their hunger to learn is palpable.

Never in my life have I felt such joy in arriving to 'work,' which begs the question: What makes this experience different from all others? It's not that I haven't loved my past jobs (or at least aspects of them)- in fact, I miss my students from Charlotte everyday, and rarely does a time pass when I'm not reminded of a beloved patient in Miami - but here, not a day goes by that I don't feel I get back as much - if not more - as I'm giving...and because these children with so little to give fill my heart with so much, everyday I am challenged to push myself to give everything I can, not because I have to, but because I want to. For that reason, teaching in the slums is not hard work, but heart work. Sure, lesson planning takes time, teaching takes energy and a non-air conditioned classroom can leave anyone drained, but from the moment I enter the room to a chorus of "Good morning teacher!" to the last hug and handshake I get walking out the door, my heart is full, and there's no paycheck that can give the same feeling.

Prior to embarking on this journey, I had moments of fear that, somehow, by giving up my apartment, my job, my car, time with friends and family and all my possessions except what fits in my backpack, I might miss out on "real life;" that in pursuing this idealistic whim of mine, I'd somehow lose out on a crucial year in my life - lord knows my mother would love me to meet a nice Jewish boy, get a ring and pop out a grandchild, and how does that happen when bouncing to a new country every few months!?-...But instead, this year has shown me what 'real life' is in its purest and most beautiful form, and I find myself with the fullest heart and happier than I've ever been.

Each day, I come to Kalwa, supposedly the teacher, bearing lesson plans, hopes, dreams and wishes for the children I teach, but what that will ultimately get my students, I'm not sure... On the other hand, unknowingly, Kalwa and it's beautiful cast of characters have become my teachers, showing me what selflessness looks like, leadership in the face of adversity, ingenuity in spite of resources and above all, contentedness for what one has, not what one doesn't. These lessons will leave Kalwa with me - irrespective of the room in my backpack- allowing me to experience the world going forward through a new and brighter lens. Though I can't put Manish or any of my other students on a fast track path to a life beyond the slums, I'll leave them knowing the impact a fresh pair of lenses is having on my life, and hope that maybe, just maybe, something I said or did throughout my time in the slums will allow them to see the world differently going forward as well...even if that is simply the ability to think beyond the idea of only one 'right answer.'

"The rest," as it's said, "is still unwritten..."

No comments:

Post a Comment