“Welcome Back Home! I hope to meet in English class again” was one of the notes I received from a former student my first day back on campus. It’s only been a week since I’ve been back at Shanti Bhavan and already so much has happened. There’s not exactly ever a moment that I’m NOT working, but let’s be real, I wouldn’t want it differently.
1. My Birthday! I landed in India around 3am on June 26th IST. By the time I got to Shanti Bhavan the sun was rising and sleep was not going to happen. I got settled in to my new room by doing what I always do when I first move in to a new place: decorate my walls. By 6am I was ready to go play with the little kids, but saw all of my former students studying hard (and waving at me) through the windows. As I walked to the school building for breakfast I heard a chorus of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY MEG” coming down from the boys’ dorm. I couldn’t believe they’d all remembered. But instantly, I felt at home. Throughout the day kids kept begging me to come to their classroom so they could give me their cards. The 9th graders even threw confetti on my head! At snack time I distributed my 5 lb bag of jolly ranchers (which had seriously weighed down my carry on much to the curiosity of the flight attendants) and at dinner they all made me stand on a chair as they sang me happy birthday. It was a perfect welcome back and birthday celebration.
2. Goldman Sachs visited my first weekend here to hold a workshop with the business stream students and all the graduates in business colleges. Five Shanti Bhavan graduates work for Goldman Sachs and two of them came with the Corporate Social Responsibility team. Despite having Shanti Bhavan students in their midst, the Goldman Sachs team had no idea what to expect. They told me they weren’t sure if they would need a translator, but two minutes in to being on campus realized they didn’t know what they were going to teach the kids! As always, visitors come away learning just as much, if not more, as the kids. They broke the students in to five groups of eight for a case study competition. Each spoke eloquently and confidently answered their judges challenging questions. So proud.
3. An academic from Grinnell College is considering writing a book on us. Patrick Inglis has been studying social immobility in India for the past several years. He has become understandably jaded to the efforts taken to help break the cruel cycle of poverty. But, after one visit to SB he knew there was something special here. He returned a second time and started brainstorming with us what kind of article he could write on proving the success of this model, and eventually what book he could write on the entirety of this school. Check out his blog post here.
4. I’ve had to become a disciplinarian. This is by far the hardest part of my job. Keeping a straight face when trying to punish the most adorable little children is not a task I ever thought I’d be up for…and yet I’ve succeeded. A few of the sixth grade boys got in trouble for being 15 minutes late to a class. After asking them to explain themselves and dolling out community service, I found out the next day they got in trouble again. This time Ms. Beena (the vice principal) took away their movie night. So when movie night rolled around and the honest little boys came up to me to ask “Ms. Meg…Ms. Beena said we can’t have movie night…but can we?” I kept a straight face, did not let myself give in to their teary doe eyes, and sent them to their dorm.
5. I received more “Happy Independence Day” wishes while at SB then I probably have in the past 20 years of my life combined. The children are all very sweet at remembering volunteer only holidays. It just so happened that the 4th of July also fell on the celebration of School Day this year, so the volunteers gathered to put on a performance of our Star Spangled Banner. Our flag was crafted on the chalk board and we even invited one of the students Barath (who looks eerily similar to Barak) to the stage and serenaded him. The only problem, one of the volunteers is a Brit. So naturally, we had to scare the bitter “Britisher” (as the Indians call them) off stage.
6. School Day, July 5th, is the anniversary of Shanti Bhavan. Every year the 11th grade is in charge of organizing the celebrations and performances. The kitchen serves a special lunch and everyone gets a half day. The children spend the afternoon mostly playing, but also use it to practice their performances and decorate the stage. We had some beautiful Bhangra and Bollywood dances, songs by the choir, funny skits interspersed by the MCs and the culmination of a school wide dance party. Check out both my and the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project Facebook page for some of the videos! Dr. George, Ms. Beena, Ajit, myself and a few others all got up on stage to say a few words to the school. Their joy makes it so easy to give impromptu speeches. It was one of the most energetic and invigorating experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s always just so nice to see every single kid beamingly happy.
7. Several graduates came back this weekend to work on their personal statements. We’re going to be launching a fundraiser in August to get support putting our graduates through college. To do so, we’ve got to pull at the heart strings. I knew many of these kids’ stories from having spent time with them before, but it’s always emotionally draining to talk through all their hardships at once. They are the most resilient children that I know. Some of their parents sell fruit, some collect fallen hair to make in to wigs, and several work in a stone yard making large rocks in to smaller rocks. Many are without parents and far too many have seen their mothers beaten. And yet, they are constantly making each other and me laugh, always have high spirits, and make the most of every situation. They’re such a family. I’ll send you all their new personal statements when they go live next month, but in the meantime read some of the older graduates’ ones here.
8. I’m starting a girl’s leadership club for the high school aged girls who are interested in having a smaller safe space to discuss hard topics. We had our first session on Sunday night. I was blown away by their open honesty and eagerness to foster self-awareness. We did one of my favorite frustrating exercises on “values” (thank you NC Fellows) which forces you to reconsider what we know to be true. Of course everyone cherishes the values of kindness, truth, authenticity, compassion, justice, knowledge, honesty, happiness, humor etc. But what happens when you’re asked to select your top two? What happens when you consider each of those values opposites? We discussed what it means to act in opposition to the values we hold so close. For example, I can safely guess that at one point in time in our lives most of us have lied, have used hurtful sarcasm, or opted for intellectual laziness. But, this doesn’t make us bad people. Instead, it challenges us to question how we enact our values and encourages us to develop keen awareness of our actions. I was worried this material might be too heavy for a first session, but they all responded very positively to it. The exercise set the stage for what they want to discuss moving forward and gave us a good sense of where each other are coming from. I can’t wait until next Sunday!