A late Christmas

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January 12th 2011
Published: January 12th 2011
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Darlene “mom” Large, the founder and president of HOINA, arrived on January 5. For days before her arrival children would come up and say in a secretive voice “do you know mom?” “She is like mother Theresa” “Mom is coming, we have to be good” “I love mom so much!” as though they were telling you the deepest feelings of their heart. The students who had met her when she visited their class at York had a different message: She is intense and terrifying. My first encounter with Mrs. Large came outside her apartment adjacent to the girls’ home. She had arrived in the night and had asked for several people to help set up her apartment. A woman of medium build with pure white hair, she moved quickly and with a purpose, her eyes belayed a very quick mind, and though her age was apparently 75, I would not have guessed a day over 60. “Ahh, you must be the infamous brother Chris the boys were telling me about” she said without a hint of a smile as I shook her hand. I immediately became acutely aware of my grotesque beard, unkempt hair, hands and arms stained with paint, faded shirt, torn jeans, and the dirt covering my bare feet. Inside, her bookshelves were lined with biographies of famous Americans, Bible study guides, and numerous business management and leadership books. The walls were lined with pictures including one with her and mother Theresa. She asked about my trip and then relayed the story of her first substantive trip abroad, living in Venezuela with her husband in the mid 1950s. “I was there when the revolution happened; the secret police tied a group of women upside down and raped them. After the government was overthrown those men had their testicles tied with string and were dragged to death behind horses.” This was my first conversation with her. Later she would go through the pictures of groups of children on the walls and she knew each child’s name, the years that child was at the home, what each was doing now and where they lived. They ranged from architects and artists to children who had committed suicide. All were relayed in a matter of fact way that did not hint at success or tragedy but simply: This is life, we do the best we can. Hearing her speak I was struck by how profoundly non-idealistic and rooted in reality her worldview was, and looking around at this huge facility full of happy children it was difficult not to be awed by the force of her will and determination.

After Mrs. Large arrived we celebrated a late Christmas. At both the girls and boys homes the children were seated and presents were brought in. The children had each written a list of things they wanted and one or two items on each list were purchased, wrapped, and presented to a roomful of ecstatic children. The gifts ranged from action figures and airplane models to cricket bats. Each child would have their name called and then everyone would burst into applause, those sitting near the child would stand up and clap and stomp their feet. All 200+ children received gifts, nobody was forgotten, and I don’t think I have ever been in a room where there was such energy and joy. Liana summed it up succinctly: “Orphans opening presents, yeah this will be hard to beat. ” Several of the York students were moved to tears, and I would put it among the best days of my life. One of the staff members announced that they should all thank “Mom” for bringing the gifts and the outburst of love and affection was enormous. Her response was to take the staff member aside to sternly tell him that they should only thank God and that under no circumstances was he to give her credit again.

I had the opportunity to go spend a day at the local village school. It was an enormous compound that taught 1100 students as well as housed close to 100 in a dormitory for students whose families lived beyond the range of the bus system. I had expected to find a horror story of what I imagined a village school would look like, but it was actually very nice. The buildings formed an L shape and each classroom door opened to the outside. The students were dressed in school uniforms, and had a basic curriculum of English, Telegu, Hindi, Math, Science, and Social studies. The spartan rooms were small and cement, the only furnishings a single chalk board at the front, and the rooms were full of 50-60 students. The three other American students and I being given a tour had the opportunity to talk to the principal, a gracious and articulate woman who was open about the schools’ successes and challenges. Her general outlook was defined by cautious optimism. All of the students at the school were able to read and write in Telegu and English, and about half would graduate able to read and write Hindi. Most of them would graduate able to speak basic functional English. They would have enough math skills to function in a world that required basic computation. The ambitious students would have a very good chance at getting into a university and becoming engineers, businessmen, teachers, or working with computers. She made it clear though that this area was in transition when it came to education. The vast majority of students came from poor farm families where the parents were illiterate, and even if they valued the child’s education, it was difficult to get them involved due to their limitations. As is true all over India, the school suffered from a high dropout rate. Nonetheless, I would consider the school a huge success; no society can move from nearly universal illiteracy to full literacy in one generation, this is a multi-generational process. To that effect I was impressed and optimistic about the students’ futures.

They asked if I wanted to sit in on any classes and of course I jumped at the opportunity. I was taken to an English class for ten year olds. After the initial thrill of seeing a white person walk through the door and after a few minutes of making it clear that I was not going to sign any autographs, they finally calmed down enough for class to resume. The teacher was talking about animals, listing and describing them and, much like teachers everywhere, trying to come up with ways to get the kids engaged. They then went through a story that successive children read out loud from their books. They asked if I wanted to read and I did my best to read slowly and articulately. What I noticed was that the room was very loud, that you could hear the students in adjacent rooms more clearly than those who were in your room. The echo off the walls made voices hard to understand, and the poor lighting lowered everyone’s, including my, ability to pay attention. There were too many kids in the room, and it was clear the quality of the education being received was directly proportionate to how close you were to the teacher. The math class which followed was equally basic, turning decimals and fractions into percentages and vice versa, standard math that I am sure is being taught to ten year olds all over the world. The limitations of the school aside, I felt like the teachers were ready to teach and the children were ready to learn and that, it would seem, is half the battle.

Later in the week we were given the opportunity to give a presentation on any subject that we wanted to small groups of students at HOINA. I chose to talk about India. Most of the children had discovered that I was exploring their country. I wanted to use this opportunity to tell them what an amazing country I thought they had and why I had chosen this place to do my wandering. Most Indians that I have met do not seem particularly excited about their country, if anything their increased education and knowledge of the outside world has brought into focus just how many problems India has. I wanted to get across to them how optimistic they should be about their future. My first approach was to ask them why they should be excited about India. I got only blank stares. I asked how many of them were able to read and write in at least two languages and most raised their hands. When I asked how many of them had family members who were illiterate all those same students raised their hands. In the west that level of educational advancement took generations, here it is a generation. I asked what the most important example of a democracy was for the developing world and they all said the United States. Frustrated, I explained that India is the world’s largest democracy, and they should be proud that their country is the most important example of how democracy can work in diverse developing countries. The divisions of a place like Iraq pale in comparison to the divisions of India, that this country has had a stable democracy is the most important indication that it is a workable system of government for multi-cultural societies. I asked what country was projected to have the fastest growing economy between now and 2050, they said China, Japan, Europe, before I had to exclaim in frustration “NO! INDIA! How are you not getting this?” It went on like this and I am sure I failed in making them see all the incredible things about their country. The only time they were full of answers was when I asked what the challenges for India were and then they could all rattle off many answers. As I got up to leave one of the boys asked me about my time in the military and if he could join the Army. I assumed he was talking about the Indian Army and told him I had no idea how the Indian Army worked. He looked at me confused and said “No, why would I join the Indian Army, I want to join the American Army, is this possible?” Based on that I think my pep talk was a total failure.

Liana and the group of students left today, I will stay until the 21st when I have a train ticket for Chennai.


12th January 2011

I am an Indian and really thankful to people like you,who care to do what u r doing,though i am very optimistic about India's future,last few lines were a real heartbreak.When children do not want to join the army of their own country ,there must be something very wrong with the system of education or our society..

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