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Posts Tagged ‘children’

Wait and See

I don’t think many Indians will be offended if I say that they have a very loose relationship with time. For Westerners used to deadlines and punctuality it can be a bit frustrating to realize that if you live in India, you will never again have a meeting start on time or see almost anything completed when it originally was supposed to be.

Most people here would just say, “that’s how it is here. You decided to live here. Deal with it.” And I do. Most of the time it drives me a bit crazy. Other times it leads to incredible amusement.

I bring all this up because in the time that I have been working on my film with the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi, nothing has happened on time. The women I am following are incredible, hard-working, defiant, and always — always — late. When they’re not late they are re-scheduling or pushing things back. It’s not laziness or avoidance or procrastination. It’s just the way things are done. But when you’re making a film it can get a little bit tiresome. For every day we’ve planned to film, at least half have been rescheduled. All have started at least half an hour or an hour late. But, as everyone reminds me, this is how it is here. You can’t change the system you chose to work in.

I bring all this up because we are finally done filming. After two months of discussions, two months of shadowing and research, one broken hard drive and three months of filming (whenever we could), we were ready to finish up with one last meeting before starting to edit. I needed video of a game the women sometimes use as a tool for discussion so we had set up a meeting to film it. And I should have known that for my last foray I would get to go out with a bang.

I arrived in Dharavi by myself because my translator couldn’t make it – after all, this was the third time this particular meeting had been rescheduled and she had another work commitment. But since it was just a meeting (ie: no interviews) I figured I could watch and film on my own, and S, the woman I was following that day, has an English-speaking husband. The meeting was supposed to start at 3:30.

When I got there I called S’s husband. He said they were running half an hour late and to just go their house. I’d been there before for the interviews so I made my way into the winding lanes of their neighborhood. Normally when I go into residential Dharavi I’m with my translator or one of the women we’re following. Going alone makes me a little bit like a circus freak. Everyone stops and stares and wonders what this odd white person is doing making her way through the narrow passages and thin sidewalks. I imagine most assume I’m lost. But eventually I make it to S’s house and climb the rickety vertical ladder that leads up to her one-room home.

My head popped up through the entry-way and I saw four little faces staring back at me. S’s children, hanging out at home alone, were suddenly very interested in the person coming through their trap-door.

“You are aware my mother is not here?” I looked over at S’s eldest daughter N. The last time we met, when I was interviewing S, she hadn’t let on that she knew English. I tilted my head and looked at this tiny ten year old with two white bows on either side of her head. She was clearly responsible for watching all her younger siblings in their small 6 foot by 8 foot house with just a small television to entertain them.

“I know she’s not here,” I finally responded. “She’s on her way and asked me to wait. I didn’t realize you spoke English so well.”
“I’m learning it in government school. I’m good at it,” she said, while looking me up and down. She didn’t say anything else, she just continued to watch me, as though she was wondering what I’d do next. I decided to start setting up my camera since she didn’t have any more questions.

After a minute, she asked, “your phone is very expensive, yes?” I looked down at the iPhone in my hand. It’s hard to explain to people here that you can get it cheaply in the US – in India it costs around $800. But then, even spending $99 on a phone would be expensive here. I didn’t know how to respond so I just handed it over to her, so she could play with it. She pushed the button and looked intently at the screen.

“Who is this?” she asked, about the picture that comes up when you first turn on my phone.
“Those are my parents. They live far away so I keep a picture of them on my phone.”
“Your mother has very yellow hair. Why don’t you have yellow hair?” I didn’t really know how to answer, but it didn’t seem to matter. N had already figured out how to slide the phone to show the main screen and she was scrolling through my apps, clicking on different games. I turned back to the camera.

I hadn’t noticed that N’s siblings were fascinated with the camera sitting on its tripod. N indicated that they wanted to take photos so I switched the camera into photo mode and showed them what button to press. I sat back and watched. N was absorbed in a card game on my phone while her siblings giggled away taking photos. Most of the time they were standing too close to the camera, but the flash and the resulting blurry picture usually made them laugh more.

After awhile I looked up at the clock. It was 4:15, already 45 minutes had gone by and no one was here.

“What is this picture?” N asked, snapping me out of my thoughts. I looked over. She had opened the folder that contained all the photos I’d taken with my camera. She was holding up a picture of Phoebe.

“That’s my dog,” I replied.
“She is cute,” she said, while laughing a little bit at the picture.

N proceeded to go through all my pictures. She wanted to know why I had taken every one. Why do I take so many photos of flowers? (I like to email them to my mom). Why does my dog look different in these pictures? (she had a haircut). Who is that person and where are you? (I’m on a beach with my brother). Is that a picture of your mother when she was younger? (No, that’s my sister). Is that what snow looks like? (Yes, it is).

She got the most amusement out of a video of my friend’s dog I had taken at Christmas. The dog is a french bulldog and N seemed to think she resembled a cat. She had all sorts of questions about the size of the dog, why its ears were like a cat, why it was jumping around so much. I tried to answer every one but I just kept thinking that this girl was really something. I’ve been in enough schools to know that she probably sits in a class with crumbling walls and 40 students packed in with one teacher. And yet she’s managed to learn almost perfect English by an age when a lot of girls have already been taken out of school. Here she was, wanting to understand every photo of this strange life of a person entirely foreign to her. I couldn’t help feeling like it all wasn’t fair – an inquisitive young girl in the US would have every chance in the world. I wondered whether she’d even be allowed to grow up and avoid getting married so young like her mother and perhaps even go to college. Maybe since her mother works with a progressive organization she’ll be able to push her daughter out of the cycle.

But of course, all the dramatic thoughts going on in my head were once again interrupted by a question.

“I like this camera on your phone. Can I take a picture of you and my sister?” I agreed and her four year old sister sidled up next to me on the table where I was perched. N snapped the photo and both she and her sister giggled with delight.

“Do you have email?” I asked. “I can send it to you?” N shook her head.
“Not yet. I do not have it yet.”

I was liking her optimism.

By now it was almost 5pm and I was about to call S again. But a few women started arriving and filling up the room. Within a few minutes the small room was holding eighteen women and seven children. When they started the meeting I knew I needed to begin filming, so I lifted a child off my lap and uncrossed my legs. Two women had been sitting next to me on top of the table and their legs were crossed and over mine, so I had to extricate myself. There was no personal space and I had to sort of smash myself up against the wall in order to try and get the camera to see the whole room. N still had my phone and when I looked over she was showing the video of my friend’s dog to one of the women.

It was 5:30pm by the time we started filming, two hours late. But at least on this occasion, I’d certainly had an interesting time waiting.

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I’ve been really lucky — through my various film projects and Book of My Own- to be able to spend time in many different kinds of schools in India. But few stand out like the one I went to today.

A friend of mine works for an organization called Mumbai Mobile Creches, and she suggested that Book of My Own do a donation at one of their schools (If you didn’t read about Book of My Own before, click here for a previous blog about it). Mumbai Mobile Creches is a particularly special organization because they are looking out for the children who probably have one of the hardest upbringings imaginable – in slums on construction sites.

When you drive around Mumbai you can’t miss the shells of empty, growing buildings around you.  Everywhere you look another skyscraper is rising from the ground, aided by giant cranes that take over the skyline. The city is expanding as quickly as could be imagined and it seems like the construction is never-ending.

One of the untold stories of all this construction is the slums that pop up around the building in order to accommodate the influx of migrant laborers that work on-site. 30 million Indians live like this. They move from site to site, shifting their homes every few years after they’ve built homes or offices for someone else.  And it’s often entire families that are along for the ride.

What Mumbai Mobile Creches does is set up daycare, pre-school and primary school on the grounds of the construction site. Often they put the school in the building itself, as it is being built. The kids learn Hindi and English, they’re given three meals a day (a life-saver for many parents) and a doctor visits frequently to make sure the children have adequate medical attention. Essentially, they’re creating a life and a community for those who otherwise might have nothing.  I was excited that Book of My Own could give back a little bit to this organization and the kids they are serving.

Books in hand, we drove into the construction site that held one of the schools – on the site three thirty-story concrete buildings stood half-completed. The school was in its own stand-alone building. The classrooms were painted with charts similar to the kinds you would see hanging in a school at home, only these were more permanent. It was a good attempt to brighten up and liven the rooms.

Students picking out books

As soon as we walked in the kids were curious. But once we started laying out books a group crowded around to see. The floodgates burst when we finally let them in the room. They rushed over to the wide pile of books to start finding the one they wanted. They all carefully surveyed the books, walking around them and staring at covers before gingerly picking one up and flipping through. The students were different ages and different reading skills. Some were only mastering the English alphabet. Others could manage basic reading. But all were excitedly trying to decide which book to take.

 

Reading books

I love watching the kids pick out their books and seeing what they love about them. Some like the more tactile books – with pop-ups or different materials. Others are attracted to pictures. Some love the particular stories, if they can read that much. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching how excited these kids get over a book.

After the first round some of the kids went to swap and found new ones. Eventually they started putting them back in the original pile. I didn’t understand — but apparently they didn’t really grasp the concept of keeping the book. They thought they’d have to give them back. We explained that they each got one book to take home. One of the teachers started handing out books without looking at which ones they were, but I insisted that the kids pick the books out, again, themselves. One girl started searching and could not find the book she wanted. My friend who works for Mumbai Mobile Creches asked her which one she was looking for, and she started jumping up and down like Tigger. We immediately located the Winnie The Pooh book she had been looking for.

With a round of ‘goodbyes’ from the teachers and children we left, our box of books much lighter than when we began. I craned my neck to look up at the huge concrete buildings and really appreciated being able to be part of this incredible program for just a day.

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Your Level Best

I saw a mouse run by and I jumped up – then almost as quickly I froze, trying to stop every instinct in me from screaming and running out of the room. I am like a child when it comes to mice; they cause me to act in a completely embarrassing irrational manner. But here, in R’s small one-room home in Dharavi, I knew I had to keep my cool. I knew how much R fretted over what we would think of her home. I knew that it was generous of her to allow me – a foreign, white person who clearly did not live in a 5 foot by 5 foot room – to watch and film her life.

So I sat down. I sat back down on the floor. The same floor and corner where I’d just seen a mouse run from. I could not embarrass this person who had been so open with me. So the interview began again, and I tried, with every fiber of my shaken being, to not look around for the mouse.

As I sat there, listening to the Hindi that I couldn’t understand (we were on our second round of the interview, since the first had been lost with the hard drive), I started to wonder: how on earth can I evaluate my standards for this film?

I’ve always tried to have every piece I’ve ever worked on look as professional as possible. I remember I one time got in a fight with an anchor who told me that for one shot in my piece my tripod wasn’t level – I’d tried to argue that I was constantly shifting to try and get a moving shot and I was standing on ground that was sloped. I was so angry that anyone would assume I hadn’t tried my best.

The thought now just makes me laugh. There will barely be one shot in this film that is level. We’re working with a camcorder because nothing bigger will fit in the room. Our tripod probably cost $20 at most and so any panning shots are usually done by hand, since the tripod is too jerky. We have only one light, and it conks out after an hour.

Not to mention that I can barely get a clear shot of anything – if we’re in a small room, even if I press my body up against the wall, I’m still not going to be able to get a full picture of the room. There’s just not enough space.

And everything is a distraction – During R’s interview we’d had to constantly stop and start over because her children would speak or laugh, or bang into something. Two of her three children were at home and they had a very difficult time keeping quiet. There wasn’t a place for them to sit, since R was being interviewed sitting on the bed. There wasn’t anything for them to do since there was no other room to go in and they obviously didn’t own anything to read or play with quietly.

I’d tried to keep R’s son quiet by playing a silent version of peek-a-boo but he kept laughing too loudly. So finally I pulled him onto my lap, where he fidgeted and tried to put chewing gum in my hair. He also kept declaring that he wanted chewing gum, which he said in such a cute way that I could barely contain my own giggle. It’s safe to say that some of that might come across in the background of these interviews. Oh well.

I’ve been really lucky to work in some great newsrooms with amazing equipment. So to say that shooting this film is a challenge is an understatement.

But somehow I am starting to get the feeling that this might be the best thing I’ve ever done. There will be children, and banging pots, and shouting neighbors and crows and shouts of ‘chewing gum’ in the background of a large portion of my interviews. A lot of the shots might be dark and grainy because we don’t have enough light. Nothing will be level (sorry to the anchor who doesn’t approve). Every time I had to walk with someone it will be shaky. Yet the content will be unique and interesting and honest.

Mouse be damned. Somehow, it’s all going to work.

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I started to feel like the literal wicked witch of the west.

I wanted to interview B – one of the senior field workers at the NGO in Dharavi – outside on her stoop. Besides desiring outdoor light instead of a windowless interior, her house had the added bonus of being painted sea-foam green with a red door and she was in a yellow sari. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should have guessed that white person in kurta + camera and tripod + Dharavi would equal difficulties. But the good light and the colorful background seduced me.

By the time we had started filming 30 people had crowded around us. B happened to live on one of the main lanes in her section of Dharavi, and so there was more open space than in most other parts of the sprawling slum. It stopped feeling that way once I had ten children breathing down my neck gawking at my view-finder. And every time one of them giggled or whispered (and I subsequently heard it coming through the audio in my headphones) I would turn around, put my finger over my mouth and make a clear ‘shush’ gesture.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Either the children would start laughing at my face (literally) or the adults around them would start to announce loudly in Hindi that everyone should be quiet (or so my translator K informed me). It went this way for most of the hour-long interview.

But after all the shushing and hand-gestures and mockery from children, we did end up with a great interview from B. She was lucky enough to have come from a supportive family – her parents had raised her in a very unorthodox home where both parents were active in community organizing and women were viewed as mostly equal to the men. For a woman in her 40’s to have grown up like this in Dharavi is pretty rare.

But it instilled in B a desire to do social work. After she was married, she originally started volunteering with a group in her husband’s neighborhood (their particular area of Dharavi is for people who specialize in pottery-making). She said that in the beginning, her neighbors ostracized her. But since she loved her work, she didn’t care.

Her volunteer group eventually started working with the domestic violence prevention NGO (the one we’re making the film for) and eventually B began to work for them. She enjoyed being the person that women in her community came to, and she didn’t see her job as work. She said most nights, women come in and out of her house at all hours seeking her advice.

When the interview ended, sure enough, a woman was there, waiting to talk. The woman explained that her son-in-law was beating her daughter and the mother was worried that she wasn’t going to get help. As they went inside to talk, I hesitated. I certainly want to intrude on the conversation. But the woman indicated that she didn’t mind.

So I stood and filmed. I asked K to wait outside so there would be as few people ‘eavesdropping’ as possible. But even without understanding the words it was clear that B was the right woman for the job. She listened, placing her hand on the woman’s hands as she spoke. When the woman began to cry B cupped her hands around her face and said nothing, but it seemed to me that the gesture was meant to convey that she had strength enough for them both. When the woman was done explaining B began to talk – quietly, but with the sheer force of a woman who believed she could solve the unsolvable. When the woman got up to leave she took B’s hand in hers and held it for a long moment.

We went back outside and I told K to tell the woman that I appreciated being able to film the conversation. I tried to joke that since I don’t speak Hindi, I didn’t know the secrets in she was sharing anyway. She smiled and put her hand on mine, which was still clutching my camera.

As she walked away, she seemed stronger – empowered with the ability to improve her daughters life, or at least knowing that there was someone strong standing behind her.

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Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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Book of My Own

Yesterday was one of my proudest days since moving to India.

As I’ve written about before, I recently went back to the US for family reasons.  It was jarring. To go from a place where poverty is in your face and most people around you have very little, into the crisp clean wealthy world of American life was fairly overwhelming.

And it made me really look at what we own in a different light. While I was sitting at home in Charleston, I was especially drawn to all the books that were sitting unused on our bookshelves.  I couldn’t help but think of all the time I’ve been spending in Dharavi. Wouldn’t just one of these books be an inspiration for a child who has so little to call their own? Didn’t we all as children read the same book over and over again anyway? (I certainly read Goodnight Moon more times than I can count).

So the thought marinated for a bit. Why couldn’t we somehow get these unused books to people here in India?

Children with their new books!

From that initial germ of a thought came the concept for Book of My Own, a project a few friends and I have started to encourage expats and travelers to bring old books from the US for kids in need here. We believe that book ownership is empowering – by having a book that is theirs these children can remain inspired even when school lets out for the day.

The idea has spread more quickly than we imagined. Within a few weeks we already had two travelers bring books. And yesterday, we really got started. We gave out books to 30 students in a kindergarten classroom in Dharavi.

A child holding onto his new book

It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces as they picked out the book that they wanted to keep. Some of them clutched to their books once they got one. Others immediately plopped down and started reading and pointing pictures out to their friends.

When we had story time their enthusiasm was even clearer – every page was a question. Why is that lion there? What is happening next? Why does that tree look like that? Will it all turn out ok in the end? These are kids that are engaged, excited and ready to learn, in spite of all the difficulties that surround them in their daily life. They only spend four hours in their classroom each day. Now they get to keep learning and thinking at home.

Reading to the kids

I hadn’t written about this before because I didn’t want to get my hopes up that the kids would care about it as much as I thought they would. I didn’t want to seem self-congratulatory when we hadn’t really done anything.  But I’m going to go out on a limb now and say I think we really did make a small change in each of those 30 kids lives. Maybe it’ll be nothing; maybe the excitement will have vanished by today. But I get the sense that those books are going to get well worn from being read over and over again, just like my copies of Where the Wild Things Are or Eloise eventually did. And in a place like Dharavi where the small things count, I’m suspecting this will have a large impact.

We’re just getting started. I’m hoping that within a few months 30 kids will become 300 kids. But no matter what, yesterday was a great day.

(And, as a plug, if you’re at all interested in donating or bringing books or you just want to know more you can always go to our website: http://www.bookofmyown.com)

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(This post is dedicated to my grandmother – who reads this blog every day and loves seeing the world.)

In India, ‘the right to education’ has become a catch phrase. In a country with startling levels of illiteracy and poverty it’s hard to think of something more imperative than giving every child some kind of education. The UN Population Fund estimates that only 77% of men and 54% of women in India are literate (let’s not get started on that gender gap…).   But youth literacy is the key to the future; and UNICEF estimates that 87% of 15-24 year olds are literate – a better start than their parents and grandparents.

So when India’s ‘Right to Education Act’ came into force this past April, requiring compulsory education for every child ages 6-14, you’d think most people would jump for joy. But like ‘No Child Left Behind’, it seems that results are more difficult than just passing a law.

If you ask most people in India about education you’ll hear the same stories – the schools are crumbling, kids in poorer areas can’t even get in to a school. But it doesn’t matter if kids get into a ‘Municipal School’ because the teachers are so poorly trained they barely learn anything (ie: becoming literate may be the only thing they achieve in many years of schooling). There are no resources.

It’s not a pretty picture I’ve been painted.

So when I was asked to help out with InspirED, the innovation in education conference, I was interested to see what all the talk was about. How can you possibly even begin to solve these problems with a conference? I didn’t know – I still don’t know. But at least now I’ve seen some positives of Indian schooling.

One thing I wanted to do before the conference was go into schools, shoot some video, talk to teachers that were attending the conference.  And in this vein, I was inspired by what I saw.

A classroom wall

I went to the class of a teacher who is doing ‘Teach for India’ (the same basic model as Teach for America). And when I walked into the school, all the negatives I’d heard rang in my ear – the building was falling apart. Paint came off the walls in chunks. Children played in a courtyard made of cement. They were sharing desks and books.

But when I went into the class (a 3rd grade equivalent), the children were listening. They were writing letters to pen pals in London (adorable) –  they were supposed to be practicing proper grammar.  There were 35 kids in the class and they all wanted desperately to get their teacher’s attention. They were raising hands, participating, writing silently when asked to and (somewhat most astonishingly) not distracted by the large camera filming them.

It was one bright glimmer in a sea of classrooms I had clearly never seen or experienced. I haven’t been to the schools where the children are supposed to learn in English from a teacher who barely speaks English themselves. I haven’t been to the classrooms with no paper or pencils to write with. I certainly have seen, from my time in Dharavi, a lot of young people (women especially) who are taken out of school early or prevented from going altogether so they can work.

A photo of me in the class - now up on the 'Wall of Professional Visitors' for the kids to see!

So maybe it was naive to think that the solution is just good teachers. But (and this is a gross generalization), from everything I’ve heard, India doesn’t have our difficulties with unruly students and no desire to learn. The kids here are starving to learn. They behave in class. They just need a teacher who engages them even if the room is crumbling and even if their books look so worn you can barely the read the covers. Perhaps the right to education act can only come true when India gets serious about having teachers that live up to the quality of the student’s desires, even if the infrastructure isn’t there yet.

And that’s why having the conference is a good start- hopefully it can inspire a few more teachers to bring about change little by little in a country that wants to badly to make education a right that people actually receive.

I’m clearly talking about an issue where I know very little and have barely even begun to skim the surface.  But I wanted to share that moment because it gave me a bit of hope after hearing all the bad. I’m hoping for India’s sake that there can be more classes like that.

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