Posts Tagged ‘School’


A 22 hour train ride is no small thing. You have to prepare for it—I purchased peanut butter, crackers, chocolate, three bottles of water, and magazines. I made sure my phone (with music and books) was charged, as was my Nook.

I tried to help everyone else prepare. I said, “The train station will be crazy, crowded, noisy, entire families, no room, hot. We might have to wait for hours. We will try to stay together on the train. Use the toilet a lot early in the trip, because it will get filthier as the hours roll by.”

And even so, even in a group of good-hearted, relatively seasoned travelers, most of us committed to the environment, or animals, or teaching, or human rights (ie, we’re not a bunch of Scrooges), we get cranky. And the hotter it is, the faster we get unhappy.

I’ll speak for myself.

The third class AC cars have compartments, with six beds; three bunks on each side. When you’re with a group of friends or classmates, it’s pretty fun. You can watch a movie, or listen to music, play cards, share food.

For this trip, from Delhi to Jalgaon, we were unable to get tickets all together. In my compartment, there were four of us. In the neighboring compartment, there were only two students from our group.

So of course, I get it into my head that when the final two strangers arrive to our compartment, we should ask them to switch with the two students next door, and then six of us can be together.

When they—a woman and her middle-school aged daughter—arrived, she did not want to switch. I had Sushil, a colleague, ask her in three different ways.

I was so irritated! What did it matter to her? She had two beds, either way. She didn’t know anyone, what difference did it make whether she was with us, or with four others next door. She was ruining my whole plan for a great 22 hours.

I fumed. I occasionally stared at her over my Nook, wondering what her problem was. I told myself that we deserved to be all together. I even wondered if she would move if we gave her money.

I know; awful. How quickly I become selfish (despite all the Jain lectures on Self!) when I don’t get my way.

Of course, we eventually start talking to the woman and her daughter. She holds a PhD in geology, and teachers. Her daughter’s English is very good. We swap Indian fashion magazines. I put on my Hindi-learning tapes, and they laugh, correcting me as I try to say, “Please listen. Do you understand English? I am American.”

If you’ve ever heard me try to speak in another language, you might know that I tend to get really loud, and gesticulate even harder than usual, to make you understand what I’m saying. As if to make up for my mispronunciation. The geology professor laughed and said, “Not so much personality. A little less. Be more quiet.” We were roaring with laughter at her encouraging me to be quieter in my Hindi.


Today we went to a new school, grades 1 through 4 (adding a grade each year since its founding) funded by a local Jain. It was fantastic. Another warm, caring environment, filled with art, color, and adults who care for the children.

Today was the first day back from a three week holiday; to welcome the students back, the teachers had lined every single hallway floor with flowers. Here are some facts we learned from the director:

All of the students come from the slums surrounding Jalgaon. Everything is fully funded. The school day is all day, to provide two meals and because most of the parents—if they have work—need to work all day.

They have more applications than they have open spots; they try to take the most destitute. They visit the homes and interview parents in order to determine who can come.

Usually, siblings do not attend—because each family benefits so much from having a student there (and who will learn English, and prepare for college), they try to spread that around to as many families as possible. They make exceptions: there is a girl currently enrolled with a brother at home. Their parents are both HIV positive. Next year, when he is old enough, he will also come to school.

They believe that each child is his/her own person, and that teachers shouldn’t force children to be people they are not. They believe emotional nourishment is important, especially for these children.

They weigh the students as part of taking care of their health. After a three week holiday like the one that has passed, most of the children have lost weight; there is not enough food at home.

The children sang for us (“The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The 12 Days of Christmas”), and so we sang for them (“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” because it has hand motions, and we ended in three part harmony and a big, slow, flourishy finish.)

They children had made us bookmarks. They lined up, so each child could take a turn giving each of us a bookmark. As one handed my bookmark to me, he said, “Welcome, Madame,” and then kissed his hand, touched my feet, and touched his heart, before running shyly to the back of the line.

Who am I, to be treated so well? Just 24 hours ago, I was thinking dark thoughts on the train, acting spoiled and thinking only of myself. Even though I’ve been treated with care and luxury every single place I’ve been in this country.

Life long learning, right? God willing, I have many years to soften my heart, to think the best before I think the worst of someone—even when I’m uncomfortable. Especially when I’m uncomfortable.

We visited a classroom with little crescent tables. They can be joined together to make a circle; all the students sit on the floor. Also near the floor, around the room, are chalkboards hung at five-year-olds’ level. The director said, “The teacher scribbles on the big board, we’ve found the children like to scribble on the little boards.”

I thought about the long journey, in the rain and mud today, from wherever their houses are. How did their smocks stay so clean? How did their hair stay so neat? Did they like dance more, or science? Do they teach their baby siblings at home the counting and letter songs they learn at school?

One of the paradoxes of going to places like schools in India is that even though I am supposed to be the honored guest, I actually receive so much. They are so happy we are there, they give us gifts and mango juice. And really, I should be giving something in return for all I receive.

What do we do with such gratitude? How can I hold on to it, and let it seep into my actions and intentions? Like, I want to be the thick (the thickets, really expensive, heavy-pressed) watercolor paper, and let these experiences saturate me, soak the ridges and pockets of my-self.


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two girls

Two girls at an after-school tutoring program organized by the movement.

The hizmet movement places education—for all—at the foundation of its philosophy. Early in the movement, Gulen met with students, and the organization grew in places of study, with young activists and thinkers. The hizmet movement supports schooling at every level, and you don’t have to be Turkish, or Muslim, to attend their schools or receive support for education.

Visiting their schools in Turkey, and hearing about the importance of education, I was moved to think about my own education. In my mind, I call the librarians, teachers, and Sunday school teachers who taught me “a golden chain.” I was so often given extra time, extra books and materials, extra places to sit alone, and read and write. Teachers took the time to comment on poems I wasn’t assigned to write, to help me understand books I undertook to read on my own, and to give me used textbooks and class novels to build my own library.

The church I went to as a child drove many miles to pick me up every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, so I could come learn, read, and sing with the congregation. All of this has shaped me. When I teach, I try to give extra hours as well—at lunchtime, at recess, sharing extra books and time tutoring. How else can I pass on the wealth I’ve been given?

folk dance

Children doing a Turkish folkdance; the girls are sowing seeds.

We visited one school, the oldest school founded by the hizmet movement. I was so, so struck by the warmth with which the children were treated. As we ate breakfast, we watched a kindergarten group having breakfast as well. They chatted and moved around freely; teachers peeled their hard-boiled eggs and helped them get milk; the kids got as much bread as they wanted. As they finished, they went out to recess, but they could take as much time as they needed to eat. This in contrast to the public schools where I’ve worked, where even the very young students are rushed through meals, sometimes have no time to finish, and are yelled at or made to keep silent.

The students also all participate in arts, dance, sports, and the school day ends at 2PM so they can have after-school activities. And—these students regularly produce the best national test scores of any in Istanbul. Top scores on tests, but the focus is on warmth and a variety of activities.

front of Syrian school

The front of the school for Syrian children.

We also visited an empty school, brand new and waiting for Syrian refugees from across the border. I was frustrated by questions from my colleagues about what kind of textbooks, and how much materials would cost, and where the students would go after this school. In my limited experience in Haiti, and with refugee students in the US—the traumas and needs are so great. We’re beyond talking about the number of materials. It is enough to have them in a safe building, physically intact. In Haiti, we used bits of cloth and chunks of concrete to teach sorting activities. In St. Louis, the students from Somalia often seemed unreachable—they had been through so much, so many unfathomable things—what did our inadequate public school have to offer? I was overwhelmed by the thought of what these Syrian students and teachers would bring, and need, and face.

empty classroom

By now, this classroom is full; the students and Syrian teachers arrived last week.

Almost despairing—why even try, when the odds seem insurmountable? Matt said, “Because you have to at least start.” You have to build the building, get the desks, give the teachers a whiteboard and markers. Get lunches, and some kind of school nurse, and establish a routine. Reading and writing, some sustenance, a semblance of order.

I think I’ve written here before about faith, doubt, and despair. Sr. Carla Mae taught me long ago that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but despair. Doubt still has in it a seed of engagement, the possibility to learn and relate further. But despair is a giving-up, a disengagement, a [false] belief that all is lost.

My experiences in Turkey gave me a great deal of hope—every family, teacher, business person, parent, organizer, scholar—every single one had a commitment to hospitality, to meeting and engaging with the other, and to education and humanitarian work. Most of them said, in some way, “Even if this is all that I can do, in the face of the world’s need, I will do it.” All believed that greater peace is possible, especially through education and relationship-building.

I am writing from Delhi, where I am also daily faced with great poverty, hunger, homelessness, and separation of the classes. Sometimes, driving through slums, I am tempted to think: “No amount of education or peace-building work on my part can ever make a difference, in this life.” And yet, I just came from Turkey, where I saw glimpses of a different kind of possibility. In gratitude to my hosts and new Turkish friends, I will try to keep embodying the possibility of hope.

good morning

This girl, full of energy and spunk, not only took the opportunity of our interrupting her tutoring session to chat and pose for photos, but leaped at the chance to play teacher and teach us “good morning” in Turkish.

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The course is over; my classmates left yesterday, and I left PV to go to the guesthouse where Matt and I will stay for the next week. I still haven’t really processed the fact that our six-week journey is over, so I’m trying to articulate a very small bit of it here, in photos.

A treat, a refreshment, a small icon of our days: Mango Sip.


Garland with hand-hammered ornaments in a temple.


A small statue in the terra cotta museum. Will forever remind me of my visit to the Lanka Police Station.


The Lok, the physical representation of the Jain cosmology. Hellish beings at the bottom, we’re all in the middle, heavenly beings in the top level before they reach moksha and ascend. This is in Jumpudweep, the strange Jain “creationist Disneyland” we visited. You can go up in this Lok in an elevator.


Mother Matiji, at Jumbudweep.


We pay homage to Mother Matiji with dance.


A tirtankara, in Hastinapur.


Silver plates and cooking utensils, left out to dry in the sun.


A heavily decorated temple in Hastinapur. My kind of decorating: more is more.


Hand-carved bells.


On the bus to the Taj, singing.


At the Taj.


A fantastic hotel in Jaipur. We had a wonderful tea service here.


Lovely baby at the Fort, in Jaipur.


The Fort and Palace grounds.


Strange dolls for sale near the Fort.


One of the elephants.


Street food.


During the taping of the Indian talent competition.


At the Indian wedding.


Naan at the wedding.


Ganesh at the Monkey Temple.


One of the temple priests, preparing to anoint us.


An open air temple, under Jaipur sky.


Street food: fried spicy patty, with yogurt. Delicious.


Chai at the most famous chai house in Jaipur.


A BBQ joint “our” tuk-tuk driver, Rishi, recommended.


Block-printing by hand at the textile factory.


Our first open-mic night. Tarot card reading, singing, recitations, two ghost stories, journal sharing, and a sing along.


The Holy Ganges, before a Puja.


One of the card catalogues at the library at VP.


Nelda with a giant savory, crispy, pancake filled with a spicy potato mixture.


“When the Meadows on the Body Turn Gray,” by Hafiz.


The view from Open Hand, one of our luxurious haunts, with good coffee and AC.


Me, at Open Hand.


The view from my berth before I left for Delhi.


A strange wind storm sweeps over the ghats.


Sunset in Varanasi, our final night together.


I devised a system for our last open-mic: we all wrote a sentiment, thought, or note to each classmate on slips of paper, and put the slips in corresponding envelopes. I handed them out right before our departure; we’re to open them on our own, when the time is right.


He’s carrying my luggage through the market place and to the guesthouse. I’m on my own for the time being, for one day until my love arrives.




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detailing inside a tuk-tuk…like our own personal fortune for the ride

All is well.

The head chef/driver took me to Varanasi Railway Station last Sunday afternoon. It had been raining; not only was there no electricity in the station, or in the trains, but the station was flooded. I followed him through the dark, through the crowds, through ankle deep water into the waiting room.

He doesn’t speak enough English for us to talk, so he just sat with me, in silent solidarity, while we waited for my train. I am finishing _Anne of Green Gables_ on my Nook/iPhone, which I probably haven’t read in twenty years. As I sat next to him in the crazy waiting room, uncertain what the next day–trip to Delhi to try and get a new passport and visa–would hold, I read the part where Matthew dies. He has been so good to Anne, and done the best he could in his taciturn way.

I was struck by this man, a near-stranger to me, and the fact that he prepares all of our food. Every morning, he comes up to the rooms and says, “Breakfast,” to wake us up. He is proud to show us when there are special treats, or sweet.  He sat with me for more than an hour. I felt tears come to my eye and I couldn’t tell if it was from the book, or from being helped.

When my train came, he used his phone as a flashlight on the dark train, taking me through the cars to my seat. He gave me his phone number, and tried to explain that he would pick me up on Tuesday morning. We said good-bye. I was in an un-AC car, so my window was open. A few minutes later, his face appeared in the window. He stayed until my train departed.


In Delhi the following morning, I was met by Prof. Rahul, who also made himself known by appearing in my window. I guess they just walk down the length of the train cars until they see my white, blonde head. Rahul took me to the Embassy, and then worried when they wouldn’t let him in. I told him I would be fine.

The Embassy was a marvelous place, full of American accents, strong AC, peanut M&Ms, and kind helpfulness. I actually had a new passport (an “emergency passport”) within the hour.

The Indian Foreigners’ Registry Office as trickier. Much more chaotic, fewer computers (I saw none), and many more desks heaped with paper files. I had little hope that I’d have a new visa before my night train back to Varanasi left.

And yet– everyone was kind, helpful. I had to get a new passport-sized photo for the visa application, and found a pack of school boys running a soda and tobacco stand with a sign that said “photo stat.” I had no idea how they were going to take a passport photo; even when they whipped out the digital camera I doubted. They had me climb over the stone wall into their hole-in-the-wall shop, and sit in front of the soda cooler. Then they produced a white piece of board, and placed it behind me. Voila! I laughed, and primped and tossed my hair for the photo, and gathered quite a crowd of children. They used a small digital printer, and four four rupees, I had four small photos.

My number one travel tip is to have a copy of your passport and visa– that battered photocopy of my original visa was like gold; it proved that I had had a valid visa, and gave the IFRO a starting place to trace me back to the airline, and verify I was legal.

After four hours, and many vague reassurances, I finally got called back to the official desk. The gentleman stamped once, stamped twice, filled in the stamped squares, and used a tiny piece of string to “staple” my papers together. Then he handed my my stamped passport. I said, “My visa? I have? I can leave okay?” He said, “yes, yes, this is your new visa. You are okay.”

I was so surprised, and so grateful, that my eyes filled up. I hope and pray that government offices in my homeland treat foreigners as well as I was treated. I did the traditional show of respect I’ve seen Jain and Hindu scholars and supplicants do for their gurus and teachers– I kissed my fingers and touched the ground in front of their desk. They laughed and clapped their hands in their surprise.

I said, “Thank you so much! I wish I could back you a cake.” The head gentleman said, “Your affection and gratitude are thanks enough.”

I paid $135 for the new passport, the visa was free, and my train tickets were bought by another professor here because I had no debit cards at the time.

Rahul was catching the same train back up to Varanasi, and so made sure I was settled in my car before we departed. An elderly Indian, retired from British airlines, told me about the books he is writing–on the eight wonders of the world he’s seen, and on India threw his own eyes–during the first part of the train ride. Then, I climbed up into the top berth, right underneath the AC, under a clean sheet and wool blanket laundered by hands I’ll never see, my new passport safely in my backpack under my head, and fell deeply asleep.


The next morning, the chef/driver picked us up (in the car! what a treat!) and drove us back to PV. When we parked on campus, he turned to me and said, “Breakfast?” He was not satisfied with my only taking tea, and insisted I take two bananas.

Today, we had our last day. Yesterday I finished my paper (really a four-week curriculum and full teachers’ guide, with resources) on a Jain-based–emphasizing compassion and perspective-taking–for secondary school students.) Today I presented my project, and we had our last lunch. Our last mangoes! We’re about to venture out onto the ghats… tomorrow my classmates will leave. I’ve planned another “open mic” for tonight on the roof, a chance to share moments that have struck and stayed with us at some point during the trip. I can’t wait to hear what we’ve all found.

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I like to study in a coffee shop called Flavours. It’s owned by a South African man who originally came to Varanasi to teach English. Flavours has great coffee and amazing apple pie. It’s so pleasant to sit at a table, work on my paper, and be brought incredible lattes– the baristas have been topping each other each time I come with the decorations they put in my milk foam.


Flavours is on the second floor, and so it’s like being in an urban treehouse, above the street vendors and traffic. Frequently, monkeys come along the tree branches and window sills, and regard us regarding them.

Mama Monkey.


Notice she has the little one on her belly, along for the ride. Older sibling monkey follows.


While I’m thinking about Jain-based compassion curriculum for secondary school students, Mama Monkey is wondering how to finagle a piece of fruit from the vendor below.


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We are on the campus of Parshvanath Vindapeeth University, on Baranasi Hindu University grounds. BHU is huge, acres and acres, and park-like. Our little compound includes countless mango trees, several dogs, and families who live on site.

We have fresh mangoes at lunch and dinner. Apparently, it is either against the law, or very frowned upon, to take mangoes from the trees. (Of course, like everything else, we are allowed to pick mangoes from the trees if we like.)

Night before last, when the winds started to come, the families on campus came out with flashlights to take the mangoes that were falling from the trees.

Ashleigh has taken to bringing a few mangoes with us when we go into town–we give one to our tuk-tuk driver, or too a child. They are very well accepted.

The buildings remind me of a kind of semi-abandoned tropical hotel. Once-bright colors, peeling plaster and paint, wood expanded by heat.

This is someone’s study carrel in the library.

Me, searching for a book. Once you find the section you want, you go find the librarian, and he comes with a giant ring of silver keys to open the doors.


Here is a photo from the puja we saw on our first evening. The elements of fire, incense, bell ringing, conch-blowing, anointing, singing, and dancing are used. The crowd occasionally responds with clapping, uplifted hands, or responding.

This pink, river-side house would be my first choice if I lived in Varanasi. I love the sort of gingerbread detailing.

I continue to find great doorways and passageways to capture my imagination.

Day before yesterday, five of us started at Asi Ghat, the southernmost, and walked all along the river. In the afternoon, we came across a cricket game. We watched the the two guys took their turns at pitching and batting, which the kids loved.

As I was watching, a lovely little girl approached. I had just braided Nelda’s hair, and the little girl wanted to braid mine. She did two braids and tied them together with my barrette at the back of my head.

We passed by the Burning Place again, but didn’t go down into it. Here are stacks of wood higher up the bank, waiting to be sorted and used.


I’ve begun my research project: I’m writing a four-week curriculum for secondary schools students around cultivating self-awareness and perspective-taking, based on Jain principles. I’m also writing a teachers’ guide that will accompany, and provide additional information on Jain philosophy and resources.

We found a wonderful Western-style coffee shop in town, which has real, good coffee. It’s a nice break to go there to read, and have a real coffee, with good milk. The shop is on a second story, and so monkeys wander around the window sills outside, regarding us as we study. Yesterday they had apple pie, which was delicious. Strange to be eating warm apple pie in India, under the direct gaze of a monkey.

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image from vvonstruen on flickr

From my recent compassion/social engagement class notes:

Iris Murdoch’s definition of love: “the non-violent apprehension of difference”

a definition of compassion: “being moved in one’s depths by the suffering or bliss of another, and responding in ways that intend to either ease their suffering or promote their flourishing”

a definition of forgiveness (which can happen without reconciliation): “to heal from wounds, to have a safe place to grow strong enough to let go of the harm, to be free internally”

a definition of reconciliation (which cannot happen without forgiveness): “a right relationship restored between two people”

on brushes with the sacred: These moments are self-authenticating, complete–we feel as though we could do anything…and yet, we can’t hold onto that feeling. This is the tension of living a spiritual life.

on “bad feelings”: “Every single internal reaction we have is there for a reason.” These “bad feelings” aren’t the sin; they are the starting place.


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