Day 1 – Meeting Nai Disha and the Kids

December 20, 2010 –

We head over to Nai Disha bright and early. We’re met by its administrative heads, Sangeeta Malik and Savita Ghai, who seem to glow with the
same anxious enthusiasm we’re probably exuding ourselves. In the next few hours we meet their teaching staff, who present their goals, their successes and concerns, and their tasks for us–but nothing prepares us enough for the kids.
Our route to the actual school’s location (a rented out government school facility) takes us through a narrow alley currently undergoing massive road reconstruction. With the way the car is driving, with little children scraping its sides, we won’t have any children to teach when we reach.
Naturally, the kids rush over to see what the calamity is and I find my
self shooing them away with a smile. At the far corner of the courtyard, Nai Disha teachers are serving kadi and chawal (yogurt and lentil based curry and rice) and every child receives a generous helping of both. With one arm resting on the pillar beside her, one teacher looks like she’s ready for a break, and I offer to take the ladle from her. Sangeeta maam comes over and tells me that the nearby temple makes the food during school days, but I’m not sure how she manages to feed the kids on the days the temple can’t bring food around. Kids come back for seconds and thirds, and I’m happy that I don’t have to turn them away. The reservoirs of kadi and chawal seem bottomless.
Behind me the students are sitting–Indian style–in two rows facing each other, chattering with their friends beside them. Then, a teacher picks up a spoon and bangs it on a metal plate, signalling the end of lunch. The students scramble to their feet, rush over to the sink, wash their plates and run over to form lines in the courtyard. I shoo the stragglers to join their classmates quickly.
It is common practice in Asian schools to have a morning assembly where a teacher addresses the entire student body and has them recite prayers, school mottoes, and the national anthem–similar to how we recite the pledge of allegiance before we begin school (do we do that anymore?) I join in with them because I happen to know their prayers and songs. They begin with the Gayathri mantra, the most powerful and central prayer to Hinduism–but it’s reciter is essentially praying for and inviting illumination to his or her mind from a divine source. I’m too excited to focus as I normally do when I recite the prayer myself, and I peak to see every child’s eyes shut closed and face scrunched up in concentration. They follow it with a Hindi song I can’t currently recall the name of, and then the Indian national anthem — the only song that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it or sing it. We end with a battle cry–“Jai Hindi” or Hail India.
In the classroom, Filisha, my teaching partner, go through the attendance list–the classic name switching games and fake “not here”‘s proceed. I guess kids are kids anywhere you go.
We spend half of the day having each student introduce themselves — their names, their favorite color, hobbies, their aspirations, etc. I’m incredibly relieved that Filisha is with me because she speaks Hindi and it seems much easier to break in with the students in a language they do understand, especially with cheeky prepubescent fourth graders.
Finally, we get to break it off to take the kids outside to play steal the bacon or the dog and bone as its called in India. We go over the importance of running and exercise, but the kids seem much too preoccupied with the equality of the distances between each side and the “bacon” in the center. One of them, Aakash Kumar (a compound name like Mary Elizabeth), runs into the center to sketch a circle around the “bacon” so that it stays in the same spot from round to round — he seems to be the class leader and is the most confident in trying to speak English, which is not half bad.
At some point, Fili and I herd them back inside and settle them down. Fili and I exchange a brief glance of hesitancy before embarking on the daunting task of teaching these kids about the food pyramid or diamond and nutrition. Surprisingly the kids seem to know what we’re talking about and shotgun all the answers with smug and bored looks. So Fili and I decide to up the ante *thoda sa* (a little), and have them learn scientific terms like proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. We attach popular actors like Salman Khan (who’s known for his hypertrophied muscles) to concepts like protein to help them remember. Before we loose them completely, we have them draw what they think is a healthy lunchbox. I try to get them to label foods that are healthy and unhealthy – some get the idea and even diversify their lunchboxes. Others have lunchboxes full of fruit. I’m not sure whether these are the foods they can access or are the foods they think should be in there or are the foods they want to be in there. But with fourth graders, I’m learning fast that you keep your expectations, tasks, and questions reasonable and concise.
By the time we’ve gotten them to submit their artwork, which they all seem incredibly exhilarated to show us, school seems to be over. I try to make sure that I take a second to focus on each piece and compliment their work–even the too-cool-for-school kids light up with the encouragement.
Later that night, when its Fili and my turn to discuss our class with the rest of our group, we can’t help but feel a little smug that our kids can pronounce and explain the word carbohydrate.