December 22nd, 2010
Today we experienced a tremendous eye-opening scene. We drove for a visit to the Arpana Swasthya Kendra School, a school built in the middle of a slum dedicated to improving the conditions of the families and children, and it’s quite astonishing how empowering the school has been for the children of the community. We listened to the school’s directors as they proudly told stories of their students.
First was a story of a boy who had done extremely well at the school and was accepted into a university. The tuition rate for university was 50,000 rupees per year, far too much for the average family who earned 1,000-2,000 rupees per month (about $30-$40). This young boy had been one of a handful of students that had reached University level, and knowing the impossibility for the family to pay the tuition fees, the school directors arranged a meeting between the young boy and the University. Impressed by the young boy’s circumstances, the University agreed to give the young boy a 25,000 Rs. scholarship. The young boy was able to attend university to obtain a degree with the support of the school’s directors, who created a small scholarship fund in his name. With a degree, the young man could support his family with a substantial, steady income.
I also learned of a young girl with who gained respect and independence from her talent in sewing and embroidering at the school. She could make 5,000Rs./month with her skills Her father had arranged her marriage, but the young woman didn’t want to marry the man. She approached the school and wanted to be part of the vocational program to gain independence from her father who was making poor decisions for the family because of his alcoholism. She was a smart girl, and eager to learn. In short time, she was profiting 5,000 Rs./month, and she also gained the respect from her father to marry the man of her choice.
These stories of courage and ambition captured my heart, and I wish that the students that Jessica and I were teaching could understand the transformative power of education. They’re just a little too young to appreciate the inspiring stories of people who have made bright futures for themselves by dedicating their energy to school.
My favorite activity in the classroom today was the time we spent time having the kids draw and describe their families to the rest of the class. It was rewarding and delightful to see the shy ones come up to the front of the room and talk about their families. I also asked the children to answer reflection questions about their family, to try to get a sense of family dynamics. Though a lot of it was hard to communicate across the language barrier, most of the children summed up their answers by stated that they love their parents because they take care of them by cooking food and washing their clothes. Among the more creative answers I heard were: “I love my dad because he tells me funny stories” and “I love my mom because she is pretty and smart”.
As simply as I could put it, I described my own family and that I love them because they are supportive and caring. Whenever I had a bad day at school, my family listens to my feelings and cheers me up again. When I have a good day, my parents are proud of me and it makes me happy. The message I hoped to convey through our activities was that emotional well-being is influenced by factors such as family and school, and it is a healthy practice to talk about feelings with parents to relief negative emotions and also to produce good esteem-building emotions. Other stress-relieving activities the students discussed were exercising, singing, dancing, and laughing. At the mention of laughing, I tickled one of the students and unintentionally waged a tickle war. Outnumbered, I was defeated and fell to the floor laughing.
After school, Amitha, Hardik, and I went to the Public Health Foundation of India and met with Dr. Arora and two colleagues. We were all able to ask questions about our specific project topics, and in my case, I had asked if there were any public health records for children with learning disabilities or psychological disorders such as depression implicated in tobacco use and drop-out studies. The response I received was that there was no focus on psychological health in any of the studies that she was familiar with. However, she was able to tell me that in discussion groups as part of the Tobacco Prevention Program, students had stated that reasons for using tobacco were emotional. Students resorted to tobacco usage when they had done poorly on tests, when they had been abused (physically and emotionally) by their parents, when they were bored, or when they felt lonely. It brought me back to the day’s lessons about stress management and family; I think tobacco avoidance and healthy living habits is best taught to children by parents, but when this support network fails, school needs to be a safety net for their students by educating them in healthy life choices.