Boot Camp

Teacher’s Day, 5 September 2007 — We are guests at the school.  Children offer flowers and cards to their teachers.  Some recite poems; one little girl dances and sings.   She becomes lost in her sound and movement, and finally must be reminded to end.  Everyone laughs, but it is kind laughter.  Our girls perform twice, dancing with flair, still clearly beginners. 

For Teacher’s Day there is a handwriting contest for Class I and an art contest for Class IV.  One of our girls takes first place, and another third in the handwriting contest.  I am so proud of them. To me this is better than a thousand fine dances! 

Boot camp was the model in my mind, no time to feel sorry or "make up" for what they had lost.  They HAD to become literate, and it had to happen quickly as the school year was starting in only two months.   So boot camp it was… four hours of class in the morning and then three hours in the afternoon.  Three evenings a week they also had classical dance. I hired teachers and college students as the girls had no idea of what studying meant.  They had to be taught one on one.

Some people thought i was being too hard on the girls, expecting too much, not giving them any choices (how many of us really give our children a "choice" as to whether they want to learn?).  So i wrote on the blackboard one day, in big letters, "CANCER."  You don’t ask a child with cancer if they want chemotherapy.  For these children, illiteracy is a cancer.

I had another reason too for keeping this grueling pace.  What else was I to do with these girls?  We didn’t share language; in the absence of structure they bickered and whined. it’s not as if i could tell them to go read a book!

One day when they were all being particularly moody and difficult in class I had a talk with them — through Gibi of course.  I waved my arms a lot and jumped around to make my points.  I told them, "Before you came to the government home and then to us, your lives were very difficult and a lot of bad things happened.  But also, you mostly could do what you wanted.  If you didn’t like one train you hopped on another.  if you didn’t like one station you went to another.  No one told you when to sleep, or eat, or what to do."  Then waving my arms even more, I said, "But now you are on a train you can’t get off!!  And, you have to sit in the seats!!!!!" I paused, and stared intensely at each one of them, "No one is getting off this train, and this train is going to education and jobs and a better life.  You are STUCK!" 

it hasn’t been easy and still isn’t always easy.  Some teachers have not lasted.  Others have put all their energy into the effort, which is why the children can read.  In the beginning I did some of teaching of Bengali. I know the alphabet; I can count to ten and do simple math, but the kids have now totally surpassed me. The girls and i struggle to communicate with my limited Bengali and their beginning of English.  And when we get stuck we just say, "Babababababababa" which means just that… and shrug.  Or we hunt for Choto Ma or Bijoy to help us out.

As I write today, on a relaxed Sunday afternoon, the girls are watching a Bengali DVD of Thakurma Jolie, who recites children’s tales of talking animals and witches and people good and bad.   These days the girls DO come looking for books to read. They share coloring books and crayons.  They work on puzzles.  As i write two girls are helping to squeeze oranges for juice for the little ones.  Two are sitting on the floor next to my laptop, practicing handwriting.  Boot camp is over.

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