Good Morning Everyone

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I love mornings.  I started life as a night person, but when my first child turned out to also be a night person I became a morning person so I could have five minutes to myself.  I love waking up, happy to be here, and happier still if there are children in range.  I love to watch sleeping children. 

This morning I got up out of bed to get the one rupee each that the girls get on Monday mornings.  They either save it or use it for a treat.  We have a savings system now.  The girls get five rupees a week for savings and they have a choice of using or saving the two rupees extra they get on Monday and Wednesday.  It's working well.  This morning I took out the rupees, but when I came back to my bed, I saw the smiling faces waiting to surprise me.  So I ran and got the camera — my most consistent reflex.  They are so cute, so happy, so good.  They make me happy.

As I write, the big girls have left for school.  They have a Bengali exam today.  Yesterday, Sunday, I had a teacher in the morning and another in the afternoon to continue preparing them.  They really have not mastered '"studying" on their own.  But that is also common to the culture here where tutors are hired to help with homework.  And in their critical area of study, I cannot help because I cannot master the language — not for lack of trying.  So the big girls are gone, I am at my computer, and Shanti Devi is working with the little ones.  She comes every morning at six and does massage and PT, and works by motivating the children to roll over, turn, stand, come to her.  She talks to them, scolds them, hugs them, listens to them scold her, a beautiful world unto itself — a happening here each morning.

About a week ago I wrote about a day of thinking.  It was wonderful.  I don't feel like I've had ten minutes of that sort of thinking since.  We went to the Sit and Draw contest at the museum.  I'd mixed up the subject so while we practiced "nature" they had to do "airplanes of the future."  It was a lesson for them in flexibility of the moment, and later I took  full responsibility for the error. But it was a wonderful practice run for me.  I was clueless as to what would be going on.  My three girls in the competition were terrified.  Why?  Because although they had just been to this museum, they still felt like outsiders to this community of children with mothers, and they weren't sure they "belonged."  Actually they were sure they did NOT belong, but were going along.  And these are all the experiences they need to have, to break the barriers of their past experiences.  We talked about it a lot later in the day.

This is what a "Sit and Draw" contest looks like in the museum:


Here are my girls (and their airplane drawings):


I went back into the files for pictures of the Sit and Draw in our park in February 2008.  The girls had been with us for almost a year but had shown little interest in developing skills in drawing.  Then they found themselves in a Sit and Draw competition, feelng totally under-skilled, a rather realistic appraisal of themselves.   This was then:


I was proud of their efforts then, and I'm proud now.  Remember they came with no understanding of India as a country.  The learned to make the flag, a drawing they could always fall back on.

But here is part of a drawing one of the girls did as practice for the Sit and Draw when we were preparing for "Nature".  The full picture wouldn't fit on my scanner, so this is just part of the drawing.  

 I'm impressed.

We have been invited to the Sit and Draw competition at the same museum on November 14th, Children's Day.  REALLY, the theme is nature.  The girls looked at the invitation to make sure I was right.

A happy morning… I get to write… teachers have come for the little ones; massis have come to start the day.  I've had breakfast and tea at my computer.  My office is clean.  The world outside is truly not at peace and I can't fully shut that out, but my little space and my little world are as good as I can make them.  I wake up to children every morning.  I go to sleep, looking out over the darkened room and I breathe so deeply and so contentedly. 

Late Learners (LL)

I am working on several posts at once, one about our trip to the science museum, one about our achievements in building infrastructure, and this one:  Late Learners (LL).  I have been immersed in learning about educational methods, theories, material… and I have been sitting in on our classes here.  Changes are ahead, changes that continue a process that began with my bringing on a special educator teacher, a special educator consultant, and a learning disabilities educator consultant.  This is me relaxed.

I am looking now for a teacher to teach English, as well as to coordinate the full teaching program, setting curriculum, coordinating projects among the teachers. working with the big girls similar to how our special educator works with our handicapped children.  Our English teacher is leaving so this was an opportunity to re-think what I want.  Today I was writing the ad to go in an online service.  Tomorrow we will put an ad in the newspaper, but it will be short because of expense.  It's taken me much of the day to think this through, to find the words I want, to conceptualize what is needed.  Here are the basics of the ad:

Small NGO home for orphan girls, with focus on academic achievement for late learners (LL), slow learners (SL), and children with multiple disabilities.  The new hire would be joining a Special Educator already in place for the severely handicapped children, and subject teachers for the LL group.

Candidates must have the following attributes and skills:

  • Curriculum planning including lesson plans with ongoing evaluation and feedback.
  • Experience with multimedia and interactive learning techniques and software
  • Conceptualizing, researching and producing learning materials for the children
  • Coordinating school projects, education trips, national and international calendar events.
  • Teaching English as a learning subject in Bengali Medium environment.
  • Creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, willingness to work hard.
  • RCI Qualified or Equivalent
  • Interest and commitment of inclusive education

Experience: At least five years of teaching experience in the  field of learning disabilities.

Salary dependent upon training and experience

Interview process will include project demonstration and class teaching under observation.

I began this home very specific goals. One was to educate girls who are usually considered too old to begin an academic education.  They become streamed into a group who may learn some very basic skills language skills and are given vocational training that may or may not be marketable.  Mostly they find themselves still relegated to the life of the uneducated woman.

Yesterday was a holiday, with no teachers coming.  The girls love to do drama, so I asked them to do a play, in English, and I would watch.  (This was also a "no TV" day.)  They spent a very long time preparing, having a lot of fun in the process.  Then they presented the drama to me and the staff, and the little ones.  The drama was about a wicked elephant who stole a baby bird.  The mother bird kept flapping her wings in distress and looking for her baby bird.  Eventually it was found.  Then she wanted the elephant to be punished.  Two girls with a sheet over them became the elephant, who was lured to the middle of the room and punished by the others.  The girls did a wonderful job and felt well appreciated.

I gave the girls another task, to do a drama and this time to include the little ones in the drama.  This seemed to be more complicated.  By then Preeti, Gibi's daughter, had come to spend time with the girls so she helped them do it in English again.  The drama this time was about a mother bird whose babies were lost.  They had been spirited away to a place where they were kept inside a circle made by the big girls holding their hands and dancing around, keeping them in.  Then the mother bird flies to this area and finds them and everyone is happy.

This is their theme, mothers and lost babies, who are eventually found.  This is their theme now, but for a long time, all their drama was about violence and death.  When they played, it would be reenactment of beatings,yelling, and murder.  The other recurrent drama was about death, a body lying on the ground and they kneeling over the body, while swaying and howling.

But back to today and trying to articulate what I needed in a teacher — and the realization as I looked at categories of learning disability like SL for Slow Learner, that our girls are LL, Late Learners.  The designation helps me think about the problem and to identify this group I care about so much.  It just seems so sad and makes me angry to have a child "written off" by the age of eight.  But that's what I kept seeing here in the years before Shishur Sevay.

A friend called this evening and asked what I hd done today, and I said, "I spent the day thinking."  He asked what about and I said about education, about who I want to hire, about how I continue to implement what is on my mind.  I spent the day thinking.

Yesterday's newspaper had a story about problems in education here and the use of private tutors for high percentages of students.  The various educational groups responded with suggestions of adding ten minutes to lectures, computers, interesting lesson plans and activities, actually teaching IN the class time.  Those are the problems I'm finding and trying to overcome at least for my girls here.  For Kolkata these are extremely innovative. Then today there were two more interesting stories about education in West Bengal.  This state has the sixth highest percentage of drop outs from primary and secondary school.  The headline read: "State tops ‘out of school’ children chart." Thirty one percent of children drop out from primary school — up to class IV.   Another article described a high drop out rate from colleges because of lack of English skills and the inability to do content work in English.  This is the backdrop.

Thinking today, and talking with our special educator as I worked on the application, I asked if special educators are leaving the country.  I  asked because there are training programs and school, but few highly skilled teachers in the market.  As expected, i learned that "the cream of the crop leaves."  We have brain drain and I can't say I'm surprised at all.  The education isn't highly valued.  Innovation and creativity are not consistent with cultural norms of doing exactly what your elders and "superiors" say.  The teacher we have already rejected offers to go to the US (she is cream of the crop) because she wants to stay close to her family here.  I told her we would find others.

A third article I found this morning was about a trip down the Ganges in rubber boats, environmentalists checking the water, but also learning about the people living along the river.  One day there will be commercial trips along the river, with all the predictable good and bad effects.

The trouble with trying to blog as the day goes on, is that I keep wanting to add the things that are happening.  About an hour ago, Rani was on the floor in the big room, keeping an eye on me at my computer.  The little ones all keep an eye on me.  Well, she scooted along until the doorway and sat there for a while.  She waved to me.  I waved back.  Then she decided to come into the room, and as she tried to scoot in, I yelled out, "No Rani, No."  She turned around to leave.  This was so incredible!!!!   

Another day, as I was too tired to write more.  This morning we are getting ready for the "Sit and Draw" competition at the museum. I kept everyone home from school.  I was initially only planning to take the ones entered.  But, they all want to go, and the entrants also want everyone to go.  We will also take Ganga, since she is the only one of the four little ones who will understand and pay attention.  She will learn something today.

I'm starting to differentiate what we do with whom.  Having "proved" to myself we can manage all 12 just about anywhere, and we don't leave the handicapped children out just because they are limited in mobility, now I am looking at whether the trip is meaningful for them, and what resources are needed, that also take from the others.  Today I want to be fully "present" for the girls entering the contest.  Choices, priorities, realities of limited human resources, so much harder than just saying, "everyone goes."  This is part of the thinking I'm doing these days… lots and lots of thinking.

to be continued….



We are trying a new strategy with our three top students, to try to move them forward in hopes of their skipping a grade.  Our learning disabilities teacher works with them separately when she is here, helping them to accelerate their school learning, but also using other strategies to broaden their knowledge base and skills.  They follow the newspaper and clip out interesting articles; they "research" information related to what they are learning in school.  This is also the kind of education I had envisioned for all of them when we started.  So the small group becomes the prototype.

I spend more time in the classrooms now.  Sometimes I just go and sit and listen; sometimes I have something to add; often I just sit and feel wonderful.  The girls love when I visit the classroom — just having me quietly sitting there.  Yesterday the trio (the accelerated group) had asked about cotton, and where it came from, which led to the special teacher talking about cotton trees she had seen when she studied, and that led to my talking about the cotton fields in South Carolina when I lived there.  So that took us to my computer and I Googled cotton plants and we looked at pictures, shrubs in fields, but maybe also trees when they are not being cultivated.  We talked about spinning and weaving.

Then the girls asked about silk, and that took us to silkworm images online, and then a site that talked about the killing of silk worms for production of silk. That didn't sit well with the girls and we went to the site about Gandhi and silk, and to "Ahimsa silk" which is also called Peace Silk and is made without killing the worms

The girls didn't quite understand abut the cocoon.  So then I brought out the new book I'd bought, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."  It's a special edition with cloth and silver paper, and natural fibers, written in English and Braille.  I'd walked away from it for months because of the cost, but two weeks ago I gave in, and bought it.  So I brought the beautiful volume out and the girls read it in English.  When they finally came to the cocoon the caterpillar builds before it becomes a beautiful butterfly, they understood.  They understood that Ahimsa Silk is made from the empty house while regular silk is made from the house with the worm still inside. 

The lesson wasn't over.  We went to look at Ahimsa Silk online and it was clear that this was much more expensive.  I said I'd try to find a saree, but we talked about cost, and the environment, and compromises we make over meat, leather and how hard that is when you care about animals — each of us who thinks about it, finding our own place, and even changing over time.  We use cloth diapers but when we go out we use Huggies, or Pampers.  No, it's not good for the environment, but it's much easier and cleaner, but more expensive.  It's a compromise. And then I came to the topic of pads, what women's lives are like if they have to spend hours and hours scrubbing cloth. That one was easy for all of us!

This is learning as I had imagined it would be here at Shishur Sevay, but was unable to put in place until now.  Precious time has been lost, but all we can do is more forward.












The Pujos 2009

"The Pujos" is a way I see these holidays described sometimes.  I'm unclear why that spelling or phrase.  Blogging during Puja 2007 I went through the meaning of each day. This is our third Puja season with the children, and each is different.  They have grown up!  This year they wanted to be in saris.  Meanwhile the little ones fit in the clothes that the big ones wore in 2007.  It's too fast. 


Above, 2009; below 2007 


This was Puja 2007. The girls look so young.  We were not yet adept at taking everyone.  We had no strollers.  I had no idea where we were going or what it would be like.  It was my first Puja in India, my on job training.  The year before, during Puja 2006, I had been in the US, thinking about the girls whose voices played in my head, and planning for Shishur Sevay.  It still feels like a miracle.

We are seasoned now.  We rarely leave the little ones behind.  We have strollers. We decided to carry the two smaller ones as it's easier for them to see.  And here is what they all get to see:


This is the pretty traditional Durga Puja Pandal.  This particular pandal is in the park near Shishur Sevay.  It feels like "our" pandal as I am President of the Puja Committee.  On each of the four days we went out, we stopped at this pandal first.

I write now on the day after Lakshmi Puja, which means we have had many many activities and I have taken hundreds of pictures and I don't even know where to start.  So typical of writers who procrastinate,and clean up after yesterday's Puja.  We moved Lakshmi to the top of the steel cabinet next to the wooden pandal.  That's for the Gods who don't fit in the little temple made for little brass statues.  And of course the girls like the large idols, so we have to do some shifting.  Some Gods go to the sea after one year, but I learned this morning that Lakshmi doesn't go to the water.  She stays in the house.  So, we had to find a place for her too.  I also learned that Loki is the Bengali name so our Lakshmi is really Loki, which is good because I've been trying to figure out why I was so confused.

So I think I will be a bit random, just some pictures and notes about what the last week has been like..


The evening before the dressing up… a visit to our pandal.


Opening night…. the community religious part.  And then, after a few pandals, we came to the community social part — reflecting the mood of these celebrations. 

Three of us have been together since the beginning of Shishur Sevay: Gibi, Bijoy, and I.  This year was just more celebratory for us.  We have achieved so much.  I don't think anyone in India really believed all this was possible.  I realize that more and more as I look back and think about how everyone around me reacted.  So, this third Durga Puja has been quietly celebratory for us.


Gibi and one of the girls on the Ferris Wheel

Rani, Bornali, and me on the seat of the merry-go-round.


Bijoy and me with the prizes we won in the balloon shooting gallery.  I won two stainless steel spoons, and he won two scrubbies.  They are in our prizes/trophy cabinet.

This is me shooting at the balloons.


I'm a good shot.  I learned to shoot when I worked as a doctor in rural South Carolina.  It was a necessity then.  I don't like guns but I like being a good shot… human contradictions. 



This is OUR pandal. The structure is of bamboo, then covered with thin cloth. 


It is huge and towering, and is already gone.   We ate puchkas outside and the girls peered into a variety of hand powered gramaphone that also had moving pictures inside.



Back inside the pandal for prayer and music — mingling.  Each year when I file for license renewal I have to describe what I'm doing to "re-integrate" the children into the community. 

The girls had never been in pandals before they came to us.  They knew about the pujas, knew about Maa Durga and the other Gods, but there were no pandals they could visit.  They were outsiders to Indian cultures.  They could look, but not enter.  Then a nice Jewish lady came from the US to take them into their temple and teach them the rituals of relating to their Gods.  It IS funny to think about.  The local women showed me what to do.  I showed my girls what to do….

I am comfortable in our local para.  People are friendly towards me, and helpful, and very happy when I take part in the social and religious life here.  I am ambassador for my children.

Another evening and another pandal:




 Ganga made friends with some kids there. They decided it was great fun to push her stroller back and forth.



She didn't want to leave, but everyone else was already waiting for us outside.


The next night, the last night of Durga Puja, is the night when Durga is bid good bye for the year.  


Women, particularly married women celebrate by putting sindoor on each other's faces.  Sindoor is the vermilion powder that symbolizes marriage.  On this day women pray for blessings over the next year, and particularly for blessings for their husbands, to keep them well.

I try to understand my comfort among these women, a comfort I've had throughout the Pujas.  It's not that I feel Indian or want to be Indian.  I feel like a welcome visitor though.  I am an outsider, but a welcome one.  Most of my life I have been an outsider, and not always a welcome one.  Here I am also the welcome visitor who helps her children to belong.


My children offering blessings to Ma Durga


Good Bye to Ma Durga for this year.  We will be waiting for your return.  Safe Journey.








October 2009
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