The Struggles of Running a Home

In a previous life, in this lifetime, I was an international expert on PMS, and published the first book in the US about PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome). I opened a practice where I had no nurse, only a secretary.  My experience was that if I had a nurse taking calls or interfacing regularly, I would never know as much about my patients or about the illness.  I put myself on the front line.  I knew that often the doctor knew the least about what was going on.

When I was at Johnson & Johnson, and in a position to fund charity work, I was never certain that ANY of the money actually got to services with direct impact on anyone's lives.  That's just how it is.  So when I founded Shishur Sevay I wanted to know what really happens, what are the real obstacles to getting services where they are intended.  So this is a report from the front line today — describing what has been a difficult though not unusual time.  I also owe my readers a really wonderful post about Sit and Draw, and my kids, but that will wait.

On the positive side I've been granted a resident permit to stay in India.  This is incredible, and releases energy needed to focus on Shishur Sevay.  I celebrate that.  I also celebrate that the girls have been here three years now — although I've not made that public here — but maybe next week we will celebrate.  It has a lot of meaning for me, including that I feel successful in my mission to care for orphan girls, educate them, help them grow from frightened little girls to self confident (sometimes too self-confident) young women.  And the handicapped children, whom I want to write about more, are thriving and growing in totally unexpected ways, beyond my hopes.

Teaching:  I'm not satisfied with the teaching program.  I have paid increasingly higher salaries for more experienced teachers, but I think they lack the commitment and harbor doubts about how much "these" children can learn.  I have one teacher who has recently returned, our first-ever teacher who grew up a few houses away, whose father is a rickshaw wallah who made sure his children were educated.  She left to get married and has come back.  She appreciates us, the children, and the work it takes to achieve education and respect.  I need more teachers like her.  

I will look for what we call "freshers" here, people just out of school.  I'm looking for well educated young women from poor backgrounds, coming from the strict schools, which usually means either the Ramkrishna, Sarada, or Christian schools. These are the places we will now look as a source for teachers.   Class differences (social class) present barriers, and we know that expectations are so much a part of children's' achievement.  Experienced teachers are very expensive here.  I have to compete with the income they receive from "tuitions," which is the parallel educational system.  This is how it works:  Teachers in the schools give out the work, but do not actually teach the material.  Then the same teachers see the students privately in their homes for "tuitions."  They will have various sized classes at home, charging individually, and making in one hour far more than I can pay.  Parents pay for tuitions because it is no secret that a teacher will give her tuition students answers to exams, or will prepare her students differently, so if you want your child to succeed, you have to put your child in tuitions.  This is not isolated.  Children come home from school and go to coaching, tutors, sometimes traveling long distances to the homes of their teachers.  So I need to find "fresher" teachers before they are making so much money they don't want a job.

We have been having meetings after meetings with teachers, but there is a level of passivity I have not been able to change.  Seriously I took a nap yesterday for one hour and the program fell apart.  Three teachers couldn't figure out how to split the class, although we had spent two hours discussing this the day before.  I've separated out disruptive from non-disruptive.  It's not about language, the lack of understanding.  One of them is fluent in English.  EVERYTHING is translated by our program director! I woke up to chaos because one of the disruptive girls was with the others.  And it's not good for her either.  She needs successful experiences.  She didn't belong in that class, but I took a nap.  This is a strain.

Yesterday one of my special ed teachers came to me in the morning.  One of the big girls wanted to watch tv.  She wanted to know if it was OK.  I asked if she could still teach with the tv on. (I knew the answer) and she said no, she couldn't.  So I asked her why she was asking me, why was I paying her to teach if she couldn't put teaching as a priority against a girl asking to watch tv.  Why did I have to answer?  Another teacher one day asked me, "Should I go home?  The girls said they don't want to study any more today?"  Truly I believe there is nothing pathological about girls asking for tv, or suggesting a teacher go home.  They were actually quite sweet to the teacher about suggesting she go home.  But it is pathological for middle aged adults to come listen to them.  For a long time people tried to tell me, and I believed them, that it was somehow all my fault.  But I know enough now about the culture that it's not my fault.  It's how the culture is.    In three years I have NEVER scolded or reprimanded a teacher for saying no to the girls.  I support my teachers.  It is so normal for children to say, "I don't want to study" and to me so normal for a mother or a teacher to say, "you have to."  Here no one wants to say "You have to."  And in addition the normal behavior is interpreted as pathological orphan behavior.  "These children" are bad.

Late in the evening I learned that one of the guards was doing business over kerosene with the dadas outside (the ones who have threatened me) and the kerosene was being stored under our generator.  The business is illegal and the kerosene is inflammable.  I flamed!  I called the security company.  I was up until 2 am on this.  About a week ago I told the company the guards were talking too much with the dadas and I was concerned.  Also about two weeks ago I received a warning letter anonymous — that there was a conspiracy among my staff, friends, and Board to take over Shishur Sevay and sell the girls.  This is probably from someone I fired but the nature of the accusations and the evil accusations of selling the girls required that we take some action, including clearing and defending those around me.  It was painful for them.  We met with one of the top criminal lawyers and through him met with the OC of the police.  The OC made a personal visit to Shishur Sevay.  The girls knew everything… as they had waited that first evening until everyone else had gone and then asked me what was happening.  I'm glad they trust me, come to me.  They know by now I won't polish the story or tell them they are too young to know.    But these things are consuming and exhausting.

Last night I wrote to the heads of the security agency, reminding them I'm a white skinned American woman who has had death threats and community agitation against me by former guards.  I wrote that they were mad for believing their people were competent and I was mad for paying them what I do.  Security is my single most expensive cost.

On another day recently, money was missing in the payroll process.  Actually the money was never really missing but miscounted.  The problem was that the people involved accused me of miscounting, which is a stupid thing to do in front of many other people, when the mistake is not mine.  So everyone around me thought I was being fooled and I didn't know it.  After my insistence, the money was "found" to be a computer mistake.  It's exhausting.  I brought in a team over the weekend to go into the computers for all financial records.  I have a new accountant now.  I've lost money and time over accounting.  The story repeats itself over and over.  It's exhausting.

We have worked hard to prepare the girls for their exams.  Today is the last one.  The girls were really psyched!  But the teachers in school gave them all the answers to the exams.  The school wants to keep up its rating.  This is common practice.  One of our girls is a daydreamer and rebelliously oppositional.  The school teacher asked why she wasn't listening and she said, "I'm busy writing.  I want to do my own exam."  The girls come home and we laugh about it and still prepare for the next day's exam as if it will be a real exam.  They know it's wrong.  I tell them to do what they must in school.  It's not their battle or mine.  I have to work and educate them within the system.  And the girls prepare themselves also by attending to the Gods who sit on our pandal, including my elephant God Sarmu.  The Gods have been fed well this week, bathed daily, dressed, re-arranged, prayed to.  I treasure that they can do this, that they can find their comfort here in ways that are meaningful for them.

One of the girls had a real emotional break-down a few nights ago and I thought I might have to hospitalize her.  She was in a rage, but then the tears came, the tears of being without her mother, the tears and anger at God that she must have so much pain.  We all sat around hugging her.  For the last two days we have been talking about pain.  I talk about my childhood, about sexual abuse, about rape, about my pain. They are not alone.  I understand them.  I tell them that.  It is all exhausting.

Oh, another conflict in the past week:  We started dance therapy with a well known professional group and it only lasted two weeks and I've not alienated another group of people in Kolkata.  I had to major problems.  The dances were too intimate and sexually provocative for my standards, done to Western disco music.  The second problem was that the class required violating some of the religious customs here among the girls and ALL of the staff, including teachers… namely stepping on paper, and touching people's feet.  If someone touches someone else's feet there are rituals to be performed, depending on the age/rank of each person.  I'm the oldest so I don't have to be worried about being the offending person but I still find myself doing some hand thing to indicate I know this has happened and it's ok.  So there in the dance, even after one of the girls protested, the therapists insisted this was just superstition.  I told her one person's superstition is another person's religion.  I objected because it wasn't discussed, put into the conversation, and "therapy" seemed to be about forcing bodies together in ways that violated personal space and religious customs.  The group leader said they had to have full control without my interference and I said I couldn't do that.  As I said, I'm on one more person or organization's bad list.  it's just how I am.  I wouldn't give that latitude with my first two daughters and I wouldn't give it to them.  There are class issues here in many organizations, and I find myself having to remind them of some of the Indian cultural and religious customs.  The girls and I laughed about it.  They were so surprised that I had noticed their discomfort with the foot touching.  They felt supported.

I now have permission for foreign funds, but I lack the time/energy/resources to apply for grants.  There are groups prepared to give me funds and I can't get the paper work out.  I should be doing that now, but I need to blog.  I need to say how it is, really, on the ground, on the front line.

I moved my cow, Bubbi, to a place I thought was safe.  But now there is community agitation there and I can't go to see her.  It is not safe.

The girls want to celebrate the end of the school year.  Maybe we will go to the Mall for ice cream.  Maybe we will go to Victoria Memorial Park.  That takes more supervision. 

I've left out TB, also consuming energy in the last couple of weeks.  One of our staff was diagnosed with TB, although the diagnosis had been missed for a long time, and therefore the kids were all exposed, especially at nap time.  I took all 12 to have chest x-rays, blood tests, and skin tests.  I was able to contact a national expert on pediatric TB, who kindly came and examined all the girls and set up a prophylactic treatment program for all of them, and for me as my age and past chemotherapy put me at higher risk.  The Indian public health, and WHO public health protocols do not call for prophylactic treatment of TB close contacts.  But I wanted us to work according to US, UK, namely developed world criteria for treatment.  We are all on treatment now and will be for the next six months.  It's all consuming and exhausting.

The dog was sick this week too.  At ten pm a couple of nights ago the guard called me to say the dog was scratching and crying.  Apparently this had been going on all day but no one told me.  They thought she had gotten into ants, but I think it was allergy as there were no bites but her hair was standing up in bunches all over.  I gave her some benadryl and we brought her inside for a while.  Now she knows if she scratches and whines she will be brought inside.  She is a quick learner.

Yes, all these things have happened in a very short span of time. 

It's 10:05 Saturday morning now.  The girls have to leave for their exam in ten minutes.  They are watching a movie about the origins of Indian civilization, a DVD I got for them.  Soon they will go out and put on their shoes. And then I will give them my personal blessings.  Some years ago, on impulse at an airport, I bought a small make-up case with gold blush.  It's almost invisible.  It reminded me of the years in the corporate world when I had to spend a lot of money on make-up to go to work looking "natural."  Anyway, I really enjoy my gold blush and I used it to bless the girls for exams, sports events, stuff like that.  They line up outside, each looking very serious, as I brush a bit of Chanel gold dust on their forehead, nose, cheeks, and send them off into the world.  People say I protect them too much, that they need to learn about real life.  But first of all, they already know about real life in its harshest terms.  Second, they are learning about real life as they go off to take an exam where the teachers will give them all the answers.

But they do go into the real world with a sprinkle of Chanel Gold Blush and this somehow makes me very happy.








I started this post almost a month ago and updated it once already, now twice, and I just posted a "quick post" about today 6 February 2010, and now it is time to get this post done and posted.  I'm not sure why it is so hard.  I've struggled over education for three years now… and finally feel confirmation of what I've believed needs to be done — there is much I would do differently.  I was clueless about cultural differences in education, in spite of years of sponsoring children here.  I was clueless as to how to get good teachers since there is not a cadre of people who want to teach orphans.  I made assumptions of what teaching was, based on my US experience.  And West Bengal is close to the bottom in education in India in many ways.  I spent so many years "idealizing" the city of my daughter's birth.  I don't think I underestimated what it would take to educate girls who came from such deprived environments — and I'm not referring to living conditions, but to the violence and disorganization of their lives.  But i think others did underestimate the effort it would take and still takes.  As with adopted children, too many people thought they should just be grateful, forget their pasts, and shape up to make me happy.  It doesn't work that way, and shouldn't work that way.


The girls got a wake up call from their school a few days ago, but didn't tell me.  They waited for the school to say something.  Lo!  they were not doing as well as they thought!  Last night we had a meeting about it all.  It's partly described in a post I did but doesn't seem to show up all times… but they got re-inspired for work, and today surprised their teachers with their enthusiasm.  Fundamentally I'm happy with their continued progress at whatever rate it is.  Sure, I wish it was faster, and easier but I'm more committed to understanding what it takes to educate them than pretending they have been easily or magically educated.  The girls need a huge amount of personal support and encouragement.  The best ratio would probably be one teacher to two students most of the time.  They are easily discouraged, which they evidence either by quitting, or by announcing they already know it and so they don't have to study.  (not so unusual of course). 


I'm not going to try to reorganize all this… take it as rough draft, because if I do, I'll end up spending another month figuring how to write it.  I will have an Education Coordinator who will put the teaching program together, based on what we know.  It is a partnership with the girls.  It has to be.  At the moment it is a strong partnership.  Shishur Sevay is a happy place to be.  It's almost 11 pm.  I'm writing;' the girls are watching movies.  Saturday they stay up until midnight (those who don't fall asleep).  I usually fall asleep before they do.  Tomorrow they will get up early and take a walk to see a new school where four of them will sit for an entrance exam later this week.  Good night again from Shishur Sevay.




I'm sitting in our office going over the most recent assessment exams with our math/history teacher.  I insisted we evaluate the girls, and that the teachers NOT explain directions or give hints.  I basically said that any teacher who said anything other than "quiet" during the exams would be fired.  I meant it.  The girls are used to being coddled here and at their school.  "We feel so bad for them," is what I hear over and over.  I can't stand it.  I get so angry.  I tell teachers to feel sorry for the kids in ten years if they are on the streets because they aren't educated.

I wanted to know if the girls could read Bengali well enough to understand questions and directions, and secondarily if they knew the material.  The exams are prototypes of the school exams to be given next month.

The girls did poorly on all six of their exams: English, Bengali, Math, History, Geography, and Science.  I have to admit that when I saw the poor results I felt like an absolute failure.  But I also had validation of what I had suspected, namely that their inflated results had been the result of coddling and kindness, and teachers telling me what they thought I wanted.  The psychological effect on the girls has been that they resent having to figure things out themselves.   And it "goes to their heads," so they say to me, "We are doing so well, why do we have to study more?" 


I started this post nine days ago so I'll sum up what has transpired:

I learned that the girls still have poor Bengali grammar and some speak with thick village accent.  I didn't know that.  No one wanted to tell me.  The reason I put them in Bengali medium schools so they would speak, understand good Bengali.  I think what happened is that because they are orphans, people expect them to sound like orphans, so it was never identified as a problem. 

I met with teachers — confronted them really, as to whether they let their own children speak that way.  I took out my early study papers in Bengali in which I had created forms for conjugating verbs, just so I could understand person and tense.  The Bengali teacher left without notice, just didn't show up and turned off her phone.  This is common here, in spite of written contracts.  I used to think it was about me, and others around me said it was because of me, but now I'm learning that this is just a common way for people to leave a job.  Fortunately I found a Bengali teacher two days later and she will teach until end of the school year (March), and maybe stay later.  We are in the process of interviewing.

I met with the girls and we talked about grammar and accents.  No, they didn't know.  Some people had "corrected" them from time to time but they didn't understand the context.  They certainly didn't know about conjugating verbs and how to know what form the endings should take.  I said to them that good speech is like dressing nicely, doing your hair nicely, and speaking nicely.  It's all part of how you present yourself.  We are going to a wedding reception in two days.  The girls are practicing good grammar.

I have had many meetings with the teachers and we have gone over and over the exam papers.  The girls do not understand directions.  But in marking answers, if the teacher thought they knew the material, even if the answer written was not totally correct, and had misspellings, they still gave them full credit!  When asked why, one teacher said, "I didn't want them to feel bad."  An example:  The question called for "write a sentence about ……."  In every case the girls wrote several sentences to fill up the paper.  If one sentence was correct, the girl got full credit!  I went over this with the girls and the teachers:  If I ask you to bring me a ball, and you bring me three balls, then you are incorrect.  Either you can't read or you can't count.  But your response is not correct.

In the case of math, if the process was right but the answer wrong, full credit was given for the process.

I have been sitting in on many classes and although I don't "know" Bengali I do understand the process and i'm pretty good at picking up what is going on.  In geography class the teacher was teaching about industries in different districts of West Bengal.  The first was jute industry.  She told the district and then went on the the next.  I interrupted and asked if anyone knew what jute is.  Only one girl did.  How are children supposed to learn WHERE it is if they don't know WHAT it is?  Then she went on to "gala" which she could not explain even in Bengali.  The girls zoned out. But I called someone to ask about "gala" and put the phone on speaker and we all had fun listening to her struggle to explain it, and then we heard her calling her daughter for a dictionary.  We finally figured it out.  They will never forget gala.  Then I suggested they find the district on the map hanging there.  They searched and searched but when they were looking too far north, the teacher told them it was south of there.  I asked her why she told them… said she should let them look for themselves.  But that is exactly what doesn't happen here.  No one is allowed to fail.  Criticism is bad.  Get the right answer at any cost.  Cheat if you must.  I am in conflict with my environment.  I had not expected this in relation to education, but as I talk to more and more educators I hear the same.  And as I talk to more and more NGOs I hear the same.  The weak link is in the teaching.

I used to have teachers who would only do group reading, so no one girl ever had to face the anxiety of reading alone, and missing words.  I think that is mostly gone.  To me group reading is like chants or prayers, where you don't really need to know the words… just hum along… but never have to do it alone.  I still remember how it felt in second grade when I had to read aloud and missed one word.  I just couldn't figure it out.  To learn we have to have those experiences.  We have to tolerate frustration and anxiety.  We have to tolerate getting it wrong.  We don't learn by osmosis, or at least most of us don't.  And I don't know any shortcuts.

Conflict with my environment:  I feel the most cultural mis-match in the area of education.  But I have to admit this is not just related to India.  I had lots of conflicts with my kids' teachers in the US.  Mostly their teachers didn't like me, felt I was to strict and held standards for my kids that were too high. – I am much more of a traditionalist in education than I'd imagined I would be.  I like good handwriting.  I like sentences with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end, with a subject, verb, object in between.  I want the same here, with adaptation to the Bengali differences in word order.  In my school career the only "D"s I ever received were in typing and Latin.

So here I am, some 50+ years later, typing and typing, and remembering "to love" and trying to teach this way of thinking to my children here.

This is what I remember (well, the first part I remembered; the second part I asked for some help from Google):

Amare: to love

amo, amas, amat,…I love, you love, s/he loves.
amamus, amatis, amant,… we love, you love, they love.

It's a system.  Every language has a system.  Bengali language has a similar system.  There are differences, like a familiar and polite form for second and third persons…  But the model holds, so if a child is using first person instead of third there is a systematic correction.  I have not been able to learn to speak or read Bengali well, but I understand the principles enough to help the girls learn to type in "Bangla Word" a word processing program.

So that is the culture conflict over learning.  The other cultural conflict is about job responsibility and professionalism, a critical and widely acknowledged problem in West Bengal. 






February 2010
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