Making Peace at the End of the Lane

We have brokered peace in the neighborhood.  We still want to move, but it will not happen quickly.  We simply don't have the money.  But we do have peace for now, and it's been a process involving the neighbors and us, talking, sometimes yelling, but in the end understanding each other better.

First of all, I learned a few weeks ago that the night of "Barbarians at the Gates" the neighbors thought I was calling them all "bastards,"  That's simply not a word I use, or think of as an insult, as some of my favorite people are members of a group of adoptees calling themselves "Bastard Nation."  I was shocked when this news was casually dropped by someone, who had assumed it was true.  I was told, "Well, it upset them when you called them all bastards."  I thought and thought and then realized that when I had yelled out, "Bhaccha" meaning children, trying to say children were sleeping, they heard something else.  That explains the level of rage which had not been present before.  When I learned this I immediately called one of the goondas and explained.  He understood.  I also said how hard it was for me when they threatened to kill me, and he said, "We were drunk!!!!!  We say bad things.  We don't mean it."  I hadn't expected the admission. 

There was another bad night when some young men tried to intervene on our behalf, but they also had their own motivations.  Caught in the middle between factions, we chose to stay with our known neighbors, and defended them against the new outsiders.  It sounds complicated, which I guess it was. 

Things have changed though.  The music doesn't blare any more.  That makes a huge difference.  Over and over we are told they do not want us to leave.  (They have seen our possible replacements, and they would rather have us.)

Last night was the cricket game between India and Pakistan.  I could hear each scoring (of India), cheers coming from the houses around us.  Firecrackers were set off from time to time.  Then India won, and I knew because of the sustained cheering outside.  I somehow felt I should go outside.  Our front gate was locked, and I went out the side door.  The lane was deserted, with people obviously in their houses.  So i stood and yelled out, "Bhallo India!" and a woman ran out and looked at me and I yelled Bhallo India again and she grinned and went running down the lane and next about 20 men came running and screaming to our gate and we were shaking hands and I was saying over and over again, Bhallo India.  Then everyone was out in the lane and celebrating, and I went inside.  I learned today that the girls had been awake and worried I was going out to fight with the neighbors.  I assumed the neighbors were afraid to really celebrate… just a feeling, and I wanted to establish I'm not a grump.  I get pushed sometimes, and I get scared, very scared, and very protective of my kids.

Just yesterday morning I had thanked the young man with the store for keeping the music low.  I think that had been a big factor… the constant music I couldn't shut out.

When I moved here the girls were little.  Now some are big.  Anyplace I move, people will be suspicious of us, what we are doing.  I learned that even in our area there are people who think we are raising the girls to sell the the U.S.  It's just the mentality.

Peace in the neighborhood… a process, an achievement whether it lasts or not.  I feel good about it though… working it out… trying to bridge misunderstandings, trying to keep us safe at the End of the Lane.




Holi Sadness

I found this post in “Drafts” as I’m going through the blog and saving files, making hard copies, and looking back over these years.  When you live along railway tracks, in stations, in fields, you may be in India but you may not be part of what the world thinks of as Indian culture or heritage.  You live as an outsider.  Our children were all outsiders.

I learned something today that made me really sad.  Saturday was Holi, the “Festival of Colors” and one of the most popular and non-religious holidays in India.  Our first Holi here we did not celebrate as the girls had just arrived the month before and I didn’t realize it was upon us.  In the chaos of those first days and months, it was just another day when few staff came and we managed to get through the day.  Few people travel; public transportation is halted; walking on the streets can result in being sprayed with colored powder or water.  It’s a time when people have permission to go wild.  Holi is also popular among the Indian population in the US.  In the adoption community, families with children from India often try to find Holi events, to help their children keep in touch with their culture and heritage.

We decided to give the girls a written assignment, as we are working on their thinking and writing abilities.  The assignment was to describe Holi before they came to Shishur Sevay.  Namely write about Holi as you remember it with your families.  I thought I’d be evoking happy memories of time with their families. As I finished describing this “wonderful” assignment, a mood of sadness came over them all.  Only two of eight girls had celebrated Holi.  One more had heard of it, but hadn’t ever celebrated it.  We changed to assignments depending on whether they’d known Holi before.  They could write about their first Holi here, or their first Saraswati here, or Kali Puja, as one girl wanted to.  I told them I was so sad for them, not having had Holi, but I was also so happy we had all these holidays here, that they could know them because of Shishur Sevay.

Just Another Day…

The girls are getting ready to go to sleep.  The TV is off, lights out, and they have closed the door to my office so I won't hear them whispering.  The classroom cleaning team is almost finished and soon they will go to bed.  The dinner team finished the dishes and the floor.  Music plays from outside but sometimes it is OK.  Tonight it's classical Bengali, soulful, and not the Bollywood music, an unwelcome intruder.  I'm at the computer, reflecting, which is much better than working on my "to do" list.

This morning I had to be at the school, the government school where two of the girls attend at 8:30.  That meant I couldn't walk the other girls to their school bus so I arranged for Bijoy and our house supervisor to go with them. 

The government school was having their yearly ceremony to welcome new children.  One of our girls was dancing. I was invited to say a few words, and just to be present with them.  I arrived to find my help was needed in putting on saris, and I thought back to my decision in 2003 that the only way to learn how to put on a sari was to do it regularly.  In that setting I'm just one of the mothers down on my knees trying to get the pleats right.

I sat out in the hall, next to Ganga in her wheelchair, as the rest of the preparations continued.  Children were running wildly up and down the hall.  Ganga squirmed, and signalled she wanted something.  It's sounds, but not words.  I asked if she wanted to go home.  She really looked uncomfortable.  She indicated no.  I asked, "Ganga, are you alright?"  She looked me straight in the eyes and shook her head, No.  I asked if she wanted to get on my lap and she seemed to want to.  I took her out of her chair and put her on my lap.  She was still not happy.  Then she stretched out her body to touch the ground with her feet.  Ganga wanted to run with the other children.

Ganga cannot walk.  Her knees buckle, her hips are weak, and her toes twist to the side and point.  So I held her under her arms and I "walked her" and all the children looked and walked with her.  Ganga was with her friends.  At the end of the hall she was OK to go back in her wheelchair.  We went into the auditorium, where mats were on the floor for children to sit.  I wheeled her to the side of the mats.  When the children all came in and sat on the mats she was unhappy again.  She was clear she wanted to sit with the others on the mats.  So I took her out of the chair and sat on the mat with her, next to some girls.  Pretty soon they were holding her up and I went back to the chair.  At first she looked back, but that was mostly because she loves having her picture taken.


The program began with the teachers singing.

 Ganga is in the lower left corner.  I was asked to speak a few words.  I used my little bit of Bengali to tell them how happy I was to be here, and noted all the years we had been part of the school.  Then I told them how wonderful it was that they had taken in children with disabilities.  They had done this out of love in their hearts.  This school had not be "designated" for children with disabilities but they opened their doors to disabled children in the community.    The school had greatly improved in the last four years.  The headmistress has fought for good teachers.  She withstood disapproval for taking these children.  I also know that this year the teachers put together a fund and admitted ten children who could not afford uniforms, books, the minimal admission fees.  So my words were what I was feeling, gratitude for the chances they took for our girls.  I've been the President of the Mother/Teacher's Committee for the past three years and it is an incredible honor.  I AM a part of this community.  Our children are a part of this community, which is why I do not want to move far.

But that brings me to a visit I had this evening by three young men I've talked to before.  They are part of the local community leadership.  They know what is going on.  They do not want us to leave.  They want to fix the problems.  They came this evening to say they want to get back for me the extortion money I paid four years ago.  They have already spoken to the person involved.  Now they want a meeting in which I will speak of it, in his presence. 

I was really confused at first, not at all sure what to say.  And then I thought, "Sure!"  They said it could be anywhere, and at first I didn't want it here but then I thought about the sheer presence of the group here, all coming to this house, past the house of the man who wants to be gatekeeper, and it seemed great.  In fact the "gatekeeper" has been ordered to be present.  I suggested they keep him busy early in the evening, take him for ice cream so he won't drink before the meeting.

Tomorrow evening we will meet here.  We will meet upstairs.  I have their phone numbers.  They are the ones who take care of us at the Sit and Draw contests, and they make sure our girls dance at community events.  But in the past they did not come to the end of the lane to help us.  Now they do.

I believe that ultimately we will move, but it is going to take time.  That I know.  We have seen possibilities that interest us. But in a way that is irrelevant at the moment.  What is relevant is that there ARE people here who want to protect us.  I'm very touched by that.  They are trying to make their community better, their India better.  I'm touched by that too. When they left I just kept grinning and grinning, and saying to Bijoy, "This is good.  This is very good!"  He was grinning too.  He is a young man who wants his India to be a better place than it is.

Well, in between the school program of the morning, and the visit from the young men in the evening, I did some shopping for things I've been putting off.  The girls needed fresh under garments.  The little ones needed some fresh "half pants" or shorts, and shirts.  The staff needed fresh saris and churidas.  We provide clothes for the massis and they wash the clothes daily.  It's part of keeping this place healthy and clean.   I had fun shopping.  Gibi and I have a good act for bargaining.  The price is always very high because of my white skin, higher than the usual high of bargaining.  So then I say no.  Gibi tells them they are charging because of my skin.  Then I say, "Gibi, let's go.  Stop talking to them," and I get about three or four feet away and they call me back.  Now we bargain for real.  Today Bijoy was watching from the car and laughing at our act.  

Late in the morning a new special educator came, and we reviewed reports she has written about the children with disabilities.  She will be coming three days a week starting in April, but has already started guiding the other teachers of the children with disabilities.  We are having a big teacher's meeting tomorrow, so I spent some time helping the new teachers prepare materials for that.  I fixed a couple of the laptops that were reluctant to go online — computers are moody I've decided.

In closing, here is a picture of one of our girls dancing for the function today.  I'm proud of her too.  I'm proud of all of them.  I have been entrusted with their safety and welfare.  I think about this a lot.  I hummed to the music as they danced.


Succession Planning – The Elephant in the Room

The “elephant in the room” is an expression describing when something is so obvious, but no one wants to talk about it.  So they talk about it, pretending it is not there.  The elephant, the most obvious problem and challenge for Shishur Sevay is that at some point Shishur Sevay must run without Dr. Michelle Harrison.  And that is as it should be.  One of the most serious mistakes a founder can make is to believe he or she will be there forever.  This elephant has been squarely in my vision from the beginning, and actually we here have talked about it more than once.  But others, reading about us, interacting with us, are often afraid to ask the most logical question, “What if you are not here?” 

So, what are we doing?  How do we begin?  We begin by looking at the systems, the sections, the natural divisions of functioning.  There is administrative, with finance and personnel the major components of that.  There is the internal school we run, one school, with different categories of children’s learning, some with physical, mental, social disabilities, some just late learners trying hard to catch up with their age peers.  We have the house, running it, the staff who take care of the children and the house, assignments, scheduling, mediating….   Then there is our presentation to the outside world, our Friends, Supporters, Donors.  It’s a lot.

Ultimately in a Society, the Board of Directors carries the ultimate responsibility for decisions.  They need to understand every aspect of the organization, and be able to make decisions, including decisions of leadership in my absence.  We have a very supportive Board at present. Two of our Board office holders, Gibi our Vice President and co-founder, and SeemaDi, our Joint Secretary are involved in the daily functioning of the Home, and have plans to become even more involved over time.  Even more important, each is deeply committed to the girls and their welfare.  The Board needs to be further strengthened.  Those discussions have begun.

Every task that is done by me has to be considered — who would do this if I were not here?  Someone, or rather the function of someone, has to be identified for each responsibility, whether it’s calling donors, meeting with the school, or noticing that a button is missing from a school uniform.  In the best of all situations I could step out and everything would continue, no one missing a beat.  I’ve written many times that I have no plans to leave Shishur Sevay.  I assume I am here for the duration, but I don’t want to manage Shishur Sevay “for the duration.”  I want to build a management team that can carry on the vision, mission, and values of Shishur Sevay.  I want to help develop the Board to take more of a leadership in the organization. 

Our first plan for Shishur Sevay included a “self-limiting” factor that could be a fall back if the organization did not thrive or grow.  But that vision assumed that all the girls would become independent in some form, would be married, or otherwise live on their own and support themselves.  By taking in profoundly disabled children, who cannot eat, dress, toilet themselves, nor can the speak, Shishur Sevay has become committed to providing this level of caring and education beyond the youth of the abled children.  Shishur Sevay must be a permanent home with vision far beyond our twelve children.  This is good.  This is a learning.

I’m thinking about this even more with the move.  Actually I keep hoping I can find a good reason NOT to move, as the task is a daunting one.  This morning I looked out the window, thinking about Shishur Sevay, and realized once again why we have to move, and why it is MY responsibility to get us moved.  If I think of us as a ship, then I say we are not in a safe harbor.  It is quiet at the moment, but that can change at any moment.  It is my job to get us to a safe harbor.  I can negotiate the waters here.  I have for four years.  I’m the founder; I’m a foreigner, for better or worse; I have an (at times) imposing presence.  But what happens when I’m not here?  Is any other director going to be safe walking to the end of the lane?  Will the girls be safe walking, without my presence holding off the goondas?  No, we have to be where we have easy and immediate access to a road, and where others have easy access to us.  It’s really pretty simple. 

I’m the captain.  The ship has to be seaworthy.  The crew has to be able to take over at any moment.  The Board has to be prepared to give direction to the crew.  All this needs to be in place.  It came to me pretty simply this morning.  I have to leave a seaworthy ship with a seaworthy crew, docked in a safe harbor.  I could not “rest in peace” otherwise.



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March 2011
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