Occupy Shishur Sevay

The Goondas have gotten into the spirit of OWS, so they are threatening action against Shishur Sevay.  They threaten within fifteen days that there will be placards protesting my presence.  Yes, it is personal.  Yes, I’m worried.  It’s a hard job here protecting the girls and myself.  I guess I let myself believe the fighting was over, but it’s still simmering over events that happened four years ago.  So, they will Occupy, protest, carry placards and announce to the world how terrible I am.    They probably won’t hurt me.  My life has been threatened since before the girls even arrived here.  As all the high officials have said on the rare occasions I can get to one, “They won’t hurt you.  They just want your  money.”

The most recent provocation?  It’s a non-provocation.  A volunteer who comes here was talking one day about trying to get high profile visitors, sponsors, including a movie star.  I said I couldn’t figure out how any of that would help our girls.  I really have kept a low profile and always ask, “how will this help our girls?” as my premise is that more than anything they need a safe and stable home and time to study.

A private conversation in my office made it to the Goondas.  I have to figure out exactly how.  Is my office bugged?  Was someone listening?  Whom do I trust?

I’ve watched Occupy Wall Street from afar, with mixed feelings.  I’m an employer.  I fire people who don’t do their job.  Would they all pass union inquiries if we had a union?  I suspect not.   The Goondas act as the “union.”   In our first year we had riots because I would not provide sleep mattresses and blankets for the night guard.  That’s correct since I hired him for a twelve-hour shift and I didn’t expect him to go to sleep.  Of course since the Goondas were giving alcohol to the guards, of course they needed to sleep.  In my first year I actually lost friends in the US who wanted to know how I was doing.  When I said staff had to be up at night these friends denounced me.  The staff worked 12 hour shifts.  I don’t remember getting hours to sleep on 12 hour shifts.  Who takes care of the babies at night if my night staff is sleeping?  I really don’t get it, unless it all comes from the assumption that because I’m white I’m wrong.

I fired the math teacher who could not teach math.  I’ve changed the girls to English medium so we don’t need Bengali teachers, except for one.  Now when I refer to teachers, let me be clear.  These are not professional teachers.  They are the community of women who teach from their homes or go out to homes, who we would call tutors in the US.  So if a woman is teaching two hours a day and I find out she does not know math, or english, what am I supposed to do?  I know the answer to that.

 How do I protect the children if I can’t control who works here?  How do I teach them if the staff doesn’t arrive in time?  And if the girls aren’t ready for the teachers, then teachers come later and later.  Four of my girls cannot walk, talk, feed themselves, toilet themselves.  Who feeds them, bathes them, toilets them, dresses them, if staff doesn’t come. 

Well, what are their demands?  I’ll make a guess, an educated guess.

1. Money.  Some carefully placed money would quiet them.  Before the girls came I was extorted.  The Goondas told the government that they would not let it be safe here unless I paid.  So I paid.  I got the girls.

2. Allow the girls to ‘socialize” with local boys and men.  (no comment necessary)

3. Hire  political appointees, who of course would not work and whom I could not fire.  It’s my refusal on this one that always results in death threats.

4. Allowing men to visit.  (no comment necessary)

5. Put one of the Goondas on the Board.  (no comment necessary).  In the fights with the government over our license renewal, AFTER the girls were here and I refused more children)  I was told I had to transfer ALL my money to India.  I also had to set up a fund the government would control.  If not, they would close the home and take away the children.  I’ve written about this before as I lived in terror that they would come for the children.  But I also said to the government, “Why would I give you my money when you are threatening to close me?”  It’s like the woman who wanted a job here and used to throw garbage over the wall.  She didn’t understand she might get a job if she threw chocolates, not garbage.

The goondas believe that I am raising and educating the girls so I can get a very high price for them in the US.  I’ve run into a cultural belief that orphans really belong to the “society.”  Our first Board fell apart, well actually the first Board tried (unsuccessfully) to kick me out.  We had a conflict over how we would get the children from the government.  They stated, “Every Indian has a right to take an orphan.”  They wanted to go to court to force the government to give us children.   I insisted we work with the government and show we deserved the trust of the government.  The way we proved our trust was mostly with social favors, money, work, showing up at the government office to “take dictation” for an officer, write what he needed me to do, wanted me to do.  Sometimes we had to make our car available.  But we got the children, and that’s what mattered.

Being white is something I keep in mind because I really believe it affects all relationships, including with the girls.  They would much prefer I be Indian.   Sometimes it’s painful for me, but that’s what I signed on for, the pain as well as the joy of raising children.  It comes with the territory.  I was recently reminded of a terrible experience I had about seven years ago here.  I was working with an orphanage (in truth, volunteering with an orphanage that wasn’t really an orphanage).  I discovered some terrible things going on there, children not being sent to school and used as servants instead, fake reports to the government, untreated illnesses.  I put together a portfolio, with others, and reported them to three government departments, including the Commission on Human Rights.  No one was interested.  But in my last days with that place I was literally run off the grounds by a former headmistress, who had a gang of Goondas out on the street, and she was rousing them against me.  She was screaming to the mob that I was proselytizing.  I was protected though by parents as it was a visiting day, and the parents knew what I had been doing for their children.  I thought that day I might die — a Jewish lady as Christian martyr — life’s ironies.

The mob, the accusation of proselytizing, my fear, stayed with me and affected decisions I’ve made along the way with the children, knowing the wrath aroused by such accusations.  It’s part of why I kept the girls Bengali.  It is why I didn’t teach the girls songs I knew as we walked to school each morning.   Recently, because it’s a small world everywhere, I met relatives of this woman.  She is Christian; the whole family is Christian.  I’ve decided that’s the ultimate moral depravity, for a Christian to put me in danger with a false accusation of proselytizing.

Well, back to the Occupy Shishur Sevay… my life here has made me afraid of crowds.  I’ve had two times I thought I might not make it through alive — far more serious than the scene I just described.  I’ve had motorcycles parked outside, men sitting on them daring me to walk through, which I did anyway.  Here in Kolkata I’m the Capitalist — White lady, exploiting Indians, and of course accumulating a fortune in foreign donations.  One day I suggested someone tell them that if I had that money we certainly wouldn’t be living here.  But reality doesn’t matter.  Perception does.  And, the sense of entitlement that I should be giving something to all these people, because they are allowing me to operate this home.  What will the placards say?  Will they tear at my gates again?  Will my security have been bought off (again)?  No one ever complains about what I pay.  It’s interesting but we never hear that because I pay well.

Sure I’m afraid.  I wish we could move.  I need to raise funds, but I need big funds.  Our support is here too.  I’m upset I have to think about this, write about this.  I was planning a fun blog post about my collection of brown dolls and the role they have played at different times.  I’m going to end this with a picture, another version of how we got the kids.  Some women officers came to see Shishur Sevay.  They fell in love with the dolls.  Then they said they would give me a license.   (Months later, these same ladies also threatened to close Shishur Sevay when I wouldn’t take more children.  I couldn’t.  I was stretched as much as I could stretch, financially and emotionally.)


I did it my way……

It feels better to write about what is going on.  The first time we had a riot I was really afraid.  We had one child just staying here at the time, and me and a massi.  The men amassed at the gate, screaming for me to go back to America.  It was over the guards… I remember writing to friends in the US, not sure we would be OK through the night.  I’d called everyone I knew here.  Mostly I got, yes, don’t worry.  So obviously we are fine.  But that’s the reason I have two different internet providers, and phones, and generator, and laptops with wireless that don’t depend on electricity.

But the bottom line is that I’m Management, not Labor.  I’m a very tough boss.  I have very high standards.  But in the spirit of the times, Labor will demonstrate against me for more jobs, for better working conditions…. and from their perspective the fact of my raising children is irrelevant because they believe I’m getting rich here, white lady raising Indian orphan girls to sell at high prices, exploiting Indians along the way.

I feel truly blessed to be able to do what I’m doing, to be able to live my life in a way that gives me so much happiness and meaning, to be able to mother again, more, what I love to do.  I wish we had a safe place and a kind environment, but then if such things existed, I wouldn’t have to be raising these children.  So that’s why I’m here, the wall, the wall that keeps the kids safe and the occupiers outside. 


 May God continue to protect us.

Looking for Math Epiphanies

The value code, 1,2, and 4

The girls don’t know math.  They can “do problems” but they lack an understanding of math concepts, values, units, functionality.  They have learned how to add, subtract, multiply and divide but have no idea why.  I have been literally shot down by teacher after teacher because I did not believe the girls knew what they were doing. 
 I’m writing more about what it’s been like, the white foreigner questioning Bengali methods.  In our first year the teacher told me one day, “they can count to 50.  They know 50.”  But in the evening when I played a game of counting candies, they could not tell me how much each had (everyone less than 20) nor could they tell me who had more or less other than by visual swipe.  Numbers were a song you sang while jumping rope.  The school also insisted the girls were fine.  And of course the girls were sure they were fine since everyone except me told them how well they were doing.  Reasons in retrospect?  People believed this was what I wanted to hear.  No one believe orphans could do better anyway.  Teachers themselves didn’t know math.  I was a foreigner, and not even a “teacher” in their eyes.
In the second year I wanted the girls to write margins in the math books.  I wanted a 1 cm margin.  I wanted them to get used to measurement, and the order of a math page.  The math teacher said she only knew one way though, which was to make the margin the width of the ruler.  She didn’t know how to measure 1 cm.    Of course the children sided with the teacher as that way was easier.
Recently the girls did poorly on an exam at school.  I asked them why as they all did badly.  Finally someone told me, “They changed the numbers.”  It seems our teacher had only used one question to teach each example or each type of problem.  So the girls were perfect at memorizing that one problem.  But the school used different numbers.  The teacher was sitting right there and she was surprised that she was supposed to “change the numbers.”  A week later the girls came to me in the evening with a problem they couldn’t understand.  I worked and worked on it, but it made no sense.   I concluded the teacher had made a mistake in writing it.  The next day I asked her.  Actually she had changed the numbers but didn’t understand that she then had to change other factors.  Namely she didn’t know the math.  I went through it a number of times and then asked if she knew where she had gone off.  She said, “Yes, I shouldn’t have changed the numbers.”  It’s endemic.
Well, it’s all changing now.  With the shift to English medium I’m involved in everything.  So I started where I think we need to start, with basic concepts.  I went to the market to find supplies.  I wanted it to be interesting, attractive.  I bought buttons in nine colors… and they can represent different values over time, or even objects… working on abstraction.  I bought plastic plates to serve as trays and small dishes to hold the buttons.  And then we began.   The plate above has the key to values.  Then I served out buttons, like I would serve desserts, and they loved it.  I needed to change the atmosphere of learning.

Counting buttons


Starting to work on counting buttons of different values


serious efforts



 The girls started by counting the buttons, and then adding.   Then I asked them how else they might find the number.  Blank stares.  Then I asked how they might use multiplication to find out.  So some wrote out the multiplication formula and then added up the numbers to get the product.  They were trying.  And then for several of them it clicked!

She got it! See the multiplication.

My first math class -- inviting epiphanies

Helping Ganga

I’m the new math teacher, looking for clicks, looking for math epiphanies.  New beginnings, every day.  That’s what I say to the girls every morning, “New Day.”  It means we put away all the troubles of the day before and we start afresh. 


Follow-up on Abuse Post

I was up and dressed early this morning.  It’s not good to deal with such issues before showering and putting on a sari.  I decided first that I had to get more information;  I had to make a decision based on the events, not on how much I needed or didn’t need someone here.  House supervisor did not know what the problem had been, and being in the midst of another crisis, said, “I’m tied up, go directly to Mummy (that’s me) and tell her.”   She said she had no idea it involved the feeding.    Am I certain, of course not, but things she said made sense.  The teacher denied having told the girl to keep Sonali’s mouth open, and denied force feeding her.  Do I believe her, not sure.  The teacher, the older girl, my assistant and I met together.  The older girl changed her story twice.  She is totally unreliable and has vehemently denied things I’ve actually seen her do.   I honestly don’t know what is the truth.  As for my assistant, she didn’t know what she had done since (eventually) she told me.  When the teacher explained something, she said she didn’t know that….  She was vague in parts, and absolute in others.  But it still didn’t register that she should have told me immediately, and all this would have been resolved right then.  She kept insisting she had told me, as if it didn’t matter what day she told me, and I think for her that is true.  I cannot trust her.   We don’t live by the same set of rules.  Painfully for her and for me, I said that trust had been broken, and that she couldn’t stay.  

There have already been negative repercussions of her firing.  I live in a culture where immediacy is not understood, and often truth is irrelevant.  I am so aware of being a white woman writing about Indian culture, aware of how I am sometimes heard.  But my focus is on the children, running an orphanage, so I’m going to talk about what I deal with in this realm.  I am also a boss, and a woman boss.  The more I learn about the “combined family” which has been romanticized in the West, the more I think I’m seen as the Mother-in-Law of a combined family with all the subterfuge, alliances, secrecy, jealousies… the ultimate power who everyone wants to please and to control.

I am only referring to the staff and other people around me, not the girls.  To the girls I am mother, even when they defiantly say, “You aren’t our real mother!!!”  It’s so “on cue” developmentally.  I tell them of course I’m not their real mothers, but I’m mother to them now.  Sometimes the girls and I are fine and sometimes we are not.  But it all feels normal, and I’m experienced as a mother.  I’m not experienced as mother-in-law of an Indian combined family!

My singular mission, is the safety and well-being of the children.  I won’t let myself lose sight of that, not for a moment.  It’s hard.  Of course I’d love to bend to accommodate needs of others, but that would take me off mission.  It’s ten-o’clock and I DO know where my kids are.

I am so appreciative of the support I received from readers.   I am trying to bring in people from other places.  Part of the problem though is that not many people speak Bengali outside West Bengal and Bangladesh.  I have two people coming from abroad.  And I’d love to have more.  I’d love to have interns.  It’s just that each of these things requires me to get involved in some way, and that takes me away from the kids.  So, I’m trying but I’m just not there yet.

Well, enough of that.  I’ll blog soon about my start of a new math program.  I’m the new math teacher and this evening we had a really great class.  I’m so excited about this.  Next post.

Hiding Abuse

I’m blogging my I struggle with  a situation of abuse.   I haven’t yet decided what I will do.  One part of me says to hide my conflict, not to let anyone know I’m ashamed because the answer isn’t totally clear t me.  Here is what happened:

Today, Thursday, I learned at 1:30 pm that one of the teachers, on Wednesday, had forced food into one of the children with disabilities.  She instructed one of the older girls, whom we are training as a helper to special ed teachers, to hold open the child’s mouth with her fingers, and then the teacher pushed food into her mouth.  Her lip began to bleed where it was already dry and rough.   I’ll use the name of the little one, Sonali, because she is known to people who have visited.  Sonali is our youngest, is visually impaired, microcephalic, and delightful.  When she arrived she has terrible feeding problems, screamed when fed, and had esophageal spasms.  Calming her down was a long slow process.  Mostly she was only willing to eat if someone would tap her on her head or if she held something over her head.  She also preferred that someone be singing to her at the same time.  Well, all that has passed, but she is a fussy eater.

Six months ago we went to a public function with all the children.  I suddenly noticed one of our childcare workers holding Sonali flat on her lap and pouring in a drink.  I went over and stopped her.  When we got back home I fired her.  Yes, she had been trained.  In this case she was just not bothering.  It takes work to feed these children without endangering them due to choking.

So now back to what happened yesterday, what I learned today, and what I will do tomorrow.

1.  The teacher has been with us over a year.   I also learned today that one of the girls had seen her scratch Rani to get her to behave.  She hadn’t told me because she thought I wouldn’t believe her, and the teacher had said I’d approved of this, which I haven’t.  So what do I do about the teacher?  Can I replace her?  Will the next one be just as bad?  If I were reading this, my blood would be boiling and saying “fire her immediately,” and maybe I will.

2.  The supervising special educator was right there, but feeding another child.  I called her this evening.  She has no idea what I’m talking about.  Do I believe her?  No.

3. The staff member, officially my assistant, who observed it all  told the teacher and the girl she should not be doing that and then didn’t tell me until today.  Well actually, she came to me at 1:30 saying that she wanted to talk to me tomorrow.  I said that sounded like something I needed to hear now.  She looked toward yet another staff person who apparently already knew, and said she didn’t want all the teachers to be angry with her.  I said to tell me, so she told me the story as I’ve written it. 

4. The house supervisor she tried to tell yesterday, who said she didn’t want to hear any more and to go and tell me.  At that point the house supervisor felt her responsibility was over.

The Victims:

Sonali, who was force-fed.   

The older girl who is being trained to work with teachers.  She is doing this because of severe cognitive disabilities.  She is extremely vulnerable.  She has been in tears because she was part of something that wasn’t right and can’t sort out her place.

Spacial layout matters.  While all this was going on yesterday I was sitting in the next room, with the door open, about 25 feet from where all this was going on.    Our entire ground floor is only 900 sq. ft. and from my desk I can see most of the space.  I was sitting right here, and that’s what is also so creepy!  I’ve said from the first weeks here, that no one will tell me what is going on.  I pay them to tell me but they will not.  In this case, no one wanted to be blamed for telling.  Lost was the issue that a child’s life was put in danger and that the same teacher would be here today feeding her.

Is not telling me, a “factor” in whether I keep someone or is it a deal breaker?  That’s really the dilemma. 

I try to balance the emotional and practical aspects of what I do.  Emotionally, I just don’t want these people around me.  It upsets me to look at them and know there may be things they are hiding from me.  This is not first time for either of them.  They work for me but they are more worried about others being angry with me for telling.  This IS the culture I’m in.  I was asked recently if there was anyone her I trust totally, and I have to say no.  People tell me what they want me to know.  Some of that power comes because I don’t know Bengali, but today’s news was all in English and all the people involved are fluent in English. 

The internet is my connection to the world from here.  Joe Paterno was fired today for his inaction in the face of sex abuse.  What he did was a deal breaker.  So maybe that’s my answer.  I don’t have other coaches standing in the wings.  I’m just more on my own.  Maybe that’s better.  It is so horrible to have people working for me, knowing they won’t tell me.  It eats at me.  It makes me afraid to leave at all, as it is so bad even with me sitting here.

My children were in a special school a few years ago.  We would drop them at 9:30 and pick them up at 1 pm.  In the car they would start thrusting their tongues, what they do when they are thirsty, so we brought water and gave them water in the car.  Then one of our workers told me that the full bottle of water we took there was always full, so they weren’t getting water.  I saw the principal standing outside the day I learned this and I went to tell her, and she said, “I’ll look into it,” and walked away.  After we got home I called up the founder of the school, went to her flat, and told her I was taking the children out.  She said, “you are denying them education because of water?”  I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was, “Why would I let my children be with such a person that would deny water to them?”  What sort of person does this?  I’ve learned that this is common practice in all these schools because it minimizes the child’s need to urinate. 

This morning I was talking with the house supervisor because she is having problems about where to live and I’m concerned about her and was trying to find solutions.  But all this time she was not telling me about the situation of the teacher and Sonali.  In other words, I think I’m on some equal level of trust, concern, extending myself, and she is worried about teachers getting mad at her for telling me. 

I’m probably going on too much.  If I really post this instead of hitting delete, please notice the guts it takes to say these things out loud, and appreciate that I am certain I am not the only one with these conflicts.  I reach out so I am not so alone.  I also reach out so you, the reader who has faced such situations, can know you are not alone either.  It’s hard stuff, hard stuff to get right.  I think I know what I will do in the morning, but not there yet.

November 2011
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