Following Directions: Finding a School

Last night I wrote to a friend in the US about how my life today just seems like an unfolding of thoughts, dreams, and visions I’ve had over the last 10 years or so, maybe over my lifetime.  I joked that it’s really pretty simple, I just listen to the voices in my head and do what I’m supposed to.

Today I visited four schools.  We want to start Kalpana in nursery school, even though she may be much older, but she is very short, and is just learning to make circles, lines — has mastered A, B, 1, and 2.  She colors inside the lines, mostly.  I’m also looking for a school that will take Ganga.   My offer to any school is that I will send her to a regular class and will also send a teacher to be her assistant and a massi to carry her and take her to the bathroom.   Last week Gibi and a teacher visited a local school and purchased the admission form.   I decided to walk over there this morning,  see the place, and turn in the form.    Today at this school though, I learned that the school has been through some terrible time and hundreds left so there are very few students now and they may have to close.  They did not call me back this afternoon so I could speak with the owner.

Next the teacher with me suggested we try Mother’s Mission, also nearby.  We took a rickshaw there, and sat in the office while admissions went on.  I find these places interesting even without knowing the language.  You know, years ago when we were in India, Cici was learning Bengali.  One day she said to me, “You know mom, it was much more interesting when I didn’t know what they were saying.”  Well, I don’t know Bengali so it’s interesting to me.  The women at the desk were formal, polite, but said they would not consider a child with a physical deformity.  They say this sitting under a huge portrait of Mother Teresa, and another of Jesus on the Cross.  Disconnect.  Well they said they would take Kalpana for nursery but I had to pay and get the forms in by tomorrow morning or it would be full.  But at least we had a yes.

I came home, spent time on other work, moped and muddled about, and fell asleep in my chair (a routine of mine since I’m up late and get up early.)   Seema came this evening and she mentioned a nursery school where children (now in mid 20’s) had gone there.  I needed to figure out what to do about the Mother’s Mission admission fees tomorrow, so she suggested we go there immediately — 7 pm by now.  Off we went, taking a walk through the busy road filled with carts of vegetables, people shopping, talking, just evening busy.  We  met with the head and her husband.  They were worried about how much Kalpana knew and whether it would be a strain on the teaching curriculum if she was very behind.  But they did say to bring her Friday and they would meet her and talk to us.  We left with mixed feelings.

Our neighborhood (except for our little cul-de-sac) is rapidly improving.  A pond has been cleaned up and a walkway put around it, ducks in the pond, boats… but I haven’t been able to figure out if it is open, and when.  So I suggested a detour to go past the pond and walkway and see what was happening.  As we were walking, we both saw a big green lighted sign for an Academy, and then a smaller sign about a school nursery to XII.  It was down a short lane and I saw people outside.  We walked over to see a woman getting into her car, and asked about the school and whether it was English medium.  She immediately asked us to come into the school, and called her husband to join us and talk.

Yes, they would take Kalpana.  As for Ganga, the man said, “You have come from America to take care of our children.  We Bengalis MUST help you do this.”  He and his wife, Principal and Vice-principal are involved in Human Rights, and both talked about meaning beyond money.  I wanted to hug them both!  I made the same offer as I had before regarding Ganga.  I believe it will work out.  I will bring Ganga, the teacher, Kalpana, to meet them in two weeks when exams are over.  I’m also thinking maybe this would even be better for the big girls.  There is much still to be talked about.

But today is just a demo of what I wrote last night… it’s one of those times we replay… what if I hadn’t suggested we walk to the new walking area and pond?  What if they had gone home earlier?   I think we all do this… and maybe it is about greater meaning, or maybe we are comfortable with coincidence.  But I sure feel indebted to whoever is arranging the coincidences in my life.

Ganga and Kalpana

This being Kolkata, I also have to understand none of this may play out.  It’s just how it is here.  You just don’t know.  But I’m a hopeless optimist and  can’t stop believing.

More Children, Why Now?

Yesterday we brought home another little girl.  Sanjana is from Aunty’s, is 6+years old, weighs  10 kg,  has limited use of her legs, and wants to be held all the time.  December 24 we brought home K.  This morning she pointed at Sanjana, and said, “She is getting love.”  I’m not sure she was entirely happy about that, nor was Ganga, who was beside me instead of in my arms.  So I explained to Ganga that this is life, and that even Victoria, my granddaughter, will one day have to share her mother.

But why now?  First of course is that these children are/were not getting care.  I just can’t walk away.  There are also changes here that make it possible for me to say yes.  I am not so alone.  Dr. Purba Rudra has joined us as our Educational Director.  I’ve known her for years as she was getting her Ph.D. at Rutgers University and was part of Asha for Education in the US, as I was.    She has come back to Kolkata.  She is teaching full time to the girls on our academic track, so  I don’t worry about them all day.  The other addition is Maggie Redden as Communications Director.  She is originally from India, adopted to the US as a two year old, and now back for a year to help and be part of our household.  Their presence and support make it possible to do so much more, particularly outreach.  I think we are a good team.

Some of these orphans are “business orphans.”  They were taken in by adoption homes, and then no one would take them, they were essentially discarded.  So they were given up first by their families, then by the Agency, and then by the government, which does not provide for their care.  There is no place for them to go.  I’ve tried.

The other change is a fundamental one, namely deciding that some of the girls will not go on in school, but will take care of the little ones and develop skills in assisting the special educators.  For each of them, for different reasons, learning was difficult, and being in a school setting was also difficult.  Especially for kids with their backgrounds, being home is all they want.  I figure they spent enough years fighting the big outside world.  So when Aunty told me once again about Sanjana crying in the night to be held, I thought, “I have lots of girls to hold her.”

I studied at Yad Vashem some years ago.  I wanted to know more about the Holocaust, as I was writing and teaching in medical ethics, a subject  that invariably includes the history of medical experimentation, the value of human lives, and which lives have value.  What is a life worth living. The beginnings of the Holocaust involved the extermination of the “feeble minded” and the “handicapped” who were said to have lives not worth living.  Families sent their children to places they thought would give care, and months later would receive notices of death.  So I thought about these children, really at the end of the line, in a situation where even in a hospital they would continue to starve, where the government authority charged with their protection was saying it was helpless to do anything.  And then it was just a matter of saying that these children deserve to live as much as any of us does.  At stake was protection of the most vulnerable rather than slow death by neglect of the most vulnerable, and I decided I couldn’t let that happen.  I’m a mother; I’m a doctor; I’m in a position to do something.

I have done very little fund raising since starting Shishur Sevay.  Most of this has been done on my savings, and the sale of whatever I owned in the US.  And it seemed very strange to ask for money to raise children for whom I chose to be responsible.  That was fine as long as we stayed within the small number of children.  And it was fine because much of this was an experiment in how to run such a home, how to raise these children.  I preferred to experiment with my own money, not with someone else’s.  But we are no longer an experiment.  I feel incredibly successful in creating this home where the children really are family to each other, and where the values they express reflect our hopes and dreams for them.

Today I asked one of the girls to write about what she wanted to be doing in five years, how she wanted her life to be.  I asked because she is troubled and sometimes is also TROUBLE!  She wrote that she wanted to be studying and she wanted to find her sister to take care of her and her other sisters (at Shishur Sevay) and if her sister was married and had a child she wanted to be sure that her sister’s child studied.   These are their values and we cannot claim credit for their values but we can take credit for not killing those desires, for providing role models of caring and commitment.  Not one of the girls has ever talked of wanting “things” when they grow up.

To go the next step in our development, to take more children, to do more outreach will require greater effort at fund raising.  It’s beyond my often knee-jerk reaction of  “I can do it myself.”   With or without funds, our children will not starve because we won’t let them.  But we will need to move.  My daughter Heather and her husband Andrei have started a Friends of Shishur Sevay in the US and soon we expect to be able to collect funds that are tax deductible.  The pieces are coming together.  We are positioned to grow.

Right now we are 14 children and me living in 1500 sq ft.  The main room where classes go on for the children with disabilities, where office work goes on, where the TV is, where laundry is sorted, is also the room where we all sleep at night, rolling out mats and blankets and pillows.  We eat in shifts because our dining room is too small for all of us.  Our entire plot of land is 2100 sq. ft.  We need room for rehab, for exercise, for office space, for a superintendent to stay eventually.  As I look at the future and who will run this place one day, I’m guessing they will want their own room, bed, cabinets, maybe even their own bathroom.  I’m very happy living this way, but to do the work we want to do, to have the influence we want to have, we must expand.  We also need a safer and better neighborhood.  No one wants to live where the smell of human excrement comes in the dining room window.  I walk the lane coming here and I’m horrified because of the smell and I wonder that visitors really think.  And those of you who have followed our journey know the issues of safety we have faced.

Where are we putting the new children?  That is simple too.  Years ago we got long bolster pillows to put between the kids on the mats for their optional use.  We sleep among pillows and it seems fine.  So, I’m just taking away the pillows and sticking kids there in between the others.  It’s really not quite like that but that is the atmosphere.  How do you say no when there is still space on the floor and food in the pantry, and you are sitting in Kolkata, not an ocean away and all you have to do is to say “Yes.”  So that’s how we are 14, with a few more on the way.  We are blessed.

February 2012
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