Ongoing Challenges in Learning


I’m so behind in blogging, and I miss it.  I’ve been teaching the girls a lot.  Rather, I’ve been teaching them how to study.   We are making new starts, with English as their language of study.    We made this change from Bengali for many reasons.  One is that I was never able in five years to find anyone to take over the responsibility of managing their course work, homework, tests, study methods, etc.  And coming from the US, I had zero credibility with the Bengali teachers I hired.  As the girls get older, some of the fundamental weaknesses show up.

We have a strong teaching staff for the big girls now especially with Dr. Purba Rudra joining us, and with Maggie.   I hired a young man to be my assistant, Sudipendu Dutta as he has experience in admin.  But he turns out to be an incredible teacher also, so I get less help, but our teaching is stronger.  The part I bring is really more about how to study, how to learn, how to help each person learn her own way to get the information into her brain so she can use it, recall it, think about it.  In the pictures above the girls had put together lists of words they didn’t know, and then I had them put them on flash cards, different colors for each girl.  Then they alphabetized them.  It was just a way of getting them to actually examine the  words, letter by letter, and a way to think of them as groups related to a letter and a sound.

I’ve tried some of this before.  I’ve talked with them about how to find what a paragraph is about, the when where, why, how, who, etc., but they are listening more now.  They are taking me more seriously.  I believe that fundamentally they do not believe they can succeed, but they are beginning to realize their failure to convince me!  I just keep saying, “OK, so then we have to try harder, or a new way.”  The ones who really cannot learn are doing other things, including training as helpers to the special educators.  And they are helping with the little ones, giving them big sister care… and also getting special treats along the way.  Recently they have asked for some teaching and so they are getting some low stress teaching.  But my hard core smart kids who have tried and tried to convince me they cannot do the work, and now applying themselves more and asking questions more. It’s not a smooth process.

The early deprivation has taken its toll.  I’ve had to try to understand  how they are thinking, or not thinking.  They tend to compartmentalize as if each subject is a separate language.  My favorite recent problem was in physics, and Big Bang.  They didn’t connect Bang of Big Bang with bang as in, “Don’t let Rani bang her head.”    They thought it was a proper name.   In their early childhood, and also in their Bengali education, children and teachers didn’t engage in discussion.  It was only, lecture, memorize, repeat back.  The repeat back had to be exact, whether it was understood or not.

Well, this isn’t exciting stuff, but it’s the stuff of my days.

We are churning out (slowly) grant applications;  we are almost done with the website.  In fact our part is done but there are lots of little things to be fixed which aren’t getting fixed without many phone calls, Google chats, and emails.

I will write more, as it is, as it happens….


The Little Girl I Didn’t Bring Home


The little girl I didn’t bring home

My goal is to help Aunty’s Home to be a better place, where Aunty can take care of the children who look to her for love, comfort, and food.   I sat there, holding this child a long time, talking to her (she doesn’t speak) and trying to define better my personal mission here as well as Shishur Sevay’s.

It came down to responsibilities, and cold decisions that are hard to openly admit.  Right now I do not have a second-in-command.  If I get sick, or die, Shishur Sevay will have to struggle through with some emergency plans we do have in place.  The place will continue, but the course may be rocky in terms of administration.  My goal for the last year was to identify who would do each of the things I do in the course of the day.  I’ve had two people I thought would last, potential administrators, but they did not work out.   So decisions I make today seriously affect the future of Shishur Sevay.  This child will never walk, talk, or be able to care for herself.  We have four children like that, truly our beloved choto bacchas (small children).  K, who I took on Christmas Eve, can walk, talk, feed herself, go to the toilet.  She will one day be independent. Second, Dr. Michelle Harrison, and Shishur Sevay cannot be an answer to the government’s refusal to take seriously the needs of orphans, especially those with multiple disabilities.  I am at Aunty’s orphanage helping because this IS my concern, the care of orphans.  What I can do is to give medical and health guidance to her home.  I’m not licensed in India so I walk a fine line.  (I do function as if someone is paying attention to such things, as I feel vulnerable).  Aunty has several children in the hospital, and this child as well as others will be going into the hospital for a period of evaluation.  As official medical advisor I will be following up with in-hospital visits, and discussions with doctors. Third, the girls at Shishur Sevay really do care about other orphans, about the poor, about those with disabilities.  I want them to learn how to care for these children.  It’s an opportunity for the girls who cannot, or will not study.  This work gives them meaning.  And, in my idealistic world of tomorrow, even my idealistic India, people will be needed who know the job, but even more, those who care.     The fundamental problem with Aunty’s home is that the government is almost one year in arrears.  Without pay, staff stops coming.  Without staff, the children with profound disabilities don’t eat.  Feeding them is very time-consuming.  At Shishur Sevay I have four people feeding four children.  Lunch is from 1-2:30 because it takes that long to feed them, put them on potty chairs, and bathe them.  Aunty has 1-2 people for seven children who cannot feed themselves.  Her older boys help out, but it takes training to feed these children so they don’t choke.  That’s what we have been doing the last three days, feeding and bathing.

Aunty loves these children.  Love is not enough, but neither is food enough.  The government has told her that money will be coming shortly.

The “Old Lady’s” hopes and expectations

Well, I’m the “old lady” and it stings.  There is a Bengali term for old lady, used affectionately or insultingly… One of the girls was angry and called me “Boori” or something like that (Not bodie, which i know).    Children will say anything, and probably they have said worse to me and about me — while I enjoy the ignorance of not knowing Bengali.  But this expression set off a chain because she took the phrase from what others (staff) had been calling me, and that led to other unpleasant terms, and my realization that my sense of isolation was not imagination, my sense and open complaints of disrespect were not unfounded.  I was the crazy old lady who thought I could do something with these children, and some people wanted me to fail, and to leave.  It is complicated and simple at the same time. 

At first i took the insult literally and said she would be lucky to be such an old lady at my age…. and that there was nothing wrong with being an old lady.  But that wasn’t the point… and that was only one of the difficulties that came to the surface in talking with the girls.  Other staff had told the girls I was too strict, that I was ruining their lives, that i expected too much of them, that I was trying to make them forget Bengali (ignoring that I chose Bengali medium for our education)… and many other accusations which sink easily into the minds of children, especially when they are facing discipline, and a foreigner (a white lady) for the first time in their lives.

Some of my readers may believe i’m too strict.  There is no formula for what i’m doing.  Oddly i’m accused of challenging or violating the “culture” in how i’m driving the children academically.  But which culture, which Indian culture?  Is the the Indian culture of the educated who enroll their children in the best schools and then add hours of teaching after that?  Is it the Indian culture of the US, with which I’m most familiar, where Indian children study harder and longer than their American counterparts and do better.  The culture I am really challenging is one with low expectations and a sense of hopelessness in what can be done for these children, the culture for whom these are the throw away children.   And I am the old lady who thinks she can help them.  And I still refuse to beat them or allow others to beat them; I don’t allow withholding of food, or pencils…

So, for the record, what are my hopes and expectations… What do I want for these children, who I now call mine?

1. I want them to be educated enough and well-behaved enough to have choices in how they live.  If you are mad at your boss, whether she is a principal or a cleaning supervisor, you cannot call her an “old lady” and expect to keep your job.  You also cannot throw books at your boss, or simply tell them they can’t make you do something.  They can’t make you do something, but they can fire you.  I dont fire the kids, so I just tell them l/we will have to slug it out until I win.  They will be well-behaved eventually.

2. I want them to value personal connections and whatever sense of family they have.  If they marry, I want them to be good wives and daughters-in-law, but if they are ill-treated they can come home. 

3. I want them to manage issues of sexuality, to which they have been much too exposed.  One of our girls loves to dance in pure Bollywood style.  My goal is for her to have a good life, in whatever way she can, but NOT to end up dancing in a cage in Mumbai.  She is gullible.  She could go off with a stranger.  I tell her about the cages.  I have to.  My girls are prey.

4. I want them to experience a stable life now, with enough food, with education, with good health.  If they choose or feel forced into the life they came from, I believe they will want better for their children.  These girls are full of doubt about their own worth.  They know they were discarded.  They have been used in all sorts of ways. There is no way to feel good about that.  Sometimes they are, and will be, self-destructive.  They all wish their lost siblings could have this life.  So some of their rebellion and pain comes from guilt — that they have what their siblings don’t… the guilt of the survivor.  They have too much on their minds.  They have begun to write stories and poems.

5. Coming to specifics, we have one or two potential nurses, technicians, maybe a doctor or lawyer,,, maybe a teacher or two…. one mathematician, a couple totally unskilled, but hopefully experienced in working with handicapped children… specialized “unskilled”.   We have potential artists, dancers, musicians, actresses.   I expect a few weddings.  Remember, it’s only been 14 months.   We don’t know, and can’t know.

I started by saying the insults sting, just cuz that’s how life is.  I used to complain that no one was telling me what was happening.  It was true.  it was more about me than i’d realized.  But with all that, I have to come back to the present moment.  I am where I want to be;  I am doing what I want to be doing.  It has been very hard.  It will always be very hard.  There is no formula, only purpose and effort.

I have come through many battles.  It has been hard on my kids, my two daughters and son-in-law in the US.  They are upset when I tell them, and worried when I don’t.   We are at a new plateau, a level of openness, as I prepare for their visit in July.

When I was undergoing chemotherapy I lost all my hair, and my husband at the time told me I looked like an old man.  So I’m reminded of his words, and of my trusting people who feel so free to try and hurt me.  I wrote a poem:Hair2-Finalw



Hair, Hair, Everywhere

Hair hair, everywhere

Floating down the drain,

Guess its time to shave what’s left.

I look like an artist!

I look European!

I look like a baby,

I look like an old man – but with pretty hanging earrings

Please, just look at the earrings,

Try to ignore the rest.


November 18, 2000

I keep thinking of what we tell each generation of children about insults:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  What a lie.  Words can break our hearts and our spirits, and sever the ties that bind us  They can take up residence in our minds, and serve as constant reminders that we are not safe, loved, or protected.  My children have so many words in their heads.  I don’t expect them to disappear.  I do hope the girls can find balance, other words, good words that balance, that also remind them of who they are and what are their possibilities.  We need to create the “Old Lady’s List” of words and ideas that give them strength, words that build and soothe and shore them up against the insults they already hear inside.







Founding Principles

Childlife Preserve: Shishur Sevay

Founding Principles

From the beginning, May 2006

1.     We shall provide a safe, nurturing, healthy, educational and culturally rich environment.

2.     We shall develop each child’s education and opportunities in ways that build competence, confidence, and independence.

3.     We shall teach our children respect for others, irrespective of job category, caste, religion, skin color, gender, and age.

4.     We shall teach our children to be responsible and contributing members of the community, and to participate in the care of those less fortunate.

5.     We shall teach our children to respect and protect our environment.

6.     We shall give our children a strong foundation in Bengali language, culture, and history, so they may be literate, contributory, and respected members of the Bengali community and Indian society. 

7.     We shall teach skills in English and Hindi languages so as to improve their opportunities for participation, work, and education in India and the global community.

8.     We shall have fun with our children and share our lives with them.

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