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Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's in a day?

Some have asked what exactly I do here… Let me walk you through a typical day. Actually, to give you a good feel, there may be some explaining to do, so I’ll split this up into 2 parts. Let me start with the first half:

6:00 AM- I get up. This time is an hour to an hour and a half later than anyone else in the house gets up. By house standards, waking up at 6:00 is sleeping in. The sisters are already at mass (which begins at 5:45 AM) when I get up. I usually check my mail or Facebook on my phone (oh, how glad I am that I can access them from my phone!), do some exercises, take my malaria medicine, and get dressed.

6:45 or 7:00- When the sisters return from mass, we have breakfast. There are two women who work in the convent, cleaning the common areas and preparing the food.  Porridge with hot milk and sugar and a yummy chickpea dish served with chapatti (tortilla-like bread, made with wheat flour) are usually served for breakfast. Sometimes there are eggs instead of the chickpeas.  After eating this, we have some sort of fruit. Lately, it’s been apples (about plum-sized and so yummy), guavas or papayas (from trees next to the convent), or bananas.  Orange season is beginning. :) Custard apple season is over. :(

7:15 or 7:30- I continue getting ready for the day. This is usually when I bathe. That may be TMI, but because bathing is done differently than in the U.S., I thought it worth discussing. We recently got the solar water heater fixed, so I no longer have to go ask for "garam pani" (hot water) from the kitchen before bathing; I now have it in my room! The way to bathe here is by filling a bucket (which I'd estimate holds about 5-gallons) with water and then using a small plastic pitcher to pour the water over one’s body, soaping up, and rinsing the soap off, again using the pitcher. There is a showerhead in my bathroom, but being very aware of how scarce water is here, even in a good rainy season, and how much more water I’d use if I showered, I’ve never tried the shower. Let me add that there is no separation between toilet, sink, and bathing area, so whatever water is poured falls on the bathroom floor. Using the shower would just increase the areas where the water would fall. After bathing I have a squeegee to guide the water to the drain in the bathroom floor, so the floor dries more quickly.

Alternately, I may have clothes to wash. I have a separate bucket for bathing water and washing water. The directions on my Tide powder bag are “for bucket wash” and start with something like “Take a ½ handful of powder and dissolve it in water in the bucket.” There are no directions on the package for any other way of washing. I soak the clothes in the bucket of soapy water for a bit and then take them up to the roof where there is a washing area with a ridged surface to scrub the clothes. After scrubbing and rinsing, the clothes go on the clothesline.

8:15 or 8:30- I head over to school. This mean about a 1-minute walk from the convent across the concrete patio area of the school to the school building. In that 1-minute walk, I get greeted with a sing-songy “Good morning, sister” or by those in-the-know, “Good morning, miss” by approximately a jillion kids. It’s pretty sweet when they come running up to greet me. The bell rings (meaning the appointed student or adult strikes a metal disk hanging in the courtyard) for 8:30 assembly. On campus, there are 3 schools: the Hindi medium, the English medium, and the high school. The difference between the English medium and the other schools is that primary language of instruction is in English.

Every school has its own assembly during which each class stands in lines of boys and girls (usually 2 lines of each, since the classes are large). In the English medium school where I teach (and I assume it’s the same at the other schools), a group of 6 to 8 children from a different class each day leads the morning assembly. First, they lead exercises. Then they lead in the recitation of a prayer and the singing of a song.  Then while the rest stand respectfully, the leaders may recite poetry, ask trivia questions, give a “Did you know…?” fact or two and/or give an inspirational thought for the day. That is followed by either the national anthem or a patriotic pledge.  Students in grades 2 to 7 lead this way.  After the students have done their part of the assembly, the principal makes any announcements that need to be made.  LKG (pre-school), UKG (kindergarten), and first grade meet separately and have a similar assembly which teachers primarily lead, but the little ones do lead songs for each other. 

8:30 to 11:30ish- I have 3 classes. When I first arrived, I taught computer- 2 days each with grades 5, 6, and 7.  One day is theory; one day is practical, when we go to the computer lab.  When I began teaching, we were not able to use the lab, because the electricity was not sufficient to support all the computers being on.  Now students go to the high school computer lab, which works very well.  A few weeks after I arrived, a teacher was hired to teach computer, so I started co-teaching first grade. I was very thankful that there were two of us working with this group, as there are 60-ish children in the class. There is a lot of energy in those little ones!! For quite a while we worked on “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly"; they just sang and acted it out during the annual day program on Sunday.  As of yesterday, I am back to teaching computer, since the teacher hired has been let go.  Finding qualified teachers is difficult... 

I have a break after first period. Usually, I get ready for the other two classes then.  After 2nd period, the kids have a break. Here children don’t move from classroom to classroom, teachers do, so the kids have 10ish-minute breaks to stretch their legs, use the bathroom, etc. Third and fourth periods I teach grades 7 and 6. They are a lot of fun and their English is quite good!  One thing I should add: when I (or any other teacher) enter the room, the students stand and greet me with a chorus of “Good morning, miss.” Students who come to the classroom after the teacher is there wait at the door and ask, “Please may I come in.”  At the end of class, students again stand and say, “Thank you, miss.”  This is rather endearing, especially on the days when I lack patience. In the sixth grade there are 50 students and in seventh, 40. That’s a lot more kids than I’m used to having in class, so it has been an adjustment! Thankfully, even when they are a bit naughty, they’re pretty lovely kids!

11:30 to 2:00 I come back to the convent and have tea (the sisters who teach drink tea during the student break), usually with one sister who is still recovering from angioplasty surgery 3 months ago. She is quite lovely, so I enjoy sitting and talking to her. Around noon, everyone comes back for lunch. Lunch is rice, chapatti (people usually take either rice or chapatti, not both), dal (a soupy lentil dish) and various vegetable dishes. These might include cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, squash, green papaya, or whatever else is in the garden or can be bought in the market. After the meal, like at breakfast, fruit is served. Then the sisters go back to school and I get ready for my class at Chetna Bharati.

That sums up the first part of the day.  As I finish up, I realize that I haven't mentioned the lack of electricity, which is the norm rather than the exception.  Maybe I've adjusted to things a little since I arrived.  The above routine all seems pretty ordinary now to me now, but when I think about a typical day in the States, well, there are a few differences!!  I imagine you'd agree!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learning the Language

According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, eighteen languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution and in the last census over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed. Though I’m pretty good with languages, I decided only to work on one while I'm in this country.

Before recently, except for a few select words and phrases, Hindi mostly sounded like gibberish to me. I still don’t understand much, but I have been hearing it long enough that the sounds are familiar now. What’s cool is that both with and without my conscious effort, my brain is starting to organize those sounds.

I feel like I’m going to make some big gains in my Hindi acquisition in my last month here. Not only is my brain getting chummy with the sounds of Hindi, I have now heard some language patterns enough that I can  ask, “What does the ___ ending mean?” because I now actually notice that the ___ending exists. I know enough Hindi to see grammatical patterns emerging as I learn new phrases. The structures are becoming clearer, even though they are very different from other languages I’ve studied. Just to give an example, the word order in the question, “What is your name?” is “Your name what is?” in Hindi. It takes some getting used to…

Having a linguistics background and being a language teacher, I have to say it’s a lot of fun to both participate in and observe my own language acquisition.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taken on a new language and during my time abroad, I’ll be tackling two!! I only wish I had something better than my little Berlitz travel phrase book to help me learn (though my Chetna Bharati girls seem to have fun looking at it)! Nevertheless, I am learning and it’s fun to surprise people when I break out with a Hindi word or two, or sometimes even…a sentence!

Teaching at Chetna Bharti has probably most helped me to learn… My need to translate things so I can teach them is great motivation for my own language acquisition. For most of my time teaching at Chetna Bharati, I had SCN novices with me in my English class to help bridge the language gap. They’ve left Chatra now, so I’m on my own with the girls. They correct my Hindi (usually after laughing at my inability to pronounce words correctly!) as I try to translate what I want to teach them in English. We are learning together!

When I am volunteering in Palestine, I’m fairly certain that Arabic lessons are offered to volunteers. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes my brain to realign itself from Hindi to Arabic. I am also curious to see the teaching method that will be used with us, since I know of too many cases of well-intentioned, but not particularly effective, language instruction.

Of course, besides Hindi, I am learning the nuances of the English dialect spoken here. There are a few words that are new to me, like (and I’m not sure I’m spelling it correctly since I’ve never seen it spelled) tiffin, which is a snack. What I call a notebook, people here call a copy. A grade (A, B, C, etc.) is a “mark.” “Standard” means grade (level), so I am teaching standards 1, 6, and 7. However, at the school where I teach, they say “class” instead of “standard,” so here I say I teach classes 1, 6, and 7. Tuition does not mean fees paid for classes. Here when someone talks about “taking tuition,” they are referring to what I’d call “tutoring.”

The use of the word “reach” really used to throw me. “When did you reach?” is a common question and I used to expect another word to follow it, but now I know “reach” is the last word in the question. So, while the meaning is similar to its meaning in American English, it needs no object. “I reached her there” does not mean I arrived to where she was, but rather that I brought her there. Today at the lunch table, I heard,” He’d better reach them on time,” which, in the context of the conversation meant “He had better bring them (books) on time.”

I’m sure I could give you many more examples. Of course, there are also all the intricacies of the non-verbal cultural languages; certainly there are many different cultural languages, too, as one travels from place to place. However, that is a discussion for another day!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Children, Part 1

"I believe the children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way.  Show them all the beauty they possess inside.  Give them a sense of pride.  Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be." 

A few weeks ago I was at an ashram in Hunterganj, about an hour away from Chatra, where I live.  I was there to lead several sessions of a teacher training.  The ashram is part of Chetna Bharti and children (mostly girls) live there for at least a year, learning life skills like cooking and gardening, as well as "school skills;"  you know the three Rs- Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.  I spend 4 afternoons a week at Chetna Bharti's main center in Chatra.  Girls come there for a similar year-long training and I teach English to some of the girls there. 

The teachers I was working with at the ashram are new teachers who go into small villages and teach children in nonformal schools.  This means they work with children a few hours a  day trying to teach the most basic reading and math skills.  Ideally, children at these schools will get at least a third grade education.  Some may then go on for further schooling.  Many will not. 

Anyway, while I was at Hunterganj, I did as I do everywhere I go: I took lots of pictures, mostly of the children.  During a break from the training, I was looking through my pictures and the Whitney Houston song I've quoted above popped into my head. 

"These beautiful children are the future," I thought. Of course, this is true of all the children I have encountered, whether in my classroom in the States, a village in Guatemala, or an ashram in India.  Each child in his or her own way will contribute to this world, hopefully in a postive way.  At Hunterganj, children are learning not just simple gardening, but composting and sustainable agricultural practices.  Every child, boy or girl, at some time does every job- cutting vegetables, hauling water, washing dishes, feeding the pigs, or anything else that needs to be done.  They are learning to work, play, and live together as they come from different villages and different tribes.  Their lives are very humble- we played a group game of catch and had wonderful time.  I brought the ball.  I'm pretty sure they don't have one there.   As soon as I took my camera out, children seemed to materialize from nowhere to pose.  They loved looking at the shots after I took them, as they don't often see pictures of themselves.  Apparently, there was a lot of buzz among them about what they posed with- a broom, a knife, a bucket of water.  Many of the pictures I took were as they were working.  And boy, did they work!  But they didn't seem to gripe about it.  They seemed to enjoy working together.  And when the work was done, they seemed to enjoy playing together.  Though I'm sure life at the Hunterganj ashram is not as easy or perfect as I viewed it those days, it certainly seemed to me to be a beautiful vision of how India, or our world, could be. 

Those children are being taught well that there is a time for work and a time for play.  They are being taught well that we are all in this together and we need to work together to accomplish tasks.  They are being taught well that there is dignity in work and that doing that work is something to be proud of, not something to look down on.  And when they finish the work, or even while they are doing it, their joy is evident in the laughter that they share.  This is the type of future I'd like to be a part of.  I am glad I got to share a little piece of it in the present. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sabbatical Year

A few weeks ago I was in Mokama for the silver and golden jubilee celebrations of several of the SCNs. Incidentally, Mokama is “where it all began” for the SCNs in India, so it seemed like a pretty important place to visit if I wanted to learn about the SCNs’ work here and I am glad I got to go. But that’s not what I’m here to write about…


During the homily of the jubilee mass, the priest reflected on the reading from Leviticus 25 about sabbatical and jubilee years. The reading says that farmers should rest the land every 7th year and that the aftergrowth from the harvest should be equally shared between landowner, slaves, hired help, and tenants. The reading goes on to say that God will make sure the fields yield enough in the sixth year to provide for several years, making that 7th year rest possible. The priest related that to life today. The sabbatical year, for the farmer then or for you and I now, is not about doing nothing for a year. Rather it is a time to rest from normal activity and do something different, with a special emphasis on acknowledging the abundant blessings God has granted, on knowing that all is possible through God and all is given to us by God; in other words, the year should be about gratitude.


Certainly I’ve heard people talking about taking sabbaticals, but I never really thought the term had any relevance in my life. College professors took sabbaticals. However, when I heard the priest speaking, I thought, “Ah, so that’s what I’m doing!” I taught at the same school for the last six years. My last year was incredibly, sometimes overwhelmingly, busy. However, like the field in its sixth year, my sixth year working there produced such an abundant yield that I am certain I will still be enjoying the fruits after this year is over. Friendships with colleagues were strengthened. The depth of student reflection went beyond that of previous years and we even put a collection of their writing together in a book. I was able to save enough money for this year away (I think). One goal I’d had since I began at the school, to lead an international service trip, finally happened. Those are just a few examples of the plentiful harvest from my sixth year of teaching. Of course, my personal life also held many blessings.


This year, my seventh, my sabbatical, I am living from the harvest. Every joy I experience here, like wearing my sari for the first time, is richer because I share it with friends at home. Likewise, the difficult moments, like when I am frustrated by my inability to communicate what I need to say, are easier, because of the love and support I know I have.


As I live off the fruits of last year’s work, I am resting from the particular work of teaching high school boys, and trying to share the aftergrowth and to use my time to do something different. I am teaching, but I am teaching English instead of Spanish; first, sixth, and seventh grades instead of high school; and in my afternoons, girls instead of boys. I’ve also had the privilege of conducting two teacher trainings, something I’ve never done before. I’m trying to learn Hindi and will try to learn Arabic when I am in Palestine. I am living in community after many years of living by myself. Let me also add something that may shock those who know my (messy) personal habits well: for the first time in my life, I am making my bed every day as soon as I get up. Yes, I am living differently! :) In fact, I can’t stand to leave my room with it unmade! (Yes, Mom, this is true.) My time here is more relaxed than at home, but I think I am using it, rather than wasting it.


Every night I participate in community prayer. A friend who recently made her final profession as a Benedictine sister wrote not long ago that she is convinced that if everyone took quiet reflection/prayer time daily in their lives, our world would be very different. I would have to agree with her. For me community prayer is a time when frustrations melt away as our focus always includes recognizing all the good things in our lives, so I am ever-aware of God’s goodness in my life. And, wow, what goodness there is! I certainly have a new appreciation for water and electricity. As I’ve said before, I have amazing support from friends and family, who, while physically far, are very much with me on this journey. I have made new friends as I travel and work. Each day I receive the smiles on the faces of students as they greet me. These days I see the golden splendor of the rice paddies ready for harvest. I enjoy going out to our terrace to see the amazing star-filled night sky with no street lights and buildings to hide it. I am overcome with joy by the way my afternoon girls respectfully handle any prop I bring for class, including a necklace, pair of earrings, and my cell phone. In other circumstance I might worry that these things would disappear or get broken, but I have never worried with the girls. There is the sweet cat at the house who never used to purr and now does all the time. I eat delicious food every day, and am having lots of fun trying new foods. Sadly, the season for my new favorite fruit, custard apples, is nearly over, though there were a few at the breakfast table this morning! I could go on…


And so, thus far, I think I am living my sabbatical year in the spirit it is meant to be lived, resting but active, mindful of the goodness around me. I hope I will continue to live it well during my next weeks in India, when I move on to Palestine in January, and anywhere else I go during my time away from home. As I write this, I am ever more aware of how fortunate I am, as there are many people, perhaps you included, who can only dream of such a year. Of course, I am surrounded by people who probably can neither take such a year or even dream of it… But maybe my way is only one of many ways to live a sabbatical year. Perhaps one can live differently and express gratitude in other ways, without leaving the country or leaving a job…I hope you have that good fortune. In the meantime, thank you for graciously sharing in mine.