Why do we do it?

People sometimes ask why we keep coming back to the school. Apart from the hope that we can make a tiny difference in the lives of the children at the school, it makes us a lot more grateful for the things we take for granted back home.

For example, at the end of the day volunteers each have half a bucket of solar-heated hot water for our “bucket bath”; that’s assuming there’s been some sunshine. We wash ourselves, and then our clothes in it, and then the bathroom floor. If there is any water left we tip it on the garden.

I congratulate myself for being so Spartan and environmentally friendly, but yesterday I passed two girls struggling towards their dorm with a huge bucket of water. Apparently the power had gone off (again!) and their water requires a pump. That day, and many days like it, they had to ferry the water from some distance away. “Does that mean you have to have a cold bucket bath today?” I innocently asked. They laughed and explained that they have cold bucket baths every day, summer and winter.

TWo girls carry water for their bucket bath

Two girls carry water for their bucket bath

The situation with mattresses is similar. The volunteers sometimes remark on the hardness of Indian mattresses. Once in an English class, I asked students to write about their first day at Shanti Bhavan. One child wrote about the difficult parting from her mother (at the age of four) but she said that, after her mother had gone, her new auntie-house-mother had given her a big hug, a yummy snack and put her to bed. She wrote, “it was wonderful. I had never slept in a bed before; it was like sleeping on a cloud.”

Typical day

Someone asked me about our schedule as volunteers. Because it’s a residential school the days are long. We all have different rosters and commitments but, for me, it’s up at 6am for a 6.30 start. I volunteered to help the four students select and prepare news items to present in assembly each day (more about this another time). Other volunteers might be rostered to supervise sport or prep. Breakfast is at 7.30, then we rush back to the house to change into Indian clothes for teaching.

School starts at 8.30 and I teach an average of 4 out of 8 periods a day. Those preparing 10th and 12th Graders for their external exams have a more demanding schedule. The rest of our time is spent in preparation and marking, or chatting with other volunteers.

Classes end at around 3.30 with Snack, and then I might teach public speaking from 4 until 5, while other volunteers take optional classes in PT, computing, dance, photography, etc. Barney and I try very hard to fit in our Chi Gong at 5pm each day for relaxation and exercise, and two other volunteers have joined us. Afterwards we take a quick walk around the school compound and have our bucket shower and do our laundry while there is still some light. We might have a Prep roster from 6-7.30pm or free time. Thankfully the Indian teachers supervise the post-dinner preps.

A typical dinner... or lunch... or breakfast! Always slightly different and invariably yummy.

A typical dinner… or lunch… or breakfast! Always slightly different and invariably yummy.

In the evenings we each join a different table of children for dinner and, if we can hear above the noise, we have a chance for some kind of meaningful interaction according to the age level. I think I know most of the riddles by now and I have re-trained a group of children to pronounce ‘emu’ as ‘ee –mew’, not ‘em-moo’… just doing my bit to improve international understanding. My most interesting question so far is, “why do you have short hair?” I’d never really noticed that most Indian women have long hair. The other good one is, “did you and Dr Barney have an arranged marriage?” Older students will ask us about university, our career choices, etc. After dinner we might be rostered for storytelling in the younger kids’ dorms until 8.30 pm, then it’s back for more marking and preparation. It’s a long day but it’s rewarding and there are breaks so it is not too arduous.

Barney reads to the 5th Grade after dinner

Barney reads to the 5th Grade after dinner

Kandy reads to the 4-year-olds.

The 4-year-olds listen attentively as Kandy reads a story.

Movie night

It’s not all hard work at Shanti Bhavan and our first Saturday night was the fortnightly outdoor movie in the quadrangle. This is a new activity since our last visit. There is a big screen made out of sheets which senior students project onto from behind, using a laptop and data projector. Now I wouldn’t have picked Spiderman as an R-rated movie so we were a little confused the first time that a hand shot in front of the projector to black out the screen. Apparently the teen hero was kissing his girlfriend. This process was repeated several times. When the school family extends from 4-18 year-olds, even seemingly tame movies require some judicious censorship.

I wrote last week that I love to travel because of the exposure to different cultures. After about the age of six, reflecting the wider culture of India, older boys of all ages, regularly walk with their arms around each other and hold hands with other boys, as do the girls with girls. Out of respect for the norms, volunteers, even married ones, and other staff on campus, are asked not to show any kind of public displays of affection towards each other. It takes a conscious effort to break habits that come naturally.

But back to Spiderman… The highlight of the evening was that half way through the movie we were each treated to a paper cone full of hot popcorn. I was surprised that the popcorn was wrapped, as I know there is an acute shortage of paper at the school. When the lights came on we were amused to find that we were eating out of children’s past schoolwork. Nothing is ever wasted here.

We’ll leave you on that note for now. Thanks for the feedback on the previous blog. I will try to get some recipes and include more photos of ourselves, as requested.

VGA_Prep in dark Cropped

A huge thank you to Robert and Bonnie Jenkins of Adelaide for your surprise but wonderful offer to donate $500 yearly to the school. I can guarantee it will go a long way and be greatly appreciated. This year’s donation will provide an additional solar panel and battery storage to prolong the power to the main school building after hours. No more prep in the dark!