...Simply put, I will be going to church this Sunday no matter where I have to go to find one. Without saying too much too soon, let me give you a little hint of what I have been working on. The project I have been planning involves sponsoring high-achieving slum children by providing them with private school educations, encouragement, and the desire to maximize their human potential. To better understand my options, I devoted my day to investigating the local public and private schools. I started at the Mercedes-Benz of private schools and slowly worked my way down to the stunningly ill-equipped government-run option. --Hallway in the Carmel Convent School--
My first stop was the nearby Carmel Convent School (which is where most of the children in my neighborhood attend and which also happens to be the alma mater of the successful groom from the wedding I went to last month). Carmel is only about 150 meters away and is directly between my home and the slum. I pass it nearly every day, yet had never ventured inside before this morning. I learned tonight that it is actually the 4th ranked school in all of Faridabad. After seeing it, I am not surprised.
Although there is relatively tight security at the convent school, I entered through an open gate and wandered discretely around the hallways and classrooms to commence my investigation. One music teacher stopped his class and welcomed me in. The class jumped out of their desks to attention and in unison said, "Good morning, sir." He proudly showed me their equivalent of a SMART Board and quickly had the class singing and dancing to a video and song on the screen.
I was highly impressed by the entire operation. Not only did the students have desks (which is not the case, as I found out, in public schools), ample supplies, sharp uniforms, great discipline, and colorful classrooms, they also had caring faculty and relatively state-of-the-art technology like a computer lab and digital projectors in the classrooms. The building itself was easily one of the best-maintained and well-equipped complexes I have seen throughout the country.
After wandering the halls some more, I was finally spotted by a much more authoritarian sister. I was interrogated as to how I got in the building and told her what I was trying to do. She still seemed skeptical but agreed to show me the way to the head sister's office.
My host mother had told me before I left the house that I probably wouldn't have much luck here because of the school's price tag and track record. Admittedly, the first time I peered into Sister Pushpa's office, I was also unsure.
Having never been to a convent school, I did not know what to expect other than iron-fisted strictness. When I saw the CCTV in Sister Pushpa's office with live feeds from every classroom and public space, I knew I had come to the right place. However, after discovering the purpose of my visit, she quickly became very hospitable. Sister Pushpa understood my goals and intent perfectly and was excited to tell me that they had taken in and were educating 20 children from the slum already. She was so enthusiastic that she called in her staff to have them fetch the slum children, who seemed to have the code name "our children." In the meantime, I learned that the students from the slum are not identifiable as such, nor do they receive treatment any different from the other students. A few moments later, three perfect rows of normal-looking children in uniform obediently filed into the principal's office. They introduced themselves one-by-one in excellent English and were then excused to go back to class.
Tuition for each student here is approximately $60 per month, which is not the most expensive around but still more than most slum families make in the same amount of time. To take in even a single child free of charge is a large investment of time and energy.
Over the next hour-and-a-half, I had an incredibly inspiring discussion with Sister Pushpa. As a proud and obedient servant of the Lord, she had been posted in Kenya for 16 years before being transferred to run the covenant school here in Faridabad. She is from Southern India and therefore does not speak Hindi. She uses English to command the school, which she seems to do with amazing passion and diligence. Her stories about the impact and value of education resonated with what I have been thinking all week. I kept getting the feeling that I was talking to a less-publicized and under-appreciated version of Mother Theresa.
Although inspired and enlightened, I was beginning to believe no progress could be made toward my goal at this particular school. I could tell Sister Pushpa was running a tight ship. In response to my attempts to donate money, she told me that they are self-sufficient and would not know what to do with the excess money. It was a stunning rejection. When is the last time someone refused money from you? However, I was even more shocked to receive a counter offer, one that will likely become one of the most meaningful and emotional gifts I have ever received.
Toward the end of our conversation, Sister Puspha looked silently at a blank notepad in front of her, then looked up to me and said, "Because of your generosity and intentions, bring me three six-year-old kids and I will give them an education in your name."
I was speechless by this point. My spirits went through the roof three floors above. This was an act of generosity the likes of which I have never seen. All I had done was come in with a plan and a smile and I was now leaving with the ability to completely transform the lives of three children and their families, neighbors, and friends for generations to come. By committing to educating three first graders all the way through tenth grade (the highest level of the Carmel Convent School), she was making an investment worth more than $10,000 to paying students.
After copious sincere thank yous, I left Sister Pushpa's office with a new appreciation for the Catholic faith and strong desire to attend church this Sunday.
I hadn't made it 10 feet out of her office when kids from my neighborhood noticed me while lining up after recess. The sea of red-uniformed kids erupted into a small riot. From a distance, it probably looked like Justin Bieber had just arrived at an all-girls middle school. It didn't take long for Sister Pushpa to come charging out of her office as if shot from a cannon. The kids scurried back to their perfect lines with impressive speed and alacrity.
The students and faculty then paraded by me on their way back to class. As I waved to them and took their pictures, other kids from my neighborhood called down to me from the stairwells of adjacent buildings. As a final hoorah to my grand exit, the middle-aged security guard sprang to attention before opening the massive gate.
As I walked out onto the dusty street, Jake and Elwood came to mind. "We're on a mission from God," I said to myself. The gift I had been given truly felt like a message of hope and encouragement from above.
Options 2 and 3:
My next stops were two branches of the Nalanda Viyalaya School. Both schools are in close proximity to each other but one is Hindi medium and the other English medium. This time, I was taken by the security guard directly to the principal, a retired Army Captain with more than 25 years of experience in the Indian Army Education Corps. Although he also had CCTV of every classroom and a long military background, Captain Chaudhary was nowhere near as intimidating as Sister Pushpa. He was, however, similarly eager to hear about my proposals. Over the next two hours, he gave me a VIP tour of both schools. We stopped in nearly every classroom and talked to the students about their studies and goals.
Like the students from the Carmel Convent School, kids here had great discipline and hopeful dreams. When I asked one 6th grade class who wanted to attend college, they all raised their hands:
--Students waiting very silently for their parents at the Nalanda English school--
--Girls waiting for their parents at the Nalanda Hindi school--
My next stop was the nearest government school. To say that I had been spoiled by the higher-end private schools is an understatement. When I arrived, kids of all ages were running through the dark, empty classrooms and teachers sat outside sipping chai and eating biscuits. I only managed to find one class in session which happened to be the age group I wanted to see most, the 10th standard.
I was surprised by how barren the classrooms were and how few resources there were in general. The classroom pictured above was actually much more impressive than the rest of the school. The same constraints that burden the local hospitals also seem to take their toll on the local schools. However, I had still expected more.
The ratio of boys to girls throughout the 600 person school appeared to be about 4:1. In the private schools I saw, the ratio was about 3:2. After some roaming and instigating another riot, a student showed me the way to the principal’s office which had a desk and chairs but not much more. None of the teachers or administrators could speak English, so I had difficulty finding out much more. However, I didn't need to ask any questions. I had already seen the answers.
After agreeing to a few photos with the students, I walked back home to empty some space on my memory card and then headed back into the slum to process my thoughts. After dusk, I worked out, helped cook dinner, took a heavenly bucket shower, and thought for a long time about the wonderful opportunity Sister Pushpa is giving these kids.