...Twenty-eight days ago, I snuck into the Carmel Convent School with high hopes and low expectations. I knew that it was one of the best schools in Faridabad, that thousands of people applied for only hundreds of seats, and that I was unlikely to be able to do anything but see it. Luckily, I was wrong, very wrong.
Today, I couldn't have snuck in anywhere. Thanks to the loving benevolence of four Carmelite nuns from throughout India, generous donations and sponsorships pouring in from around the world, my supportive volunteers, Mitlesh, my host family, and my unwaveringly supportive family back home, I entered the Carmel Convent School this afternoon with 16 spectacular and deserving children behind me who stood taller and walked prouder than any students I have ever seen.
From today's photos, it might be hard to believe that these precious children live in a slum, that their parents are illiterate, that they are members of society's lowest castes, and that many of them would have lived their entire lives without ever entering a school. Today, these students lit up the faces of their entire community, made a powerful statement about education, and are serving as an inspiration to hundreds of people from nearly every continent in the world.
I arrived early to the slum today to watch the kids getting ready for school. Gudiya and Neha were already putting the final touches on their pristine summer uniforms, the first they have ever owned. As I rounded the corner and saw them for the first time, I could hardly believe how magnificent they looked.
--Neha with her younger sister, Saraswati--
We walked together to the slum school, where everyone was designated to meet at 1pm. The students quickly started amassing from every direction. With the sun blazing overhead, they tried as hard as they could to maintain their perfect hair and use their handkerchiefs to stay dry. It was adorable to watch.
--Ajeet standing tall--
--Abishek, Golu, Ajeet, Roshan, and Ankit--
To stay cool, we moved into the slum school to perfect the uniforms and take some more pictures. I couldn't help but think about how good they looked and how proud I was of them and their families. The students could have been models for a uniform company.
--Rani, Neha, and Pooja--
--Our students with some of their parents--
--The students, volunteers, teachers, Mitlesh, and me in front of the slum school--
--A photo just around the corner from our slum school--
We then set out for the most memorable walk of my life. In a single-file strand, the 16 students wove through the slum like a string of ducklings. From store fronts, rooftops, and moving vehicles, people stopped what they were doing to watch our sensational students set out on a path toward new lives. It was the most powerful statement about education that one could make. I don't think anyone looked at them without feeling a sense of pride in his or her heart.
After several minutes, we arrived at the Carmel Convent School. The children lined up and celebrated under a sign near the main gate. I had walked past this sign dozens of times during my first two months here. However, I had never imagined that I would look at it quite like this.
The parents bid us farewell at the gate. After saying goodbye, the kids never looked back.
We made our way upstairs to classroom 1B. The students scurried to their new desks with smiles from ear to ear.
--Reciting a prayer before class--
--Sister Pushpa watching over intently--
--Prianka with a smart board and windows desktop powering up behind her--
--Jumping up to answer questions--
The students impressed all of us with their unsurpassed enthusiasm and passion. They literally jumped out of their desks to answer even a single question. The weeks of tutoring we have given them showed marvelously. Their answers were even better than the sisters anticipated. It was as if the students had been waiting their entire lives for this opportunity. Perhaps they have been!
Rules, manners, and discipline were some of the first lessons taught. The students learned how to keep their desks clean, how to ask to use the restroom, how to ask if they can drink water, how to address teachers, how to greet guests, etc.
If I were a student, I would want Sister Pushpa as my principal. She kept the students moving and interacting while creating an ideal atmosphere of comfort and discipline.
--Rani pouring a cup of water after being given permission to do so--
--Anita learning from the smart board, a technology that even I have never learned from--
After an exciting first day, we filed back out the same way that we came in. With pep in all of our steps, we made our way back to the slum.
The students made their way back to the slum school and then dispersed to go home and change. I thought they were going home to play as well, but I was wrong again.
--Ajeet washing his socks--
Instead of going home to play and goof around, they went home to wash their uniforms! School hadn't been out fifteen minutes and Ajeet was already washing his socks when I passed his home. He was scrubbing and picking at every spec of dirt. To watch Ajeet treat his socks like a new car was both humbling and fulfilling. I have no doubt that he and his 15 classmates are going to thrive at the Carmel Convent School and in life.
--Kashak had already washed her uniform too. Her mother was taking it upstairs to dry--
--Ajeet folded his shirt around the cardboard sheet that it came with--
Whenever people ask me, "How do you define success?" I will know what to tell them. I will tell them about today. No amount of money, fame, or power will ever give me the feelings of pride and satisfaction that I sensed watching 16 children from the slums of India walk into their first day of first grade at the best school in town.
Donors and sponsors, this would not be possible without you. I hope that you are now beginning to see exactly where your money is going. The students you are sponsoring are wearing the best uniforms and shoes available and learning in the best classroom within the best school in Faridabad. Like the underdogs of a great rivalry, these 16 children have a fan base that blankets the entire globe. People from nearly every continent are checking in to watch their progress. However, this is just the beginning. This is the first day of 10, 12, or maybe even 18 years that these children will attend school. To be involved in something like this is truly special. There are still a few students left to sponsor. I know they would love to meet you.