When I first came to SSK, I honestly did not know what to expect. Of course, I had heard of the purpose of the school, to educate the members of the lowest caste, Musahars, who live in abject poverty, and I believed in this message. I knew Musahar means “rat-eater” as these people, out of hunger, sometimes did resort to eating rats. I knew that these people had little access to clean water and were often ravaged by many lethal diseases such as TB and anemic dysentery. But I knew very little about the details on the ground. So I came on a Monday morning and observed a few classes and met a few of the teachers. The aspect of the school that struck me most at first was the incredible discipline of all the children. They stood whenever I entered the room, and called me “sir” when speaking to me, even though I was sometimes about the same age as them. Not only that, but all the children were completely invested in their education. Even in the larger classes, there was never anybody who was distracted, or engaged in off topic conversations in the back of the class. I had everybody’s full and undivided attention at all times. This discipline and motivation is nothing short of incredible to me.
After observing all of the children on the first day, I was excited to begin teaching. Almost immediately, I was welcomed into the community of students and teachers. At first, the children were naturally a little shy, but after a few classes, they began to open up to me. All classes were incredibly affectionate towards me and actually wanted me, a stranger, as both their teacher and friend. These were some of the most trusting and friendly children I had met. But these qualities were not just true of the students. The very first time I met the teachers, they offered me their food for breakfast and invited me into their social circles, even conversing in English instead of Hindi solely for me. The community and friendship at SSK truly defined volunteering for me, and made it a much more worthwhile experience. After spending a little time there, I saw how much impact a volunteer could have. I was able to view a completely different culture and introduce my culture into the school. I learned quite a bit about the customs and traditions in Indian culture and I hope that I was able to explain American culture well. A volunteer here can expose children to different ways of thinking and different customs, which is why I believe volunteers are so important here. From a practical standpoint, there is never a dearth of work at SSK and the school needs people like substitute teachers. I think volunteers are needed for the children’s education on the world and just to help keep the school running smoothly.
The children were all ready to absorb whatever I told them, whether it be about America or Maths. These kids were really driven to learn in a way I had not seen before. All of them really wanted to understand the concepts I was teaching and wanted to learn as much as possible. Frankly, I had never seen children appreciate their education as much as these children do. Considering their circumstances, what they are accomplishing is amazing. I would say that their education is comparable to many schools in America, where people are obviously coming from a much more affluent background. I trust that all of the kids can succeed just because of their incredible determination to learn. Everytime I asked if they were tired or wanted a break, they would say something along the lines of “No sir, we want to learn.” I would say that these children are the first people who truly appreciate the value of education, and who made me appreciate the value of an education. This is why SSK is so important. The children would have never had access to education without this school. However, they are clearly all bright and willing to learn about every subject, and desperately need an education to improve their standing. I think SSK is testament to the belief that everybody can succeed given the opportunity.
Out of all of my experiences at the school, there is one that stuck with me the most. I was teaching an English story to Class III in which a boy was discussing the first time he rode an auto-rickshaw alone. The boy in the story, named Carlos, was very proud of his accomplishment and felt as though he had overcome a huge obstacle. However, Class III told me that they needed to go over the story again, because they did not understand it. After a little probing, I realized that the boys in the class just could not empathize with Carlos. For them, riding an auto-rickshaw alone was not a big deal, as they had faced much bigger problems. So I asked the class to tell me about the time they overcame a challenge, thinking this would help them understand the story. One boy raised his hand and then began his story. He said that one time he had gone, alone to a neighboring village for lunch. When he arrived at the village, it was deserted. He then told me that after a half hour wait, men with guns came and started shooting up the village. He barely escaped. His voice was so casual, as if he was telling me about something trivial like homework. At that moment, I realized that these children could never think that riding an auto-rickshaw alone was a huge challenge, if they are facing so many larger problems.
The only piece of advice I have to the children is this: keep asking the question why. The aspect of their education that I am worried about is that it focuses a little too much on rote learning, instead of understanding. For example, when I asked Class VI to explain to me why the formula for profit and loss works, they did not know. They told me that they had simply memorized that formula, and so they used it. The students should try to understand why each and every formula works. Also, the children must learn how to think critically a little more. When I asked classes if they had any criticism of Indian social structure or the Indian government, all of them answered no. I think that they may be afraid to speak up against society, because of their background, but it is a necessary skill. If these children can learn to think critically about all subjects and question why, I think they will have a full education that completely prepares them for their later lives.
Lastly, I think that I need to talk about the people who are the oil in the machine that is SSK. These people are the teachers. Anyone can tell that these people love their jobs. In the few breaks that they had, I saw all the teachers just working on materials for their classes. It was clear that they cared so much for the children. Their dedication to the children was the same as the children’s dedication to education. From their interactions with the classes, I could see that they were very popular and that the teachers meant a lot to the children. Honestly, these teachers come and work with these poor children every day, just out of the goodness of their heart. From talking with all the teachers, I see that their one passion is teaching and that is why they work at SSK. By working alongside them, I gained newfound respect for the profession of teaching.
In conclusion, I would say that nothing has changed my worldviews more than my experience at SSK. It was such a great experience and I am looking forward to coming back. I would recommend teaching or working there in some way to everybody. My writings cannot do justice to my remarkable experiences there. You have to go there to really understand the good that SSK is doing. It is one of the only ways to ameliorate the deplorable situations of the Musahars. I cannot wait to come back next year, and I hope to bring some friends with me.
(Sheel is a student at the Bancroft School in Massachusetts, USA. He volunteered at Shoshit Samadhan Kendra during his India visit)