Sunday, May 25, 2008

The New Recruits

Today, some of the teachers and I set out on a PR and recruiting mission to find some more students for next year's enrollment. We set our sites on Ghoghas, a village of about forty Muslim families very near to the school. We only have one student from the village which is a terribly low number for the village's close proximity.

The village was really strange. As in most areas in the mountains, there is a strong current of out migration by the male members of the village. No different in Goghas, but the interesting part about this town is that the Muslim status of the men give them a easy pass into jobs in the Near East (mostly Dubai, Iraq, Iran). The international stamp on this village is seen through have every man that you encounter (rare except if back on vacation) speaks impeccable English. This differs considerably from the Hindu villages that I have been to where it is just Garhwali and Hindi. In any case, these jobs are very lucrative which can be seen in the constructions of their homes. The composition of most of the Hindu villages around here are of the traditional (beautiful) stone homes with slate roofs. A sign of affluence in the village is the standard brick/cement monstrosities that predominate popular Indian architecture. With remittances flowing in, almost all of the homes were exactly of this boring ebb. There were maybe two traditional houses that I saw.

To exemplify this strangeness, take the case of Khadir. We meet Khadir actually in a traditional mountain house on the porch with his father, an elderly man completely in Muslim garb, kurta pajama, white cap, long beard, red checkered scarf. His father was smoking a probably fifty year old hookah, heated with wood coals, sitting on a haystack right next to his water buffalo in his courtyard. Pretty traditional, right? Khadir on the other hand, was was wearing Levis, a tight army shirt, gelled hair, and cologne so strong that we could smell him two houses away. The moment that the first word left his mouth ('man'), I knew that he had a lot of American friends. Every other word was 'man' or 'dude,' flavored with a 'know what I mean?' here and there. Khadir actually is a baker working for a Near East company, providing services to American troops in Iraq. Since he can't leave the army compound for the sake of not getting killed, he is dependent on the troops for friendship and has befriend many Americans, who gave him the new vocabulary, the new shirt, and presumably awkward, unbefitting strut that he tried to pull of. Khadir was great though, very kind and gentle. He was really impressed by the school and took us to many of the homes. By the last home that we visited, Khadir was actually doing all of the convincing to the families.

But we were able to recruit six students from this village. We picked up another two beautiful children from a family living slightly above Ghoghas. The exciting part of this recruitment is that us teachers had barely any part in it. One critique of the school has been that we do not have enough contact with the families of our students, which we couldn't deny a year ago. During the early years of our school, the parents really couldn't understand what we were trying to do and because of this, made them fearful. Many parents took out their children out of the school (enrollment was about 250 about four years ago, it is about 80 now). But since my arrival, we have been trying to make a concerted effort to bring in the parents to their child's education. We weren't sure how our parents have been perceiving our unique pedagogy, but through village visits recently, we have found that many families are quite pleased with our teaching methods and strong allies. Therefore, the have included the parents of our children into the recruitment process. We took four parents along with us to Ghoghas and they were amazing. They described the school, defended critiques, and ultimately persuaded parents to send the children. It was beautiful to see the turn around. It was also beautiful seeing these parents, all women, eloquently navigate the treacherous paths to the remote homes of perspective students. I have noticed that typically when an Indian woman leaves the house, even to do mundane things like shopping or traveling, she will look her best. These women were dressed in beautiful new saris and their finest jewelry, traversing rocky, steep, dense paths; paths that even my outdoorsy friends would wear hiking boots are at least shoes to travel on, these women were wearing flipflops. Amazing.

The content of the new students really pleases me as well. Right now we only have two or three Muslims in the school. Six of the new students are Muslim. Also the two Hindu children come from Harijan or untouchable background. Don't be fooled by the imposed name; all of the untouchables in our school are the cutest children and thus the most touchable. It was strange interaction, coming to that house. All of the people we were with were from higher castes than the father, so he would not offer of us chai, as for it would pollute the higher castes to receive chai from a Harijan. I was longing for a chai after the long hike; he could have at least offer the other Harijan, myself (those outside of the Hindu faith and do not have a caste are also untouchables) some chai. Actually, that is another terrible thing about India is that foreigners technically are untouchables, yet it has been my experience that I get unnecessarily exulted almost everywhere I go; people offer me chai, sweets, friendship, all sorts of things. But for many they will treat the untouchable down the street as if they were a feral dog.

This caste discrimination used to be apparent in our school, some of the students taken out of the school in the beginning because we allowed untouchables into our classrooms. But after four years of the intervention, caste has melted away. One day, I asked a friend about the caste of some children during recess. As he rattled them off I was surprised to see that almost for every Harijan that he pointed to was playing with a Brahmin, the highest caste. In terms of religion, the Hindu/Muslim divide isn't very big in our village. It is a problem in the cities where Muslims are treated like second class citizens and outwardly and inwardly discriminated against daily. But in the village it is a bit more relaxed, and it is so small that everyone kind of needs to get along to make it all work. Plus, in terms of economic status, the Muslims are on a higher rung than most Hindus with their foreign money. You couldn't even point out who is Muslim in our classrooms, they are fully integrated in our school.

Unfortunately, there is a group of students that haven't integrated as well. APV has received a growing number of Nepali children. Because of an open border with India, many Nepalis have settled in Tehri Garhwal, predominately picking up manual labor jobs. Many Aryan Indians in the mountains have met their growing presence with discrimination and xenophobia. For example, schoolteachers are notorious for beating the Nepali far more than other children. Our reputation for equality and non-violent classrooms has been a pull factor behind the influx of new Nepali students. Also, one of the APV teachers is Nepali herself, which is a large source of pride for the local Nepali community. But recently, two parents pulled their children from Kindergarten and third grade citing that the ‘Nepali students were corrupting their children.’ This is obviously an unfounded discriminatory rant. Their is one Nepali girl in the third grade, Sunita, who is probably the best mannered child in the school. If she were to say anything corrupting I would be shocked. As for KG, that is just absolutely preposterous; the children Pintu and Aju are so innocent and sweet. Furthermore, our teachers are responsible, if there was any 'corrupting' behavior, they would not let it continue. But even in the school, children tend to group along ethnic lines, there hasn't been the same integration between the children of different castes and religions. But the younger children seem to mingle a bit more freely, if we can set a precedence at younger ages of tolerance, hopefully it will build on itself. It takes time.

In any case, I am really grateful for our new recruits, I believe that they will be a great addition to our loving community.

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