Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Small Victories

I recently told you all that my roommates and I would be trying to help the kids from Lakhtokia go to school. Last week, I met with a top official at a local school to push this idea along. Don Boscoe School, a well-known Catholic school in Guwahati, has an afternoon school program for lower income kids. From 3:30-5:30, the teachers there volunteer their time to teach a rowdy group of kids everything from math to science to Assamese history and English.

Before actually bringing the Lakhtokia kids to some of these afternoon classes, I described the state of these kids to the school official. I explained how they are not clean, have never been to school, are out on the streets all day long, know nothing about authority, etc. I went into great detail. She said that was fine and that most of the kids in the program come in that way.

On Sunday when I went to the slum to feed the kids, we asked some of the girls if they were interested in going to school the next day. We told them that if they were, they needed to meet us at the makeshift temple in the slum at 3 o'clock on Monday. Honestly? We were expecting that we might have zero girls show up. I mean seriously, how on earth would they even know it was 3 o'clock?

So when the time came on Monday, Kristin and I started making the walk from the hospital to Lakhtokia. When we got there, two girls, who are around six years old, were ready and waiting for us nea the temple. Upon seeing us, these two girls' faces lit up as bright as the sun. To them, it was obviously dawning on them that this was not some joke, but a real thing! It was  time to go to school!

For a few minutes Kristin and I went on in search of more people to join us. We found another girl who wanted to go but could not because she could not leave her baby brother. What the heck, we decided to take him with us.

Walking to school.

I felt like a school bus with not enough arms. As we walked to the school, the three girls and one boy wanted to hold our hands for the 15-minute walk to Don Boscoe. Before long, it was up the five flights of stairs to the school's afternoon program. I found myself getting really nervous, like my first day of school. I grabbed on to their little hands even tighter—none of my hands had circulation at this point. When we got there, the other after school kids were beginning to line up for their “assembly” that marks the beginning of their afternoon. The girls stayed very quiet and very close to Kristen and me.

When I saw the coordinator, she looked completely shocked. I was not quite sure what had happened but it was dawning on me there had been a serious miscommunication problem. In short, she said the kids needed to come to school looking presentable, at least with shoes and cleaner bodies. I came back at her and explained that I had told her how the kids were going to show up and that she had said in the meeting that was okay. I said what was school for, after all? She apologized a bit for the lack of explanation but continued to put the girls down. It got bad. She finally said they needed to look like "human beings."

At some point, I snapped because I couldn't take it any more. Even though our slum girls can't understand English, they could feel what she was saying. The looks on their faces said this: that they knew they were not going to be accepted at this school either. They clutched on to our hands. It was awful. I laid out my case very clearly. Kristin and I were not going to leave with them still in our arms. That would have been so disappointing to them. And also to us.

At some point, the coordinator told us to put the girls in the line that was being formed for the assembly. After placing them in line, the coordinator started lecturing them on cleanliness and hygiene. It was clear the coordinator did not want them at school that day. But it looked like it was going to happen.

Waiting in the assembly line.

Standing in line.

After the assembly, which lasted about ten minutes, the girls ran back to grab our hands. They just gathered around us, still very worried and still totally understanding that this was a touch and go situation. I felt like a mom dropping off a baby: so nervous and so sad as we told them to now go into the classroom.

And off they went—walking in and sitting at desks. Meanwhile, I still had the baby brother with me. So at that point I realized I needed to take him back to the slum. I got in a rickshaw with him. Once I sat down, I just broke down in tears. Nobody gives these kids a chance. And it just kills me. They want a chance but they cannot get it. This is not their parents, or law enforcement, or priests telling them to go to school. They themselves want the opportunity to go to school, and it isn't easy.
I got it back together. After I dropped off the boy and got back to the school, the girls left their classroom and had dinner, which is part of the program. It only costs one rupee, or about 2 cents. When dinner was over, we walked them back home. (Along the way a woman spit on me because I was walking with these kids… Have a great day lady…) Meanwhile, the kids were all saying “Cali, cali, tinne, tinne,” which means "Tomorrow, tomorrow, at 3, at 3!"

So I guess the teacher paid attention to them in class. And vice versa. I hope so.

First day of school group.


It’s the second day of school! When I got to Lakhtokia, the girls were getting all clean. It was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. Somehow, they had gotten hold of some water. And they were splashing it all over themselves, trying to put a dent in the soot and dirt and grime that is part of their skin. And then they began putting on their best outfits, brushing their hair, and safely guarding the notebooks they had been given on the first day of school. One thing they were lacking: shoes. The girls wanted me to buy them some shoes, so we detoured into a little store and bought some. They were simple flip flops that they picked out. Then we were off on the “Hannah School Bus.”

While looking for the girls on the second day of school, I found some of my other friends.

Mother putting Abita's hair into a ponytail.

Abita washing herself off.
Cleaning away.
One of the older girls, Puja, who is probably twelve years old, wanted to join in today too. We were already running behind because of the shoe excursion and Puja was not clean and had on a dirty dress. The younger ones explained to her what she needed to do, so she told us she would get ready and then meet us at the school. When we got there, the girls hopped right in the assembly line and seemed to fit in better. And before I knew it, Puja had found her way to the fifth floor, clean and dressed in her best outfit, ready for her first day too. At the school's dinner, she was sitting with other girls that she had met in class—making new friends!

Puja (a picture taken a couple of months ago).

Puja eating with her new friends. 
While I was there, the teachers drew me aside. They explained the difficulties faced when teaching these children. These children have never sat, listened to someone else, tried to focus, for two hours, in their lives.  First, the teachers told me the students needed to learn basic discipline. But already, they are learning things—they have learned the alphabet and how to hold a pencil. I hope they are beginning to learn how to listen.

There are so many barriers. But I am hoping this is a start to something. I don't know what that "something " is, but I feel what we did is the right thing to do, even though we really don't know where it goes or where it ends.

Sending smiles from India,


  1. Hi Hannah - I linked through to your blog from Mason Dixon and have been "lurking" since you started and today I just fell compelled to comment. You are one remarkable young lady!

    I am nearer 50 than 40 and my sons are about the same age as you. My eldest is also on his "gap" year before starting University here in the UK and he's been milking cows in New Zealand for 6 months to earn money to travel home. I thought he was working hard (3.30am starts anyone?!) but you, dear girl, are on a different planet.

    I cannot begin to even start putting into words the admiration I have for you and what you are doing. Those children are going to school, for the first time, thanks to you and that's an incredible achievement - and it's not even what you went to India to do!

    I'm sure I'm not the only (almost) middle-aged woman who is reading this in awe of you. You keep going - you are a star.

    Smiles from England
    Julia x

  2. Hannah, your description of the first day brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sticking up and advocating for these girls!

  3. I too am a mom who found your site through knitting. You are an inspiration and doing something that you will be proud of for the rest of your life. It is hard to do something this big alone, but don't be discouraged. Those children's lives will be forever changed by you. Not many people can make this kind of difference for others. You are a hero!

  4. To all the moms who are following hannah's blog....she is remarkable and here's what we can do--send her money to be set aside for shoes and supplies for school. Or better yet, we could all rent a very small apartment near the school where children could come to wash and dress--a way station before they get on the Hannah Bus. Her mother is going to visit her the first of March. She will be taking funds from me---anyone who wants to match let me know! Cary Rayson csrayson@comcast.net