All I knew was that I would be picked up at 7.45am and somehow conveyed to school. Sure enough, there was the driver – and with a curt “namasté ma’am” and no further ado, we were off. However, nothing could have prepared me for my new school commute. Driving in India is unforgettably terrifying. En route, we swerved around a dozen ponderous cows; left for dust precarious tuktuks, overburdened with cargos of grain sacks or boxes of chickens; narrowly missed kamikaze auto-rickshaws; nosed passed beggars clutching bundles of small children; took a ‘short-cut’ the wrong way along a dual carriageway; and slalomed between lorries and school buses. Feeling thoroughly relieved to still be alive, as we screeched through the school gates, I’d forgotten my jetlag or any anxieties about teaching at a new school – and was ready for anything!
Students are greeted in the morning by an ethereal voice over the intercom: “Namasté children, get ready for prayer…” and a beautiful, haunting melody is broadcast, invoking equality and the validity of all religions: whether Hindu, Muslim, Jain or Sikh. All students and staff fall silent and appreciate this moment of contemplation. This proves to frame my experience of The Shri Ram School, which, for me, is characterised by the celebration of diversity. It is immediately clear that the dedicated staff have very nurturing, maternal relationships with students. Furthermore, while predominantly mainstream, the school also has a specialist unit for children with disabilities. These students are recognisable for the enormous smiles on their faces – and the zeal of their high-fives! Many students begin school with support, yet leave as independent, confident young people – a necessity in a country where university places and jobs are scarce and hotly-contested.
As the upper school are currently sitting state examinations, I have been teaching Years 7-9. Together, we have explored Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, Shakespeare and non-fiction writing skills. The boys have been keen to ascertain whether I supported Manchester United or Chelsea - and once that was cleared up, they were all ears. The girls have said that ‘Miss Dodds’ sounds like I’m a character from an Enid Blyton story; it has taken me a little while to adjust to my new moniker of ‘Lorna Ma’am’. Despite them delving enthusiastically into Victorian-style desks before each lesson, you can’t necessarily depend on the students having their exercise books with them. However, you will always be guaranteed a captive audience. One of the highlights was watching their expressions as they opened the letters written to them by Townley girls. Desperate to know all about their new pen-pals, the students bombarded me with questions and enthusiastically compared notes. I am very much looking forward to my girls reciprocating when I deliver their replies.
Instead of my standard manic running around the school between lessons, I have been taught to meditate in a school broom cupboard, allowed to explore the impressive Art Department and treated to join colleagues’ birthday celebrations – teaching seems a little more chilled-out over here.
Additionally, there are some interesting cultural differences, in terms of the students’ home lives. On the one hand, Shri Ram is a prestigious private school, so most of the students are relatively privileged. Many live in large, air-conditioned mansions, with security guards on the doors and maids on-hand to run the household. In stark juxtaposition with the slums clustered on their doorstep, the Shri Ram students stare poverty in the face every single day - but do not necessarily have to confront it.
On the contrary, Shri Ram endeavours to redress the balance. Every afternoon, after normal school hours, Shri Ram opens its doors to so-called balwadi children. They are the offspring of local migrant workers, who are building the multi-national offices that appear to shape Gurgaon as the ‘Delhi of the future’. They cannot afford an education like the Shri Ram families’, yet the school enables an NGO to use its facilities to provide classes in Maths, Hindi and English. Moreover, Shri Ram students buddy-up with the children and often teach their classes as part of a social awareness programme. Many of the balwadi children work during the normal school day. Several sew hems at a clothing factory, a pretty eleven year-old girl sweeps the street and a tall, gaunt boy of thirteen looks after his younger siblings while his mother is selling flowers. While the children have access to education via this initiative until they are fourteen, it is deeply sad that thereafter there is nothing to support them; they are destined to face the ‘adult’ world. After a class sang me a song they had just learnt in Hindi, they were thrilled to receive the pens and pencils that my Year 7 students had collected and donated. I was proud of the generosity of my own students back in England. Yet, it is poignant that in the western world, education is seen as a basic human right, while in India, it is a privilege reserved only for the upper echelons of society.
Aside from everything I have learnt since arriving in India, I am most struck by the universality of the teaching experience: no matter where you are in the world, the ‘penny-dropping’ moment, the widening of kids’ eyes when you encourage them to think deeper, and the delight in performing something new together, is what truly matters. India is fundamentally in need of effective education across all social strata, in order to promote tolerance and genuine progress in a country still riven by caste division. Students like those at Shri Ram, who are taught to be both compassionate and articulate, represent a beacon of hope for the future of India.