I spent the whole of February 2009 at HEAL and the Bala Kuteer School opposite. It was the most amazing time, and I would recommend it to anybody. In particular, everyone was overwhelmingly welcoming, cheerful and generous towards me. I spent most of my time helping in the school, and offer the following observations to HEAL and to any future visitors.
There are about 200 resident children, and a further 600 day students. The children study incredibly hard. As the exams approach, their day runs from 4:30am to 11:00pm, and it is common to see them sitting in groups round a single lamp outside, late at night, murmuring revision subjects to themselves. Fortunately, volunteers are not expected to keep up with this schedule! The official school day begins at 9:45am with assembly, and ends at 4:30pm.
The children have simple tastes and are easily pleased. They all want to greet their visitors at all times, whenever and wherever they are seen, with a “Good morning Uncle!” shouted from all directions as you walk around. They want to know if you know any magic tricks (it’s a good idea to have on ‘up your sleeve’!); if you’ll watch them launching their spinning-tops; if you’ll play a ball game or, more bizarrely, show them your biceps! And do you know Freddie Flintoff, seeing that you’re from England?
Days in school were filled with helping in English lessons, especially with pronunciation, and it was a help to ensure that a teacher stayed in the room, as the kids would get excited to have a visitor, and be less disciplined as a result. If you’re an experienced teacher, you’ll be able to deal with this yourself. I’m not, but found that lessons with a local teacher present were a delight. Don’t forget that you’re an expert in spoken English, and the children (and staff) need to speak in English with you as much as possible, to improve their clarity, grammar and pronunciation. You could take CDs or cassettes of a ‘talking book’ or stories for children, but DVDs from the UK (region 2) don’t work in India.
The younger children enjoy singing nursery rhymes (which is a means of learning English) but they aren’t particularly musical, and love it when you go along and sing something properly. Music is an area which needs to be developed. There are three small Casio keyboards, but no-one plays any instruments, and the children have little concept of melody or pitch. Take a CD of songs for children. If you’re a guitar player, it’s worth going to the trouble of taking it. The school might be able to find one locally, but it’s not likely to be in good condition.
The Indians have a principle of treating their guests as ‘gods’. There is endless food and kindness. Meals are brought to your room, but I found it better to eat with the children whenever possible, sitting on the floor in the HEAL dining room. The kids loved the attention, and the fact that I was becoming one of them. After supper, reading a bed-time story (there are some in the library, but take your own!) was really appreciated. A house-mother or senior pupil will help to translate the story into Telugu for the little ones.
There is one broadband connection in the school office, and it’s usually available for keeping in touch with friends and family after 4:30, or during the day for more official use.
While the children are uninhibitedly friendly, I found some of the staff to be a bit awe-struck with a visitor – especially one who is treated like a god! It would be a good idea to ask for a teacher-buddy to be appointed who can help to break through that barrier. The Indian custom is for the sexes to be kept separate in a very ‘proper’ way. The boys and girls sit on separate sides of the classroom, eat at separate ends of the dining room and don’t play together. A volunteer befriending staff of the opposite sex will not meet with approval, and the school have decided not to allow mixed groups of unmarried volunteers to stay. That aside, I can’t express how kind everyone is.
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