Christmas Day handing out presents to children in two Indian orphanages. If this doesn’t save me from Hell, nothing will. The volunteers were kept together today for the purpose of visiting the two primary places where we have been working for the past week. The kids were all dressed up in their finery. “It’s a good thing the Catholic Church is so rich” mused Lucia, one of the Maineiac triplets..
By now all of us have interacted with the children often enough to have upped the comfort level that they feel when addressing us. There is still the respect but timidness has taken a back seat to familiarity. The morning began at SEAMS where the children, ranging in age from 6 to 17 performed a well rehearsed series of dances and songs; some were solo performances, other dances in groups of 4 or 5.
To see the children outside of the normal relationship of tutor/tutee also changes the dynamic of the relationship as well. Last night I was working with two of the boys who are in their mid-teens. One wants to be a computer engineer, the other a policeman. We worked on linguistic skills and discussed various aspects of morality, a difficult but manageable task, given language constraints. The first discussion centred on why he wanted to be a policeman. He stated in a good natured way that he wanted to be a ‘mama’ – slang for a cop on the take. I understand that coming from a financially disadvantaged situation it is understandable that corruption represents a quick way up the money tree, but felt that it was incumbent upon me to raise the notion of civic responsibility. I used the example of apprehending a thief who had stolen from a beggar. Should the thief offer a payoff to my student, would he accept the money and allow the thief to continue his wicked ways. My student comprehended the analogy and seemed to grasp the notion of a police officer having to maintain a higher standard of integrity than the rest of the population specifically because of his vested position.
Other discussions centred around the boys; long term goals. Each aspires to attend university in the US but happily both would want to return to India after the completion of their studies in order to give back to the community that helped them out of a difficult start. The two boys come from villages a fair distance from Chennai. Their parents are subsistance fishermen. The children attending the school all live within the facility. They are orphans, semi-orphans or come from homes that were either too poor to pay to educate them or were unstable and abusive.
The pride in their accomplishments, be they academic, linguistic or artistic shines above and through any difficulties that students may be enduring. What has opened my eyes the widest and created a major mind set shift is the realization that although a tragedy may have set the wheels in motion, the children that we are encountering are significantly better off as a result. Instead of growing up in an impoverished village with no chance at an education or other way out, they have put their past behind them (many are too young to even have known their past) and are on a path toward self-betterment. An orphanage, if run by decent and dedicated people, provides a healthy and fertile environment for the children. They take care of each other, develop lasting friendships and offer themselves a chance to reinvent a family life that they may never have benefited from had they not been adopted by the agency. There are 30 children looking after each other as brothers sisters and cousins should.
As the performance progressed, we were invited on stage to dance with the students. They had spent days rehearsing their acts and were anxious to have us join in. Given the relationships that we all have at this point, none of us refused. In situations as these, one cannot tiptoe in, rather it is full force into the fray and let the chips fall where they may. In this day of digital, not a single step or move by any of us went unrecorded. I thought that carrying bricks in the hot sun worked up a sweat. Try Indian dancing with exuberant teens and pre-teens if you want to see aerobics in action!
As the show headed toward its conclusion, we were treated to a solo dance by Rebecca, one of the three senior girls living there. I had worked with Rebecca on computer skills a few days earlier when construction was rained out. Now, here was this tiny 20 year old with an enchanting smile dancing, whirling and displaying traditional Indian moves in a routine that ended with her whirling in place like an ice skater at the climax of her routine.
One of the other senior girls, Syudesh, is a beautiful 16 year old getting her diploma in accounting. She showed me her work book on one of my early visits to the school. Her work was immaculate in terms of script, organization and presentation. Syudesh is painfully shy but with our daily visits has become much more engaging. I was surprised that she was not one of the dancers since I had noticed that she walks with exquisite elegance and grace. She indicated to me that she wasn’t a dancer; Rebecca, sitting beside her laughed and shot down the excuse, telling me that Syudesh is actually a ‘master dancer’, specializing in break dancing. I would have thought the response to be a joke, but I haven’t clued into Indian humour yet.