Well, if I had any lingering doubts about whether I love India, or whether the poverty and desperation, the dirt and the chaos were just too much for me, today tilted things finally and inspiringly into the "love it" category.
We rose bright and early to head to the Student Union, the meeting place for our Field Program. I was again the leader, though, with Amanda, two faculty members, and a librarian on the trip as well, I was, at best the fifth most qualified person to lead.
The trip was an excursion to a local school, the Sri Sayee Vivekanda Vidyala school. Yes, that's rather a mouthful, but I'm sure a name like "Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Middle School" must seem unwieldy to Tamul speakers. The school is essentially like our idea of a private school, since the students (ages 3-18 or so) pay tuition. But it's also a charitable endeavor, founded by a philanthropist and with most of the students on full or partial scholarships. This was about all I had been told beforehand, though I was also given an envelope with SAS's $150 donation, in American cash, and a large box of toys, art and school supplies to use to play with the kids and then donate. We were also supposed to do some cleanup work.
Our guide through the tour company had no connection to the school and, in fact, had never even been in that part of Chennai, even though she'd lived in the city her whole life. We were also accompanied by a teacher from the school, a phys ed and karate (!) instructor.
We arrived at the school to the warmest and most overwhelming reception I have ever received. A student band was playing, we were given beaded necklaces and roses and our foreheads were painted and flower petals were scattered before us. My thought was "there is no way we're going to be worthy of this."
The school is clean and elegant, but also clearly quite poor. The rooms are small and old fashioned, with undecorated walls and wide desks shared by several students. The students wear uniforms, western in style, and the boys and girls are separated, though they are in the same classrooms.
After a quick orientation we were invited to go to a class to teach some English, play on the sports fields, or do some art. Apparently all the cleanup work we were supposed to do had been taken care of before we got there. It seems they were so excited about our visit they wanted it to look good for us.
So if there is any complaint at all about the day is that we can't really call it a service visit. It was just fun and play.
Amanda and I and a student were taken to a Ninth Grade classroom (though they had a different name ... Ninth Form, maybe) and introduced to the class and the teacher. They rose when we entered and didn't sit until I asked them to ... so there's one big difference. The students were a bit shy at first, so we did most of the talking. I think they understood us, since they have been studying English since a very early age, but even when I speak slowly and clearly, I'm sure I have a very thick American accent to their ears. That was one of my big, now seemingly obvious observations, English has been in India long enough that Indian English is as much a dialect of the language as American or Australian. They aren't just speaking "slightly wrong" English, they're speaking their own, perfectly valid variation. For instance, walls in Chennai might have "Stick no bills" written on them, rather than our "Post."
We talked a bit about America and sang an American song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," as recommended by our former interim dean, Max. They asked us to sing the National Anthem, which we attempted, assuring them it's a difficult song and none of us was a great singer. The students responded with their own Anthem, which sounded very beautiful. I believe it was in Hindi, a language none of them spoke.
I was called away at one point to talk to a video camera about what we were doing there. There was a lot of press all day, as there as been at every SAS service visit. SAS has been all over the local and national papers since we arrived. I was happy to return to the classroom in time to see the students dance for us. We also got some recommendations for what music to buy (the stuff kids like, not grownup stuff) and discussed what they would want to see in America -- New York and the Statue of Liberty ... I actually got a little choked up talking about the message the Statue sends to immigrants.
From there, we saw the rather meager library, full of fairly worn books. We were then taken to a classroom with much younger children for some photos. Then I went, alone, to a group of seven-year-olds where I was a little more at sea. I sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" again and told them my family's Halloween story, after explaining what Halloween is. I'm not sure if the children understood much. I kept pausing to allow the teacher to translate, but she didn't until the end of the story, which she retold quickly in what might best be called Tamglish.
Amanda, meanwhile was leading children in "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," a brilliant idea to get them all involved. We were then herded into a room (removing our shoes first, something we had forgotten to do earlier) where we were given coconuts with straws and bananas (I managed to eat most of mine, to be polite, but I really don't care for banana). Then a group of girls came in to do some traditional dancing, which was great. This was followed by younger kids in AMAZING costumes -- horses, peacocks, Krishna, and others. These were not short dances, either. No, long, well choreographed, painstakingly rehearsed dances, prepared for our benefit. A rain dance performed by the older girls followed, again wonderful.
I have experience hospitality and southern hospitality. But nothing compares to South Indian hospitality. I felt so honored to be receiving this treatment that I wished I could speak Tamul to thank our hosts properly.
Some introductions and speeches followed. We were all asked to speak briefly and then answer some questions. We posed for more photos and then, sadly, had to leave. I gave them the donation and made it clear it was from the whole group and SAS (as trip leader, I actually didn't pay anything). Nevertheless, the receipt said "Mr. Smith" ... oh well.
On our way out, we signed some autographs, for lack of a better word, for the kids. The notebooks they were using seemed old and remaindered. I know one I signed was a day planner from 1991. Cosmically enough, the page I signed on happened to be July 12th, Amanda's and my anniversary.
I was sorry to say goodbye. This had been a truly remarkable experience. I've never encountered people more friendly and welcoming in my life. India has many problems, of course, but today I feel like I got a glimpse into the hearts of the people and the hope that dwells there. I'm very pleased to say that that is what I will take with me from this place.
Well, that and about a zillion sarees.