VOLUNTEER REPORT - Ursula Finkbeiner

The first thing I noticed when I came to Shanti Bhavan were the sparkling, bright faces of the children. The first graders had just finished eating breakfast and with napkins still tucked into their collars marched single file from their assigned tables to the wash up room to deposit their dirty plates and cutlery. With large smiles they welcomed me, pulling on my hands and shirt wanting to be first and as it seemed the only ones- to greet me.

The dining hall opens to lush gardens on three sides which are hung with coarse netting to keep the jungle crows and sparrows out. The almost exclusive vegetarian food is excellent. Eating here actually spoiled me so much that I find the meals served in Bangalore wanting after that. All fresh ingredients are chopped and diced by at least three people three times a day. During the meals I was always informed about the health effects of the ingredients in a dish. Whether children or adults I was made aware that this or that helps against colds, indigestion or whatever. I was especially sensitive to all information, which might lead to weight reduction. The dining highlight of the week must be Sunday’s evening meal. The buzz can be heard across Shanti Bhavan “Tonight we’ll have chicken!!”

After snack time which is often a small bowl of sweetened rice the children assemble to hear the world news read by teachers or students. As all over the world grizzly death and spectacular destruction are the main topics. How glad was I when vice- principal Beena reported news from Cochin where a lucky taxi driver was invited by an Austrian couple for one month to Austria because he was kind and helpful to them. I sat next to the aunties (caregivers) when this story was told and some contemplated becoming taxi drivers. In addition to the news Mrs. Law’s mini lectures can take on surprising topics such as the importance of body hygiene. But I guess living with each other day in and day out needs leadership in society’s minutia.

What’s surprising about the physical Shanti Bhavan are its non formal and formal gardens and the diligence with which they are tended their beauty is appreciated by the students. The lawn outside the dining hall serves as quick tumbling ground for the students just after eating and before the next session.

What most impressed me and what I will take away as valuable lesson for my own classroom is the importance of simple routines and strict adherence to order. The children are busy from early morning till late evening. The change from one setting to the next runs smoothly and effortlessly. The children intermingle harmoniously in unstructured setting such as on the sports field when the rules are clear and enforcement assured.

I was attracted to Shanti Bhavan through Tom Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’. The student body at Shanti Bhavan appeared similar to the one at my school in the Los Angeles inner-city. Both serve students of poor mostly illiterate parents. English is not their first language. Surprisingly, we also have similar American textbooks. The residential setting at Shanti Bhavan, however, is a great advantage. Learning takes place almost twelve hours a day considering before and after school activities including the selection of videos shown. The last thing the lower grades hear after brushing their teeth is a bed time story. At 8:30pm it is ‘lights out’ for them. The upper grades return to their classrooms after dinner until 9pm for ‘prep time’. Some of my LA students might stay in an After School Program until 6pm, if the budget didn’t cut it. They return home or to a baby sitter’s house to watch ‘R’ rated action movies or unsuitable television programs till 11pm. I want to blame the latter for more strife and aggressivity in my Los Angeles school than I have found in Shanti Bhavan.

I had volunteered to teach pre – algebra to young children. It was successful. I’ll return to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of notes, letters and poems from the children. I have received precious presents from financially poor students. A fourth grader gave me a plastic statue of a soldier and a fifth grader a pendant of a flower. I will treasure both and hope to show them again when they are adults.

Ursula Finkbeiner
School Teacher, Bringham, California.


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