…If you believe in God, you can rest assured that he (or she) is smiling tonight. Today, the lives of two young girls were changed forever — and so was mine. Though there was death overnight, two children were given new lives through previously inconceivable opportunities.
Just this morning, Neha and Gudiya were on a predestined path toward young marriages, lifelong illiteracy, and lives spent in the urban slums of Northern India. They were prepared to follow the throngs of people around them to become statistics of poverty and despair. Through the night, an elderly woman passed away in the slum. I paused this morning as the procession of weeping family and friends carried her blanket-wrapped corpse past me toward the crematorium. Where could that woman have gone with a great education? What could she have become? Where would her family be? We will never know.
The most assured way to escape this endless cycle of negligence and squalor is through high-quality education. However, those who need education the most are almost always the least likely to receive it. Not today!
Last night, I prepared a presentation for Sister Pushpa to show her my progress in searching for six-year-olds. This morning, I took my laptop to show her some of my photos from the slum along with information I had collected from interviews and research. I told her everything I knew about the top students so that I could gather her thoughts on the matter. We could both tell that our minds were in perfect sync. She said, “Bring me Neha, Gudiya, and their parents.” I was jittery with excitement. I asked when, to which she responded, “Two-thirty.” Now that’s making things happen! I felt like it was Christmas morning all over again.
As I was getting ready to leave, Sister Pushpa said something that I will never forget. She told me, “I’ll make them leaders here–not great leaders, the greatest.”
I practically ran to the slum to find someone to translate for me and let Neha, Gudiya, Guyatri, and Ramotar know that we had a “very important meeting” with a school and to be ready at 1:45 pm.
I rushed off to visit another school, ate lunch, and returned to their home at the specified time. Even though they were still barefoot, Gudiya and Neha were having their friends brush their hair:
Although I was a bit anxious to see if Ramotar would show up, I found out that he was having an adjustment made to his cycle-rickshaw and that he would arrive in five minutes. He arrived looking wary and uncertain about the whole situation. Nobody here has ever experienced this type of treatment. I imagine he simply didn’t know what to think of me. After all, he just met me yesterday, I asked him some personal questions, and now I wanted to take his entire family somewhere for an “important” meeting. I would have been curious too if I were him.
Guyatri also dressed her youngest daughter, Saraswati (age 4), for the trip:
Even in the slum, we still had to wait for the women. Apparently, that fact of life is consistent everywhere (wink wink).
Ramotar came back to lock their door but didn’t seem to know how to do it. I got the impression that the entire family had probably never left the house together.
In an act I hadn’t expected or even contemplated, Ramotar went to retrieve the family’s rickshaw. I walked through a labyrinth of narrow alleys with the ladies toward the main street where I assumed he was going to meet us.
Sure enough, Ramotar pulled the rickshaw over and we all climbed aboard.
The girls loved the entire situation and so did the locals. Everyone stared and smiled as Ramotar slowly pulled us toward one of the slum’s exits.
I felt like we were in a dream, or at least in the opening scene of an idyllic Bollywood plotline. Here we were, sitting in the family’s cycle-rickshaw with Dad pedaling us out of the slum toward a brighter future for his little girls. We were living in a miracle.
The Carmel Convent School is not very far from the slum, only about 500 meters. The ride was short and we pulled up to the school just as classes were ending for the day. The students, most of whom are wealthy, were cramming into tuk-tuks to head home.
Neha and Gudiya, still barefoot, jumped down from the rickshaw while surrounded by gazing students in uniforms that would take Ramotar more than four days of work to purchase. Ramotar parked his rickshaw on the side of the road and we entered through the school’s gates into the massive complex. Gopal, the security officer, chased down the girls and their family. I assured him that they were with me and he allowed us to continue toward the administration building.
Sister Pushpa was waiting for us in the lobby of the administration building. She wasted no time in greeting each of the little girls. I think her heart was won as immediately as mine had been two months ago.
Sister Pushpa questioned and comforted each of the girls. I could practically see the love pouring out of her. She turned to her colleague, Mrs. Lysa, and me to declare, “We’ll put both of them in first standard…separate classes.” WOW!! I was over the moon. In less than four days, we had gone from an idea to impact. I was overflowing with hope, inspiration, and enthusiasm.
Then, the first aspects of responsibility were laid out and handed down. Ramotar was directed to stop drinking. Both parents will no longer be able to beat their children (which is a common form of discipline in the slum). Gudiya and Neha will have to be impeccably clean every day in order to blend in with the other students. And, as would be expected, tardiness will not be tolerated and attendance will be mandatory for the next ten years.
Gudiya, as stated in yesterday’s post, is believed to be 10. She was born at home when Ramotar and Guyatri still lived in Bihar. Therefore, she does not have a birth certificate, which is mandatory for any educational institution. We will need to file paperwork for the state of Bihar to create her birth certificate and send it to us. That should be an interesting process. Surprisingly, Gudiya is not alone. More than 30% of slum children in the Delhi area do not have birth certificates.
Neha is thought to be seven or maybe six. We’re still not sure. Luckily, she was born in a hospital here in Faridabad, which will make compiling her documentation much easier.
Though seemingly shell-shocked for most of the visit, Ramotar finally lightened up for a smile. I still don’t think he and his wife realize just what an opportunity has been given to their daughters, but I do (and so do Sister Pushpa and Shri, my host-father).
After some shared smiles and assumed gratitude, the family boarded their rickshaw and headed home.
As the girls and their family slowly faded into the distance, I felt a breathtaking pride for them as if they were my own. In a way, I feel like they are. I can’t wait to buy their backpacks and supplies. I can’t wait to put them in shoes and brand-new uniforms. I can’t wait to see them go to school for the first time. I can’t wait for them to email me from the computer lab. I can’t wait to show them these pictures when they graduate from high school or maybe even college. Who will they become? Where will they go? What will they do? What if they don’t just become great leaders, but the greatest?