Ankit: Spreading Smiles…

…It isn’t every day that a student in her 20’s takes the opportunity to bestow an entire education on a stranger. However, that is just what Alexis Graham of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan has done. As the twin sister of volunteer Crystal Graham, Alexis has been moved by her sibling’s descriptions about and experiences with life in the slum. As Alexis sets out on her own career as a dentist, she has made a commitment to Ankit that will transform his existence. Thanks to Alexis’s generosity, Ankit Kumar will study at the Carmel Convent School in Faridabad, India for not just one year, two years, or even nine years, but until the day he graduates from high school!

As a dentist, Alexis should particularly enjoy Ankit’s hilarious smiles and expressions. Although he is our smallest student, he has a larger-than-life personality. He loves the spotlight. When asked to recite anything in front of the classroom, he usually proceeds with deafening vitality.


–Behind Ankit as he took to the stage in our slum school in January–

Ankit’s fearless and outgoing demeanor gives him unique leadership strengths. I will not be surprised if he becomes a powerful leader and voice both within and for his community.


–Ankit leading the way–


–Volunteer Crystal Graham towering over Ankit and his mother, Rekha and father, Ravi–

Alexis and Ankit’s relationship is marked by many opposites. Ankit started school just as Alexis finished her studies and took her board exams to become a licensed dentist. As Alexis proudly exits academia with professional credentials, Ankit proudly enters the other side with tireless determination and excitement.

Ankit and Alexis are separated by multiple oceans and 178 degrees of longitude. However, they have become united together in a way that will change both of their lives. As Alexis goes to bed each night, Ankit will be waking up and dressing in the uniform she bought him. As her eyes close, his will be opened to a world that he otherwise would have never known exists.

Although I cannot guarantee what other people do, my goal is to keep each of our sponsors and students connected. For the next ten or more years, Alexis will receive updates about and photos of Ankit as he grows, learns, and matures. Alexis will have the satisfaction of knowing exactly whom she is helping and to what extent. On the other hand, Ankit will be forever grateful and appreciative of Alexis’s compassion. On behalf of Ankit and his family, thank you Alexis for the many happy smiles.

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Our Shrinking Planet…

…Since leaving home 101 days ago, this site has reached more than 7,000 people in 41 countries across every continent except Antarctica. In just the last 30 days, readers have checked in from Pakistan, Brunei, Finland, Hong Kong, Syria, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Japan, Libya, the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Kuwait, Sweden, Malaysia, Australia, Russia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovakia, the United Arab Emirates, India, France, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, Poland, Costa Rica, South Africa, Austria, New Zealand, Yemen, the Philippines, Germany, the United States of America, Vietnam, Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Croatia.


–The origins of readers over the last 90 days–

I don’t know anyone in most of these countries. However, using only a laptop, pocket camera, and cellular network, I have been able to share my experiences, lessons, and feelings with ease and speed never before possible.

I am actually writing today’s post from Classroom 1B of the Carmel Convent School in Faridabad, India. In front of me, 16 students from an Indian slum study diligently under three Carmelite nuns and two teachers courtesy of eleven sponsors from five countries across three continents. Five weeks ago, all of this was just an idea!

We are living through the most astounding technological developments of all time. At our fingertips, we have tools that our ancestors could have only dreamed of. From a classroom in Northern India, I can use my laptop and a cellular network to instantly bring you here, whether you are in Scottsdale, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Cape Town, or Bandar Seri Begawan. What an exciting time to be alive!

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Ajeet…

…Ajeet is powered by a 500 megawatt nuclear reactor. He approaches every task with 110% commitment and stupendous enthusiasm. He loves his shorts high and his belt tight. His hair is always perfect. He is the ideal match for his new sponsor and my esteemed mentor, friend, and fellow ThurtenE Honorary alumnus from St. Louis, Missouri, Brian Fiedler (nickname Chops). Thanks to Brian’s generosity, Ajeet is now directing his indefatigable brain toward the Carmel Convent School for the next semester.


–Ajeet getting ready for his first day of school–

I cannot write this post without smiling and laughing just thinking about Ajeet’s excitement for everything. When I ask him a question, I can practically see his brain processing as his huge brown eyes seem to rapidly search the room for an answer. When he answers correctly, he jumps up and down in anticipation of the next question.


–Ajeet studying hard for his first day of school–


–Ajeet testing the laws of physics and the limits of the Carmel Convent School swing set–

Ajeet never says no and performs every task to the max. Although he is excellent at every subject, his favorite is undeniably recess. If he’s on a swing, he looks like he’s trying to go inverted. When he’s spinning the merry-go-round, I secretly hope that the bearings don’t fail.


–On our way to buy shoes in the tuk-tuk two weeks ago–


–Ajeet playing his first game of basketball, barefoot–


–Ajeet with his mother, Ranju–

Ajeet is 7 years old. His older brother, Sandeep, is 10 years old and had to have a massive abdominal surgery as a toddler. Their entire family was devastated by the expense of Sandeep’s healthcare (which to us seems amazingly inexpensive). Ashok, Ajeet’s father, works on a daily basis as a mason.


–Ajeet in his new classroom–


–Future world leader–


–Ajeet with Golu and Prianka before they had their own Carmel Convent School uniforms–


–After school, Ajeet runs home to clean his socks and uniform for the next day!–

Chops, this opportunity means everything to Ajeet. He was custom-made to wear this custom-tailored uniform. The shoes you bought him might as well have wings. There is no doubt in my mind that Ajeet could one day become a formidable athlete, world leader, and the sole source of electricity for an entire city. On behalf of Ajeet, his mother Ranju, his father Ashok, and his brother Sandeep, thank you for providing focus for this bright beam of light and energy.

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Family Reactions…

…This morning, I went into the slum to check on Manish. The massive growth on his nose does not appear to be responding to medication. I am in the process of arranging a consultation with a plastic surgeon at one of the best private hospitals in town. If he or she determines that Manish needs surgery, I hope to have Manish in the OT by next week.


–Manish with his mother, Dolly–

Manish lives in the room above Prianka and her family, who subsequently invited me in for chai. Manish and his mother joined us. Luckily, it was also the first chance I have had to meet Vishundev, Prianka’s father.


–Prianka with her father, Vishundev, in their tiny, dark home–

Vishundev is a cargo truck driver. His truck full of motorcycles was parked near the slum school. Shortly after my visit, he embarked on his 2052 km (1275 mi) trip south to Bangalore, Karnataka. It will take him five days to get there!

This was the first time Vishundev has been home since I started my search for students nearly a month ago. He only spends two or three days per month at home! He seemed eager to shake my hand and thank me for what we are doing for his daughter.

After school today, some of the parents came to me to show me their appreciation and give us some new documents. Rani came with some new passport-style photos of Anita and seemed more excited than ever about Anita’s education.


–Some people who were still playing Holi–

As I was headed home from the slum, Rustam (Verhsa and Kashak’s father) insisted that I come to his home by literally pulling me toward it. Usually, the hospitality here is persistent, but not to this extent. I couldn’t refuse. We wove through the tiny alleys and up the ladder into his rooftop room. It was beautifully kept and organized for my visit. A fan was turned on and directed toward me. They offered me a cold Limca soda (one of my favorites) which probably cost Rustam an hour of work just to purchase. Rustam’s father, who also lives here, was also still stained with Holi color. To be invited into slum homes like this and be treated like a king is a truly special occasion. I never imagined that I would feel like such an important part of their families. Their gracious appreciation is heartwarming.


–Versha opening up one of the shirts to give to us–

Last weekend, Rustam and Versha came to our house with Jaya Devi, one of our slum school teachers. It was Rustam’s third attempt to find us that day so that he could give us special gifts to show his gratitude. Each of us four volunteers received a different color shirt made in the factory where he works.


–Versha and Rustam with Jaya Devi leaving after bringing us our gifts–

This evening, after showing me wonderful hospitality at his home, Rustam walked me home as the sun set on the polluted horizon.

The families receiving our support are, in my opinion, some of the most deserving people on our planet. They work so hard for so little. They live within their means. They accept the hands they were dealt and do what they have to do in order to survive. To these families, the care and generosity we are bringing is completely alien. However, they are slowly starting to understand our mission and are enthusiastic to show their appreciation. What a feeling!

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Anita…

…On behalf of Anita, her three sisters, and her mother Rani, I would like to thank Bert Graham of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and mother of volunteer Crystal Graham for committing to support Anita’s entire education! You read that right! For the next ten years, Anita will study at the Carmel Convent School under a full scholarship and educational subsidies provided entirely by Bert Graham.

Anita is the youngest of four daughters. Her father, Chhotedas, passed away a few years ago. Since he did not have a birth certificate, his widow and Anita’s mother, Rani, cannot collect bereavement pay from the government. Now, it is up to Rani to support her four daughters. Rani is aging quickly and has a growth on the edge of her iris that has caused blindness in her left eye.

Rani works from sun up to sun down as a maid in multiple nearby homes to boost her income to Rs 100 ($2) per day. She is illiterate and has no labor skills. She pays Rs 800 ($16) per month in rent for her ramshackle home but lovingly supports her four daughters with whatever is left. When we asked Rani to come to one of our parent meetings, she said that she could not financially afford to miss a few hours of work. I paid her Rs 150 ($3) to come, which put a lovely smile on her face.


–Anita (left) arriving home from the slum school while her sister prepares potatoes–

Anita’s older sisters are only a couple of years older than she is. All less than ten-years-old, the girls are amazingly self sufficient. They prepare and cook their own food, clean their home, and take care of nearly all motherly duties themselves.


–Anita’s oldest sister and the main caretaker of her home–


–Indu, Anita’s second oldest sister–

Bert’s donation has already gone a long way. Anita wears her new uniform and shoes like they were made for a queen.


–Anita at the tailor–


–Anita at the shoe store–


–Anita picking up her backpack and uniform at our parent orientation–


–Rani, Anita (with a mouthful of samosas), and Crystal Graham–


–Anita ready for her first day of school…and the cover of a magazine–

Anita is proving to be one of our fastest learners. Her memory is as sharp as a tack. If we can keep her in school, Anita will revolutionize her own life and those of her three sisters and mother. Bert, your loving generosity is probably the best thing to ever happen to this family. God bless you and thank you.

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Chief Holi Guest…

…The second day of school was just as magical as the first. The students could not be prouder. Neither could I. They are taking to school like ducks to water.


–The ending scene of our movie–


–Manisha hard at work on her Hindi–


–Pritesh (aka Golu) and Ajeet working on their handwriting–


–Komal (closest) and Anita (looking at us) with Sister Prasanna in back–


–Pooja and Sonu (aka Abishek) with multiple teachers and sisters to teach them–

Today, we took a break from class to use the playground. You can only imagine the excitement!

The kids’ favorite device is definitely the merry-go-round. Ok, it’s my favorite too. If you haven’t noticed, I’m really just a big kid at heart. You might also be wondering what is on my face.

Although I had been invited to a Holi (pronounced “holy”) party by our neighbor last week, I hadn’t given in much more thought. Only this morning did I find out I was the chief guest! To make a long story short, our neighbor, Meenakshi, owns and runs a women’s polytechnic institute here in Faridabad. A few weeks ago, the other volunteers and I were discussing sending some women from the slum to her school for vocational training. Meenakshi has become one of our biggest local supporters. Through me, she met my host mother and the two are rapidly becoming close friends.

I found out that I was the chief guest about 30 minutes before the event was about to start. I jumped in our family car and rode with Shri, Mumta, and Naisa to the polytechnic school. We were given an honorary Indian welcome. I received a fresh rose, a tilak on my forehead, and a plethora of traditional sweets and soda. We sat down on a couch facing about 50 female students. I received gracious praise for my work here and then was asked to make yet another impromptu speech. Luckily, I have a lot of things to talk about.

Next, we witnessed a full fashion show and a few excellent dancers. Then, as I had feared, I was asked to display my own dancing in front of everyone. By now, awkward moments and expectations no longer surprise me. I looked around to verify what was expected of me and happily gave the crowd what they wanted.

Much to everyone’s amusement, I pulled up many of the ladies to dance with me. One thing Indians love to do is dance. Dancing can seemingly break out whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason.

In traditional celebration, we “played Holi.” Playing Holi consists of placing colored powder (simply called ‘color’) on another person and having them color you back. The celebration ends up turning into a massive cloud of brightly colored talcom powder as everyone throws handfuls of color at one another. It’s a janitor’s worst nightmare.

Holi itself isn’t until Thursday, but Indians love to celebrate, even if it means having to jump the gun a little bit. After my dancing exhibition, we rushed back to the school to meet the students as they arrived. After recess, Sister Pushpa sent me home to shower before I could go back to class.

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Madhu and the Carters…

…Sometimes, a thank you is insufficient. This is one of those times. Two weeks ago, my Aunt Betty and Uncle Jerry Carter of Little Rock, Arkansas reached around the world and extended their hands to provide a caring and generous young girl with a lifetime of opportunity. In honor of the first day of school, I would like to give one very special thank you to the Carters on behalf of their new adopted scholar, Madhu.

The Carters’ donation of 1000 USD is far more generous than I or anyone here ever anticipated. In India, the average annual income in 2010 was about $875. One thousand dollars will revolutionize Madhu’s life and those of her family. At minimum, it will support Madhu for 4 to 5 years at the Carmel Convent School! Aunt Betty and Uncle Jerry, I am humbled by your selfless and surprise display of magnanimity. Madhu and her family do not yet know just how much love they are receiving. I have not decided how to approach that process. However, I know they are incredibly grateful already.


–December 19, 2011–

When I took this picture of Madhu just before Christmas, I never thought that she would be getting the present of a lifetime from my very own aunt and uncle.


–January 2, 2012–


–February 8, 2012–


–Madhu with her four siblings and parents at their home on Feb. 12, 2012–

At only 10 years of age, Madhu has more maturity and responsibility than most 30 year-old adults I know. Shyamlal, her father, is an industrious day worker at any construction site that will employ him. He is often away from home working or searching for work. Rita, her mother, is a maid in multiple nearby homes. Both Shyamlal and Rita are illiterate and did not plan on ever sending Madhu to school.

With Shyamlal and Rita both working, Madhu was the head of the house. At first, this posed a problem. Shyamlal and Rita refused our support because Madhu had to take care of her four younger siblings. However, the surrounding community seems to have educated the parents that this is an opportunity that must not be missed. Once our most uninterested parents, Shyamlal and Rita are now unwaveringly committed to Madhu’s education.


–Madhu helping me clean up and organize the slum school on February 14, 2012–


–At the tailor on February 25, 2012–


–Madhu showing off her new shoes on February 25, 2012–


–Parent orientation on March 3, 2012–


–A thousand dollar smile–

Madhu is already excelling at the Carmel Convent School and shows remarkable discipline. Furthermore, with years of motherly experience, she acts like a caregiver for the entire class. She always walks at the back of the line, picks up dropped items, and fixes any untidy uniforms. Literally and figuratively, all of the students look up to Madhu. I look up to her. She is inspirational. If she makes it to graduation, I will be standing and clapping with a towel full of tears as she crosses the stage.

On behalf of Madhu and her family, thank you Aunt Betty and Uncle Jerry for the shirts, the skirts, the shoes, the socks, the belt, the backpack, the books, and, most importantly, the ability to study at the Carmel Convent School for many years to come! What a way to spend $1000. I love you.

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FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL…

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…Twenty-eight days ago, I snuck into the Carmel Convent School with high hopes and low expectations. I knew that it was one of the best schools in Faridabad, that thousands of people applied for only hundreds of seats, and that I was unlikely to be able to do anything but see it. Luckily, I was wrong, very wrong.

Today, I couldn’t have snuck in anywhere. Thanks to the loving benevolence of four Carmelite nuns from throughout India, generous donations and sponsorships pouring in from around the world, my supportive volunteers, Mitlesh, my host family, and my unwaveringly supportive family back home, I entered the Carmel Convent School this afternoon with 16 spectacular and deserving children behind me who stood taller and walked prouder than any students I have ever seen.

From today’s photos, it might be hard to believe that these precious children live in a slum, that their parents are illiterate, that they are members of society’s lowest castes, and that many of them would have lived their entire lives without ever entering a school. Today, these students lit up the faces of their entire community, made a powerful statement about education, and are serving as an inspiration to hundreds of people from nearly every continent in the world.

I arrived early to the slum today to watch the kids getting ready for school. Gudiya and Neha were already putting the final touches on their pristine summer uniforms, the first they have ever owned. As I rounded the corner and saw them for the first time, I could hardly believe how magnificent they looked.


–Neha with her younger sister, Saraswati–


–Pooja–

We walked together to the slum school, where everyone was designated to meet at 1pm. The students quickly started amassing from every direction. With the sun blazing overhead, they tried as hard as they could to maintain their perfect hair and use their handkerchiefs to stay dry. It was adorable to watch.


–Kajal–


–Ajeet standing tall–


–Abishek, Golu, Ajeet, Roshan, and Ankit–


–Manisha–


–Anita–

To stay cool, we moved into the slum school to perfect the uniforms and take some more pictures. I couldn’t help but think about how good they looked and how proud I was of them and their families. The students could have been models for a uniform company.


–Rani, Neha, and Pooja–


–Our students with some of their parents–


–The students, volunteers, teachers, Mitlesh, and me in front of the slum school–


–A photo just around the corner from our slum school–

We then set out for the most memorable walk of my life. In a single-file strand, the 16 students wove through the slum like a string of ducklings. From store fronts, rooftops, and moving vehicles, people stopped what they were doing to watch our sensational students set out on a path toward new lives. It was the most powerful statement about education that one could make. I don’t think anyone looked at them without feeling a sense of pride in his or her heart.

After several minutes, we arrived at the Carmel Convent School. The children lined up and celebrated under a sign near the main gate. I had walked past this sign dozens of times during my first two months here. However, I had never imagined that I would look at it quite like this.

The parents bid us farewell at the gate. After saying goodbye, the kids never looked back.

We made our way upstairs to classroom 1B. The students scurried to their new desks with smiles from ear to ear.


–Reciting a prayer before class–


–Sister Pushpa watching over intently–


–Prianka with a smart board and windows desktop powering up behind her–


–Jumping up to answer questions–

The students impressed all of us with their unsurpassed enthusiasm and passion. They literally jumped out of their desks to answer even a single question. The weeks of tutoring we have given them showed marvelously. Their answers were even better than the sisters anticipated. It was as if the students had been waiting their entire lives for this opportunity. Perhaps they have been!

Rules, manners, and discipline were some of the first lessons taught. The students learned how to keep their desks clean, how to ask to use the restroom, how to ask if they can drink water, how to address teachers, how to greet guests, etc.

If I were a student, I would want Sister Pushpa as my principal. She kept the students moving and interacting while creating an ideal atmosphere of comfort and discipline.


–Rani pouring a cup of water after being given permission to do so–


–Anita learning from the smart board, a technology that even I have never learned from–

After an exciting first day, we filed back out the same way that we came in. With pep in all of our steps, we made our way back to the slum.

The students made their way back to the slum school and then dispersed to go home and change. I thought they were going home to play as well, but I was wrong again.


–Ajeet washing his socks–

Instead of going home to play and goof around, they went home to wash their uniforms! School hadn’t been out fifteen minutes and Ajeet was already washing his socks when I passed his home. He was scrubbing and picking at every spec of dirt. To watch Ajeet treat his socks like a new car was both humbling and fulfilling. I have no doubt that he and his 15 classmates are going to thrive at the Carmel Convent School and in life.


–Kashak had already washed her uniform too. Her mother was taking it upstairs to dry–


–Ajeet folded his shirt around the cardboard sheet that it came with–

Whenever people ask me, “How do you define success?” I will know what to tell them. I will tell them about today. No amount of money, fame, or power will ever give me the feelings of pride and satisfaction that I sensed watching 16 children from the slums of India walk into their first day of first grade at the best school in town.

Donors and sponsors, this would not be possible without you. I hope that you are now beginning to see exactly where your money is going. The students you are sponsoring are wearing the best uniforms and shoes available and learning in the best classroom within the best school in Faridabad. Like the underdogs of a great rivalry, these 16 children have a fan base that blankets the entire globe. People from nearly every continent are checking in to watch their progress. However, this is just the beginning. This is the first day of 10, 12, or maybe even 18 years that these children will attend school. To be involved in something like this is truly special. There are still a few students left to sponsor. I know they would love to meet you.

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Parent Counseling…

…Today, nearly all of our students’ parents made their inaugural visit to the Carmel Convent School for a four-hour seminar on parenting, behavior, health, hygiene, and expectations. They joined approximately 30 other parents from another nearby slum whose children already attend the Carmel Convent School. I was impressed by the large turnout of our families.

The event was incredibly well structured by the sisters. Once again, Sister Pushpa showed remarkable leadership and care. She can command a room as well as anyone I have ever seen. Even though she cannot speak much Hindi, she had the entire room laughing and greeting one another in no time.


–Ajeet and Ankit–

While the parents received instruction from doctors, teachers, sisters, and administrators, the children played dodge ball, cops and robbers, and basketball. I didn’t ask, but I’m confident it was the first time they had ever touched a basketball.


–Rani–


–Pooja and Ankit playing cops and robbers–


–Prianka, Ajeet, and Neha–


–Abishek getting taken to prison by two current students of the Carmel Convent School–


–Roshan studying someone with his penetrating glare–

After almost three hours, hundreds of samosas and juice boxes were handed out, courtesy of the sisters.


–Roshan–

Once the seminar was finished, we had our students and their families stay behind. We announced that school will start on Monday (in 48 hours) as scheduled and informed them of important reminders. We then called the students’ names from a hat so they could come up and pick from a variety of new backpacks. We also handed them their brand new custom-tailored Carmel Convent School uniforms.


–Kajal with her parents–


–Manisha–


–Neha–


–Ajeet–


–Madhu–


–Golu–


–Pooja with her parents–


–Anita–


–The other volunteers with Sisters Pushpa and Prasanna–

Next, we went outside to get photos of all of the families with their new Carmel Convent School students.


–Rani with her parents–


–Prianka with her mother and sponsor’s daughter, Natalie Wills–


–Versha and Kashak with their parents–


–Manisha with, much to my surprise, both of her parents–

Showing gratitude or even saying thank you is not a large part of the culture here. Today, however, many parents and even more children came to shake my hand and say thank you. Today was the first time that most of the families have ever entered the Convent School grounds or probably any school for that matter. I am certain that the size and rigidity of this event woke many of them out of their educational oblivion. It won’t be long before their children know much more than they do.

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T-Minus 72 Hours…

…All systems are go! The first day of school has just been confirmed for Monday, March 5! In 72 hours, these children will walk into a formal classroom for the first time wearing custom tailored uniforms and brand new shoes with sponsors, volunteers, and readers around the world celebrating with them.

For the past two weeks, we have been dividing and tutoring our selected children to help prepare them for the onslaught of knowledge they are about to receive. In only two weeks, their English has improved dramatically. But what is even more impressive is the sensational enthusiasm to learn displayed by each student. These kids jump up from the floor to work on a problem.

Some students are undoubtedly stronger than others. Since I cannot communicate well with the students, I have them teach each other. I pair the students with relatively strong English with those who can’t grasp it and have them explain concepts to each other.

When I give Ajeet, Rani, or any of the students a task, they bolt to work and write methodically for as long as necessary to complete my request. I have never seen students so proud to show off what they have just learned. When most of the kids run out to recess, some students still continue to work until they have finished.

It is often amusing to see how the students process new concepts. For years, all that these students have been taught are the ABC’s and numbers 1-100. They seem to have had no concept that letters can be combined into words and words into sentences. When I asked Rani, age 9, to write, “My name is Rani” ten times, she wrote vertically down the page: M M M M M M M M M M. Next, she went back to the top and wrote: y y y y y y y y y y. Then, she drew a vertical line after the y’s and started on her n’s.


–One of our tailors–

The uniforms, shoes, backpacks, supplies, and, most importantly, students are sitting on the launch pad. I can see the excitement in their eyes for the adventure they are about to embark on.

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