…Although I initially thought we would have more than one month to select children for this year’s admission to the Carmel Convent School, our timeline has been shortened dramatically. Over the next few days, we will search for, gather, examine, select, register, enroll, and begin preparing fifteen 3.5 to 4.5-year-old girls for the first day of school in their family’s histories.
Last year, we scoured this slum of 25,000 residents for the most talented and deserving children we could find without much regard for their age. Although our first class of students is thriving in and out of the classroom, it has taken a tremendous amount of work on their part and ours to get them caught up with their classmates. When our students began first standard classes 10 months ago, they were already nearly 3 years behind other students. The wide age range of our students has also turned out to be an issue with accreditation and overseeing agencies, thus necessitating a new approach this year.
This year, the sisters have generously decided to provide us with 15 seats in Lower Kindergarten (LKG), the youngest class. This way, our students will receive the same education as other students from day one. As I have mentioned numerous times in previous posts, female infanticide and male favoritism are still realized as substantial problems in Indian culture. This year’s theme of the Carmel Convent School is “Save the Girl Child.” To balance the ratio of males to females in their school and make a poignant statement about the importance of saving and educating female children, the sisters have decided that this class of 15 will be comprised solely of females. These girls must be of impoverished backgrounds and have birth certificates, caste certificates, and government-issued ration cards, among many other forms of documentation. They must also be between the ages of 3.5 and 4.5, thus narrowing our selection criteria dramatically.
Every day, generous and caring volunteers from around the world join me on my journey into the slums in support of our current students and search for new ones. The process is incredibly emotional, especially to the volunteers who have not been involved in such life-changing work before. However, I can certainly sense my own maturation over the past year. I feel very much at home in the slums now. Nearly everyone knows me or at least has an idea who I am. Although I will never be comfortable with the poverty and squalor, I am now accustomed to it and am rarely surprised by the powerful sights or pungent odors.
Last year, I had to convince families in the slum why they should send their kids to one of the best schools in town. Madhu, shown above, would never have attended a day of school in her life had we not spent many hours with her family discussing why Madhu should take advantage of our unique offer. Her mother originally denied our support but changed her mind at the very last moment. Their expressions in this photo are indicative of their opinions now.
Both Lata and Rahul were selected to join Squalor to Scholar last year. They are both highly intelligent and driven. Although I tried many times to convey the importance of education to their families, both families turned down these opportunities of a lifetime. This week, I went back to the place I had met Lata and Rahul last year. They were still there, trudging through life in the slums. These two wonderfully talented and handsome individuals will never attend a formal day of school. They will likely live in slums and in poverty for the rest of their lives.
This is a prime example of the types of challenges we must overcome here. Nearly all of this slum’s residents have migrated here from Bihar, a state generally believed to be the poorest, most corrupt, and most educationally backward state in India. They are also members of the lowest castes and are used to people treating them as such. Therefore, the adults here have developed a rather strong distrust of others.
However, the success of Squalor to Scholar and our continued presence here over the past year has earned the trust and respect of many families. Everyone in the slum knows about our students and sees them walking to and from school every day. With their bright, immaculate uniforms, they are still beacons of hope and opportunity to everyone around them. I am still stunned, however, by the lack of jealousy toward our students.
After the selection and enrollment of these new students, I will return to the families of Lata and Rahul to offer them one more chance.
I have certainly hit the ground sprinting here in India. In only two weeks, we will have accomplished what took nearly two months last year. As I continue to learn from our mistakes and challenges, my goal is to streamline our work so that it is scalable and replicable far beyond the borders of New Delhi or even India.
There is tremendous potential ahead. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I have a good feeling about our rapid progress. What an amazing year this has been. This time last year, I had still not even met the sisters or known anything about their renowned Carmel Convent School.