By Shilpa Raj
On the 3rd of December, the whole school was treated to a pleasant surprise.
At the school assembly, the new kindergartners stepped on stage confidently and began their well rehearsed performance. Standing in a semi circle, they went around in pairs introducing themselves in clear English and then stating the names of their favorite animals.
Using lively expressions and actions they imitated their favorite animals. For instance Kishore, said, “My name is Kishore. My favorite animal is dog.” He barked like a dog and left the audience in fits of laughter. His peer, Angel said, “My name is Angel. My favorite animal is gorilla.” Everybody enjoyed watching her beat her chest with her little fists and growl.
As the audience rose in applause, the four year olds bowed and left the stage elegantly as their teachers and care takers looked proudly on. Just a few months ago when they arrived, none of them knew how to speak English, brush their teeth, use a bathroom and tell the difference between a fork and a spoon. But today they are bright, energetic children with amazing curiosities.
Their class teacher, Ms. Geetha says, “They are so lively. Every day the first period is spent listening to the children telling me all about what they did in the dorms.When we were learning the alphabets I would say ‘A’ and give examples of words starting with ‘A’ in English. But they would scream out examples of words in their own languages like ‘Amma’ in Tamil and Kannada which means mother.” Smiling, she adds, “I love the children very much. I enjoy teaching small ones. They are a great joy.”
Besides learning their alphabets, the children watch videos, color with crayons, listen to stories, recite rhymes, and take nature walks around the huge campus. Their day begins at 7:30 when they wake up to the sound of music. After a quick wash up and dressing-up they stand around the corridor in their dorm and exercise. After breakfast, their classes begin at 9 am and end at 1 pm and in between they have a snack break and assembly.
“Three years ago financial restraints made it hard to admit new children. We missed having the little ones join Shanti Bhavan. But this year the fifteen new kindergartners so far have brought great joy and happiness to us,” says Mrs. Rajeshwari, the Head of the Residential staff and first grade teacher. The children are very cheerful and confident at Shanti Bhavan.
Hardly three months ago, the four year old Jayanthi was sleeping on the floor of her tent among the thirty other tents clumped together in a squalid slum alongside a railway track in the middle of Bangalore. A small tap a little distance away from the tents is the only source of water and all the families share a common toilet.
To get to the slum one has to leave the tar road and take a narrow mud lane which is scattered with garbage. Inside the tent Jayanthi’s feeble grandmother slept on a wooden cot while her parents, her younger brother and she sleep on the mud floor. The cooking was done in one corner of the room, filling smoke. Their few belongings lie in another corner.
At Shanti Bhavan, Jayanthi no longer has to lie on the floor, eat just ragi once or twice a day, or shiver in the cold. A big smile shines upon her face as she goes about playing on the grounds, learning in class and shaking her hips to the sound of music.
“Jayanthi is very caring towards others. She will console other children when they cry. She is very bright. She loves to draw faces,” her class teacher Ms. Geetha says.
Her neighbor, Jamuna, who also comes from the same destitute slum, is just as happy as Jayanthi in Shanti Bhavan. Little Jamuna has finally brought smiles on her mother’s face. Ever since Jamuna joined Shanti Bhavan, her father tormented her mother and demanded that the child be returned home. He would ask her angrily, “What kind of a school have you put her in? Bring her back.”
Two months after Jamuna joined Shanti Bhavan, her parents visited her. Jamuna’s father was shown around the school building where the older children were having their prep. He smiled and kept silent. His silence spoke of his acceptance. His wife cried when she saw him return and kiss Jamuna affectionately. Both of them were very happy when Miss Geetha told them that Jamuna was a fast learner, loves meeting new people and is very talkative.
As for Jamuna’s peer, Samuel, Christmas is finally round the corner. When he arrived he asked his housemother with tears in his eyes, “When will I go home?”She answered, “When Christmas comes,” trying her best to simplify that the holidays will be starting in December. Ever since then he asks occasionally, “Has Christmas come? Has Christmas come?”
With only a week left for the holidays, the children are overjoyed and thrilled by the excitement of going back to their parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who they had left behind. Yet, they are simply happy spending their days with their friends in Shanti Bhavan.