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A Promise is a Promise: The Battle for GEMS

All we wanted to do was to start a school for our village children, to offer them English Medium education so they would have more skills and tools to make a better life for themselves and their families. How hard can that be? Let me tell you. It has never been hard to educate our children. That has been a journey of pure joy. Every day that I stand with our teachers at assembly in front of our children, I feel re-energised. It is in their eyes — it seems they look back at us with wonder, curiosity, impishness, and innocence — they don’t know what the future will hold for them, but they are hoping it will be good and they trust that we will help them get there.

I love the classroom, I love working with a student who is struggling — that moment they look up at me with a smile that says it all — ‘I understand, I get it!’ Wow! What a feeling that is for both of us. I love the excitement children show when a new project is introduced, and the way they engage, thinking this is a fun game, and how much they are enjoying themselves, not even realising how much they are learning.

BFGWe are a school of encouragement — we reach out to every child, and try our best to incorporate methods that will help every child understand and strive for their best result. “What does ‘FAIL’ mean?”, I ask my fifth class. “First Attempt In Learning!” comes their answer.

The idea of the school came one evening while sitting in Kunwar’s niece’s dining room. We were discussing the poor quality of education in our area. Kunwar was saying, “They pass out of class 12 and some cannot even read properly, and then the boys are going to Dehradun or Delhi and getting factory jobs or working in shops for poor wages. They can’t get into good universities because their marks are not good enough to qualify for scholarships, and their families to poor to pay. The girls are just hoping they get a good marriage. So what to do? Twelve years of education, wasted!” “Maybe we should use the $800.00 that my professor left us and start a school.” I offered. And that was that. The idea was set into motion. “We can call it ‘Garhwal English Medium School’.” Kunwar said, while we were driving home. “GEMS! The acronym is GEMS! It’s perfect — every child is like a precious stone, that needs just a little polishing to shine brilliantly,” I replied. And so it was, our idea began to take shape.
The days in our little cow shed were not perfect, but in many ways they were idyllic. We had grown quickly from 13 children to 21, and then to 50 in the first year. We had painted all the rooms colourfully, and had the children put their hand prints on the outside wall. Oh how I love that wall, and when I revisit it I put my hand on their hand prints and my eyes mist over. Their tables were covered with site words, and math equations, and in my classroom ‘The sun always shines in Sainji’ was colourfully painted in the corner wall. We cooked our lunch in a tiny kitchen and we tied towels around the children’s necks before they ate, to keep their uniforms clean and we fed them vitamins to keep them healthy, and just before everyone went back to their classroom, we brushed our teeth. Everyone selected their brush from the tooth brush holder and one boy would dole out the tooth paste. “Up and down, round and round”, we would say. Hygiene was a big part of our lessons. Every morning we would stand at assembly and recite:

In the morning, I wake up!And I get my bucketAnd I turn the water on..sssshhhhhhThen I take my cloth and I take my soap ..sshwwp, sshwwpAnd I wash my face, wash my ears, wash my neck, wash my body, my legs and my feet.Then I put my clothes onAnd I take my comb,And I comb my hair…sshwwp, sshwwpThen I eat my breakfast…mmmmmmmmmThen I get my tooth brush and my tooth paste and I brush my teeth, up and down, round and round, and my tongue,Then …. ppphhuuu And then I take my bag and I pack my books,Then I go to school (and everyone marches with their feet

 In the morning, I wake up!

We had a lemon tree so when the tree was full, I would take them home and juice them and we would have lemon-aid with our lunch. We even had a little garden where the kids planted seeds and we got to enjoy some of the vegetables they grew with their own hands.
As teachers came to join us we taught them to use different methods, to make learning fun. “Use the outdoors” I would say when there was a science class, or social studies. I remember my class 4 students making a map of the world, and having so much fun trying to fit all the countries in. “Europe is hard!” they commented, but still kept on going. We collected rocks for art class and painted them to decorate our school, and we used pine needles and different leaves as paint brushes. When we were studying symmetry we collected leaves so we could see how symmetry exists in nature.

And then our volunteers began coming, and they contributed so much. Carol and Rod were our first. What a great two weeks that was! Rod made us book shelves, which we still have and still use. Carol taught me and Neelam so many new methods for teaching. I can still remember her writing words on the board, with the sounds: “bbbbbbbaaaaaalllll” and having the children sound them out, or reading a story about a pond and then teaching the kids how to draw with crayon and paint over it with water colour to get a really interesting affect and we made paper mache animals! “My Name is Joe” became a favourite when Eryn and Nathan visited us, and is still recited to this day for anyone who wants to listen. And so many more volunteers came and shared ideas.

Our school grew. Soon we had 80 children. And we were getting a bit crowded. At that time the teachers included, myself, Neelam, Ravi, Mizan, Jyoti, Dinesh, and Shyam. We would take turns having classes outside. The kids loved that, but we could also see that we needed a bigger building.

Teaching outside

Then one day, Kunwar’s uncle suggested we meet his cousin-sister, Mungla, who along with her husband Bolo, was a guru with a huge following in Canada, the USA, and India, but was spending loads of money on charitable work in India, and wanted to branch into the Garhwal area as this was her home. And so we did go to meet them at an event hosted in Delhi. They were very nice to us and we had a nice time, but we did not have any expectations. Then we received a call that their daughter Sweta, who was the director of their HANS Foundation would be visiting us. And we worried that our humble little village accommodations were not suitable for her, as this family was extremely wealthy and even had a private jet. But she came and stayed, had dinner with us, and came to school the next day, played with our children and when she left, she suggested to us that we write a proposal to the HANS Foundation, which we did. One month later we received an e-mail asking for our bank details as they were giving us 500,000 Rs. We were blown away. We wrote back to thank the HANS people and they suggested, “If you are ever in Delhi, come and see us.”

As it was Kunwar and I did have to go to Delhi shortly after, and on a whim decided to call the HANS people to see if it was ok to come for a visit. They told us to come and when we arrived we were ushered into a board room where we were introduced to the acting director (as Sweta was mostly in the US), Colonel Mazjumdar. Much to our surprise, he said that while the HANS Foundation wanted to help us, we lacked Foreign Currency Registration to be able to accept foreign donations, and HANS money came from the U.S., from a devotee of Mungla and Bolo, who was the founder of the ‘Five Hour Energy Drink’. We did not have our FCR as our NGO had not been in existence for the required three years as per government regulation. We thought this was the end of the discussion, and were preparing to leave, when he said, “However, we would like to make you an offer of building a new school for you.” Kunwar and I were both stunned. He continued, “It would be the school of your dreams.” I had told Sweta that I envisioned one day a school which offered our children all the amenities that the elite schools were offering, but as a charitable school.” I had told her that when I mentioned this to a visitor from Delhi, that the woman had laughed at me. Colonel Mazjumdar continued, “It will have a computer lab, science room, a music room, with instruments, a playing field and an auditorium.” He went on to promise that our teachers would be retained, and their salaries doubled, and that they would hire qualified English speaking teachers. When Kunwar and I left, I looked at him and said, “It seems too good to be true. Do you think it is too good to be true?” Kunwar nodded, but we both wanted to believe that this was happening because our kids deserved to have the same education as their better off counterparts.

We were excited, and things began to happen quickly. We scouted out different properties where a school could be built, and they quickly decided on our current location. Then we went with their legal adviser to the District Magistrate to get permission to purchase the land, as outsiders (HANS Foundation) needed government permission to purchase more than 250 sq. meters of land. And there was our first snag, although we did not realise it at the time. The D.M said, “I don’t know these outsiders, but I know you, and you are locals, and have a vested interest in educating these children. I don’t know what motives these outsiders have, so I will approve this land purchase, but it will be put in the name of GEMS.” We protested, but she said, “You will thank me one day for this.” And then things began to change with the HANS Foundation. Colonel Mazjumder was angry with us, accused Kunwar and I of trying to snatch land for ourselves, to which we replied was not our intention and that if they wanted it in the name of HANS Foundation, to please go ahead and do so — we only wanted a school for our children.

The renovation of an existing building on the purchased land began, although the HANS people would not hire local contractors or local labour, which created resentment among the villagers, and the construction was substandard, but when we tried to advise the Delhi people and even Sweta of this, we were accused of complaining. So we were quiet. In hind sight, they were slowly and methodically pulling the school away from us. Our first clue should have been when the HANS people wanted to rename the school. And then there was the issue of how to arrange the finances. First we were told they would lease the building and land to us, and even opened a bank account with myself as a signatory, so we could pay our staff and manage the bills. But I never signed a single cheque.

They hired local management people from Dehradun, also devotees, and from the time the school opened Kunwar, myself and our staff were harassed and humiliated. They hired teachers from Dehradun, and did not increase the salaries of our teachers, but instead gave them demeaning jobs and ridiculed them constantly. Our children began fainting every day which soon escalated into seizures and every day I was contending with at least five little girls convulsing. We had a case of mass hysteria on our hands because the manager had told everyone there were spirits who were not happy with a school being built on this land. This is a tribal area, where superstition prevails. Where in the beginning we were told to take all admissions, they were now telling me to ‘throw out’ 50 children from our play group. The breakfast and snack program that we asked for, to help nourish our undernourished students was cancelled after two weeks, as it was too costly. The issues and problems escalated, until Kunwar and I were questioning our sanity.
Of greatest concern was the quality of teaching. These were supposed to be well qualified teachers and on paper they were. But in reality these teachers were using the archaic rote method, recite and memorise. And if they could not keep up, the children were humiliated, and often hit. As I was kept so busy with the little girls convulsing every day and trying to keep up with all the demands of the Delhi office, I was not able to visit the classrooms as much as I would have liked. But our children tell me now, of the way they were treated, and the abuse they had to face every day.

Finally, after six weeks Sweta came for a visit. Kunwar and I thought that finally we could sort out all these problems, but instead we were asked to leave. We were both stunned. She was telling us to leave what we had created. Immediately after, they issued termination letters to all the GEMS staff. Well, we didn’t leave. This foundation had promised this building to us, and with the support of the villagers we stayed. No one trusted these HANS people, especially our children, who went on a hunger strike when they learned Kunwar and I were asked to leave, and who the very next school day, carried picket signs saying, “Save our Auntie and Mama(uncle)”, or “We want Auntie and Mama!”

Four times they took us to court and four times the judges ruled in our favour. This was over the course of five years, and in that time Kunwar had to be vigilant as they paid bribes to just about every official they could, including our lawyer in the high court, prompting us to hire another.

All the while school continued. And our children learned, and prospered. We welcomed new teachers, and said good-bye to some old ones, but we became a family at GEMS. Volunteers came from all parts of the world, worked tirelessly with our children and shed tears when they left. We made friendships with other schools — Oldfield Brow in Manchester. Through British Council funding over three years we welcome 9 of their teachers, and sent 6 of ours to Manchester. And our friendship continues, through cards and Skype our children have formed friendships with Oldfield Brow students, and the head teacher and his family have made GEMS an annual place to visit. Each year we host groups of students from Canadian International School in Bangalore and Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and universities such as Pittsburgh University, Boston College, and Yale University from Singapore. Anglia-Ruskin University and Vancouver Island University bring groups of education and health students to intern and share resources in our classes. Each group contributes enormously to GEMS, to the knowledge of our students and to our teachers’ understanding of how to teach most effectively. Each group and each individual retains contact with GEMS long after they leave and that in part is what makes us special.bfg5

Really it is our students who make us special. They are Jounpurie, which is a tribal group, although they have not yet been awarded official status in India. Having lived here for eleven years now, I recognise in their demeanour a quietness when confronted, pride, respect for others, and a deep sense of family that stretches over many villages. There are faults too, jealousies, and petty grievances, but when someone is hurting or in need, everything is forgotten and the whole community offers its support. This is what I see everyday with our children. If a small person is crying, the big children stop what they are doing and come to their aid. In class, when one child is struggling, there will be ten others helping them along. I never have to ask our students to buddy up with a new student to help them catch up because they are already doing it. These are remarkable children. They know what hard work is, and have never known what leisure is because they have never been idle, and have been helping at home since they were able to walk.
In May the HANS Foundation appealed the fourth case in the high court, and this time they won. We were given one week to appeal in the Supreme Court or hand over everything to the HANS people. I guess they didn’t think we would appeal the decision because they showed up on the last day with four bus loads of police, while school was in full session, entered the school and began forcefully pushing myself, my husband and all our teachers out of the school. We had received a stay from the Supreme Court, but they ignored that. Can you imagine how terrorised our children were when police men and ladies entered their classrooms and began pushing and slapping their teacher? Or when they saw them pulling me, their principal down the stairs and kicking me? What they did was illegal, but being rich I suppose they believe they are above the law, and in India it works like that. We complained to the Superintendent of Police and I even complained to the Canadian Embassy. I received a reply from them saying the the superintendent of police had replied stating that police were there to ensure a peaceful transition, and that they had carried out their duties as ordered. End of case and our complaint went nowhere. We appealed in the Supreme Court, but we could not afford to hire a senior lawyer which would have cost us about $3,000.00 for each hearing. Our junior lawyers tried, but within five minutes the judge ridiculed them and ruled in favour of the HANS people.
Teaching these children, ensuring they get the very best education has become mine and Kunwar’s life’s work. I didn’t know that when we began, but I sure know it now. We can’t stop. We made them a promise to these children and their families, and a promise is a promise. We work tirelessly seven days a week, and put in some very long days. Sure, the HANS people will establish themselves in the building we occupied for five years, and they will call themselves a school and hire qualified teachers from the city, and offer ‘free’ everything’ and lots of bells and whistles, but they will never love these kids like we do, or care– really care about their futures, or have sleepless nights trying to figure out new approaches to helping little students who might have dyslexia or Asperger’s, or Autism — but we are not certain as there is no one to evaluate them — we just keep trying different ways to reach them. Will they sit with a student at lunch time and help them write their story, or do their math? Or give them a lunch time detention so we can make sure they do their practice homework? Or pair them with a volunteer to help them with their English? Will they seek out a little person whose mom is deathly ill and give them a hug and let them know they have a soft place to fall when they need it? Will they reach out to the little person who sits themselves at the back of the room because they think they can’t learn? Or will they take him or her by the hand and bring them to the front and whisper in their ear that they are smart, they are important, and they can learn, and that it is the teacher’s job to find the way to help them understand? From our experience, I don’t think so, and that is why Kunwar and I have to carry on. A promise is a promise.

4th bfg 1

We are not a wealthy school –far from it. We have been trying to find a corporate sponsor, but that requires a lot of networking, and proposal writing, which requires a lot of time — and we are short on time. I teach a full load of English Grammar and English Literature, and Kunwar is running every day to carry out administrative work, and until recently, fight our battles with the HANS people. We have written our share of proposals, but never get a response. I guess we are too small, or too rural– I am not sure. So we have had to be creative. Hosting groups brings in some of our income, and our Girl’s Sponsorship Program helps as well. Our friends and relatives have been a great support, and then we have our goats milk soap which we sell. But now we need a lot of help, and while I am madly writing proposals, we need immediate help to get a building up, to cover our kids from the rain and to get back to teaching them once again. So please help us keep our promise to our kids. Even a little will bring our children closer to their dreams. If you wish to donate to our new building click here: https://www.youcaring.com/helpGEMSrebuild

New Building In Progress

New Building In Progress

 

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