Getting Acquainted With Our Students and School in Kerala, India

Through our WorkAway gig as teachers, volunteering at the school in Chengannur (state of Kerala), India, we dealt with a wide range of students in terms of their ages, abilities, personalities, and quirks — both annoying and endearing.

The third grade consisted of only 4 students. The one boy in the class was quite capable, but was rather shy and totally overpowered by the 3 girls, all princesses who presented quite a discipline problem. They found a good outlet for their energy when we started doing theatre with them, but they would get upset if they didn’t get the part they wanted.

The second grade included an autistic boy who entered and left the classroom as he pleased, having no one on the staff trained to accompany him and tend to his needs. It was difficult to get him to pay attention to anything except another boy in the class whom he frequently attacked for some reason. One day, a teacher had set out a small speaker and a microphone, and this boy picked up the microphone and began singing “The Wheels on the Bus”. It’s a song we’d been teaching to the assembled student body during morning activity sessions. He never participated, but clearly he’d been paying attention, and learned the whole song. He sang it with perfect pitch and diction, and had quite a nice singing voice — we thought at first that it was a teacher singing. After that, whenever we wanted to pique his interest, we’d begin singing to him — he particularly loved “Bingo the Dog” — and he’d usually sing along, and then be game for another activity for at least some length of time.

The first grade had a set of twins who were rambunctious and, initially, unmindful of anyone’s wishes but their own. With much effort, we helped them learn to be more considerate and polite instead of, say, automatically pushing their way to the front of the line for the slide. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn manners before they’d grabbed Kimberly’s phone and dropped it, causing a small crack in the screen — with the result that a purple plasma splotch formed in the corner and gradually grew over a period of weeks, threatening to swallow the whole screen, the phone itself, and maybe even Kimberly’s arm. Since American phone screens, Google Pixel in particular, are impossible to find in India and costly to ship there from the States, we were afraid we were going to have to replace the phone. (Ultimately, we did have to replace it. But it wasn’t because of the screen or, so far as we know, any other damage sustained in this incident.)

One of the brightest students was also one of the youngest — he was surely no more than 3 — and he was a maverick who didn’t want to attend any of the classes or most of the group activities, but who would jump in every now and then and do some impressive things.

Lunch for students, teachers and volunteers was provided by the school. The first day we were able to serve ourselves, but we suspect that we served ourselves a bit too much of certain items and not enough rice. In southern India, rice itself is the meal, just about every meal, and other foods are just garnish. This is exactly the opposite, of course, of what we were accustomed to. For us, rice is a side dish that we might have once a month rather than three times a day. In any case, on most subsequent days the meal was dished out and laid out for us.

Some of the cooking and all of the dish washing was done by the young woman (she looked more like a teenager) who lived with her husband and little boy in the shanty next to ours behind the school. She’d also cook, or at least warm up the leftovers for, our dinner every night, and our lunch on weekends. And she washed all the dishes for the whole school, hauling a big tub of them to a pump in the back and scrubbing them there on the ground.

Although we enjoyed the food (but just to reiterate in case we didn’t make it clear, we got really tired of all the rice before it was over) we found it to be a really inconvenient and uncomfortable arrangement. Most of the time, we had to let her know that we were ready to eat — and we didn’t speak a word of her language (we weren’t even sure what her language was) nor she of ours. And after we alerted her, it might be an hour before we actually got our food.

There was a refrigerator in the upstairs office at the school (an office that was no longer used as an office, but was doubling as a third grade classroom) where she kept the leftovers, and where we also occasionally stashed some grub of our own to supplement what we were given — though we were cautious not to give our cook the impression that we didn’t like what she was offering. This room was also the one reliable place on the property to get wi-fi, so we often schlepped our laptop up there and used the room as our own office.

Our humble abode – the mat next to the bed served as our dining room

There were no kitchen facilities in our own quarters, though we did manage to round up an electric water pot so we could have our tea and make our oatmeal in the morning. As long as we have those two things, we are perfectly content. Or at least we can convince ourselves we are.

B I R D S in our front yard

June 9-11, 2022

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