I walked across the beautiful, green landscape with her hand in mine.
She was just in second grade, but there was a maturity to her. Her sadness was palpable; it was the type of sadness that one who is only seven years old seemed incapable of feeling. We walked silently for some time until I asked, “So, how are you?”
“I’m feeling quite sad. Actually, I’ve been feeling very sad lately,” she responded.
“Why is that?” I questioned.
“Well,” she began slowly, “My father died. And my mother will probably have to get re-married so we can have a house. What if she makes me leave Shanti Bhavan when that happens?”
Being around the children of Shanti Bhavan, who are completely confident, consistently smiling, and incredibly intelligent, I often forget that their home lives differ from their school lives. Despite being Indian myself, the nuances and expectations of Indian culture – particularly for girls and children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds – are unfamiliar territory to me.
This young girl’s worry of leaving this appropriately named “haven of peace,” is understandable. Shanti Bhavan provides children not only an education, but happiness. Here, they laugh and play, learn and grow. They eat an abundance of nutritious food and receive the incessant love of their teachers, the school administration, their housemothers and volunteers. These girls’ sisters at home, on the other hand, graze cows, pick from trash, and stop attending school after a certain age, if at all. They are often malnourished and live
in single-parent homes. Their fathers are usually alcoholics. They work long hours beginning at young ages. Barefoot.
I spent the afternoon walking around the playground field with her, trying to cheer her up. She seemed convinced that she would have no say in the matter once her mother would inevitably remarry. She said that several of the girls from her grade, her friends, were currently in the same situation.
Thinking of these younger girls not growing up to become versions of the girls I teach in 11th and 12th grade was heartbreaking in the harshest and realest sense of the word. The older girls at Shanti Bhavan are beautiful and optimistic, their futures buttressed by opportunity and support. They have dreams of becoming human rights lawyers, cardiologists, and journalists. I can’t imagine how different these dreams and their lives would be had they not received a quality education, as well as the love and support that Shanti Bhavan has provided them.
I knew it wasn’t anything I could guarantee, but I explained to the young girl that a change in her life at home didn’t have to mean a change in her life at school.
“But my mother will have to shift to another house. And I will have to leave Shanti Bhavan.”
“Yes,” I replied, slightly defeated. “But, if that happens, you can go home to help your mother move, and then you can come back to Shanti Bhavan. You will come back to Shanti Bhavan.”
She responded with something I never could have anticipated, which perfectly articulated her true happiness at the school.
“But I don’t know how to use the Indian bus system.”
“I’ll pick you up,” I promised with a smile.