Feeding the Monkeys

As I was taking in the beauty and splendor of The Taj Mahal in the gray, early light of dawn, I felt something move past my right foot.

I looked down to see a lone Reese’s monkey slowly strolling away from me and hopping up on a nearby rail. He looked over at me as I carefully yet excitedly raised my iPhone camera up to get the shot. He gave me a very calm, knowing look as if to say, “Yeah, I’m pretty photogenic. Go ahead.”

The animals of India know they are safe.

Cattle randomly roam the streets, often crossing busy roads and even freeways, causing traffic to come to a complete stop while they pass. Dogs rest in cool dirt holes or shady areas anywhere from under lush park trees to inside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even the upright, poised cobras in woven baskets pretending to be under a musical spell seemed to sigh when tapped on the nose to remind them to pose for a tourist’s camera.

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Hinduism calls for the treatment of all living beings with great respect, believing all are aspects of God that have souls of their own. And the many peoples of India appear to have adopted this attitude.

Our driver Ramesh told us that he feeds the monkeys at one particular location out of respect for Hanuman (God of Strength and Knowledge) and because he believes that monkeys are here to bring us joy.

There was no denying the joy on my husband’s face as Ramesh threw bananas out of our car window and the monkeys came with their tiny babies on their backs, tumbling over each other to get a sweet banana.

Feeding them and respecting them is a small price to pay for the joy they bring to us.

Embracing Everyone

India is one of the most crowded countries by population on earth; yet, there seems to be room for every religion.

It’s not just that there are gurudwaras, mosques, cathedrals and temples side by side on many streets, offering a place to reflect and pray to all.

It’s not just that every religious building we entered welcomed us with smiles and kindness.

I first began to understand when I asked one of the secular school leaders (which is what they call public schools in India) about religion in schools. While we in The United States have an absence of any religion in public school (separation of church and state), the Public and Private schools in India include all religions.

At morning assemblies, I heard beautiful Hindu hymns of praise, I heard a choir sing the old Christian song “Abide with Me,” I heard students reading from the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib.

Our wonderful driver Ramesh drove by Saint Ignatius Parish in New Delhi and told us that it was not only lovely outside, but it was much more beautiful inside. When my husband asked how he had come to be inside the church, since he was a Hindu, Ramesh answered that he had a friend who attended there and that Ramesh had found it such a peaceful place, that he sometimes stops there to pray.

We found everyone at each holy place so accepting and kind that we could feel the spirituality of India almost everywhere we went.

No one tried to convert us. No one tried to make us feel ashamed of our own personal faith. No one turned us away.

How much does that say about people who welcome everyone with open arms?

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Amar Jyoti: An Eternal Light of Learning & Hope

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Dr. Uma Tuli, the founder of Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust in New Delhi, pointed to a black-and-white photograph of a young man and woman on her office wall. Her eyes softened as she told the story of her brother losing his leg in an accident. Finding treatment and post-surgery help for him had been a long and arduous journey, but what she discovered on that path was that there were countless other people with disabilities also suffering from a lack of services to help them.

She vowed she would make a difference.

Taking the money she had saved during her teaching career, Dr. Tuli founded the Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust School. She started with a group of 30 children in 1981 under a tree, and today, the school has more than 800 children on two campuses in India.

The facilities provide preventive, curative and rehabilitative services to Amar Jyoti students on site as well as to patients from economically weaker sections of society. Services are either free of cost or at subsidized rates. They include: Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, Speech and Audiology Therapy, Prosthetic and Orthotic Workshops, Dental Care, Ophthalmologic Care, X-Ray Unit, Pathology Laboratory and much more.

I felt quite fortunate not only to tour the amazing Rehabilitation and Research Center and meet many of its medical professionals and teachers, but to also meet and talk with Dr. Tuli herself who reminded us that inclusivity in education and society is vital, that education, health and employment must be looked at holistically, and finally that “Education is a journey, not a destination.”

Dr. Tuli also loves the quote from Leo Buscaglia, “Too often, we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Dr. Tuli and her staff take time not just to learn as much as possible about each person they service, but also to find hidden talents that can be honed and used to help each person find gainful employment and success.

At the New Delhi center, two young men gleefully showed us how they took colorful material and affixed it to folders, notebooks and photo albums that they had beautifully handcrafted themselves. A quiet woman smiled as she gestured to the sturdy burlap bags she had sewn with peach and gold trim and a zippered top. And the potter talked of how his family had all been clay workers as he masterfully shaped a vase from a lump of clay.

Seeing the glow on their faces as they shared stories of their successes and showcased their handiworks in clay, sewing, paper goods and jewelry-making were all the proof needed to show that they had found happiness and self-worth at Amar Jyoti.

Dr. Tuli still diligently works toward her ultimate vision of inclusive education, integrated sports and cultural activities. She dreams of an India which places its citizens with disabilities on the same plane as non-disabled citizens.

Her “Amar Jyoti” – eternal flame – continues to burn brightly, lighting the way.

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The Benefits of Old Technology

Though virtually every classroom has a smart board at Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata, India, all students do the majority of their work in paper notebooks.

Studies about the benefits of cursive and handwriting have been in resurgence since computers and smart phones have gained more and more popularity (see some links below).

“Writing my lessons on paper helps me remember them better,” one student told me as I watched her copy out a math lesson and then solve the problems in ink.

“I like to add drawings to my notes,” another confided, “because it’s fun and gives me another way to remember.”

There was no denying the engagement and attention the students gave their lessons as they wrote with ink pen in their notebooks.

When I asked if they were allowed to use pencils, a smiling student said, “Using ink makes us more careful.”

Teachers are always looking for ways to save time, and having a pile of notebooks to correct each night will not do that.

But this is time well spent.

It gives each teacher insight into every student’s strengths and challenges. It provides another avenue to build a good relationship with students. And it helps students remember their lessons so they can find future success.

Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting – International Dyslexia Association, 2015

Cursive or Right Click? A Critical Analysis of Lifelong Learning and Cursive Writing – Andras Kocsis, Mount Saint Vincent University, 2016

Benefits of Cursive Writing – Mental Floss

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Physical Education for Life

Establishing good lifelong habits is an art.

Educators know the importance and value of staying in good physical shape. But how can you encourage students to exercise?

By providing them with engaging opportunities and a wide variety of ways to be active.

The Table Tennis teacher at Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata is at school 30 minutes before school starts. Students line up on the opposite side of the table so they can take turns trying to beat him; and he plays hard, so when a young lady gets a point, she knows she’s earned it (and there is much celebration).

The indoor swimming pool is provides a lovely respite from the humidity and a great opportunity for exercise. The pool is even open after school for students and neighbors outside of the school (neighbors pay a nominal fee) so all can enjoy the shady pool and each other’s company while they swim and paddle around.

The karate teacher seems to be at school all day, and the young ladies really get in to the routines, movements and poses. Through demonstrations, the teacher reminds the students how important it is to be safe, and that, in an emergency, they can use their karate skills to defend themselves.

Yoga is more than just a class; it’s a philosophy of living and a way to stretch and grow with your friends. The look on the faces of students practicing yoga reflect how much it means to them and how much it is worth to their lives. Learning cultural dances enhances pride in their heritage, and learning modern dance techniques brings out their joy in dancing.

What I observed is that these young ladies take great pride and joy in their physical activities at school. What I heard them say is that they want to keep doing them well after their school days.

What I realized is that they have established lifelong habits that will serve them well into their futures.