Bodh Gaya was very much like what we’ve seen in the rest of India, except filled with Buddhists temples from all around the world. There were the Thai temples, Japanese, and I think even Korean, along with visitors from each of those countries. Over breakfast Kevin and I enjoyed the sound of the conversations in the dining hall. No-one was speaking English, except us of course.
I enjoyed the relief from the big city, and our hotel was located walking distance to the main temple, where Buddha found his enlightenment so long ago.
We walked around the temple, slowly. People sat praying all over the temple. There were signs for the different spots Buddha had stayed at for different parts of his meditation. In other spots people did prostrations. We saw the Bodhi tree under which Buddha obtained enlightenment, well at least the relative of it planted in the same spot. And listened to people singing devotional chants. Inside the temple is a lovely, quiet, clean place.
As we retrieved our shoes and exited the usual masses honed in on us: people selling random items, and children, women with babies, and men with limps, all begging, begging, begging. Kevin began to talk with one of the boys trying to sell postcards. One boy became two, and a moment later Kevin was surrounded by a crowd of children, all wanting money and to hear the American man talk about school. The conversation started because several of them were asking for books for school.
“Tomorrow I need you boys to go and get all the children you can from the temple area. I am going to talk to the free school. We’re going to see if we can get these kids in school.” Kevin said.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Okay. We will do that!” said, Omar, one of the older boys.
The free school was bare bones. Some of the stone walls weren’t even finished. It had open windows, classrooms crammed with children sitting on floors, and teachers standing before them scrawling on chalkboards. Every child was in uniform, a common sight here in India. The children were delighted to see us and the camera, and they giggled and pointed and waved. They wanted to shake our hands.
The room at the end of the hall was reserved for the boys that lived there because along with being a free school, it was also an orphanage. Metal cots aligned in a tight row took up most of the room. Not only did these children not have parents, they had the minimum of material needs. But they did have running water, and a bed, something not every child in India could say.
The headmaster told us, “We will get a sense of what level these kids are at, and what grade they need to go in. If they are ready for first grade
The English teacher pointed to a chalkboard covered with questions, and began speaking to the children in Hindi. Then he spoke in English, “Question number one. ‘Name.’…
I looked at the children, spread out on the floor. They were quiet, wide-eyed, withdrawn. A few leaned over and begin to slowly write on their paper. The others looked over at them, trying to get a glimpse of what to do..”
In my opinion, it was a hard test. The kids looked to be around five to eight years old. They’d never learned to write. I doubted they even know how to number the paper one through four. There were two or three kids who actually wrote quickly and effectively. The headmaster picked up one of those little boys’ paper and says, “He has been to school before.”
It was quite clear that most of the other children had not. It was killing me watching those kids struggle: the ones not getting it just staring at the ones who were. But my attempts to talk to them in English did not help. I suddenly wished more strongly than ever for the ability to communicate across languages.
“I need to meet with them and find out if they really want to go to school. If they really want to go to school, they come.” The headmaster said. When we brought the rest of the children downstairs, everyone was crammed in the main office. Kevin explained, “We worked out a program. If the kids show up for the first week, they get a meal every one of those days. If they show up for the second week, they get a uniform. If they show up for the third week, they get school books. If they show up for the last week, they get another uniform and a bag.”
I was amused to find the uniforms got priority over the books, but it seemed very important to them that the kids all have an official outfit. “The incentive program encourages them to come.” The headmaster said.
“It’s good.” I said. “I like it.” I did, but something about the whole situation was bothering me. Something didn’t feel right. And maybe it was the lack of parental okay. No child is in charge of the big decisions of their lives. It is the parents who make the choice, and they were suspiciously absent. Not one had shown up to see what was going on. But I was assuming the parents were okay with it, after all the older kids said they had spoken with them, and they had let us take their children for the day.
And so we left, giving them our first payment of money, hoping to give more, hoping the children would actually show up.
Once again, I had mixed feelings about the whole day. But I was so happy to see the joy with which the older boys helped the children. Their caring was going to make the difference for the future of India.
We later heard from the headmaster, none of the children decided to come to school, but could we send them some money anyway? And I laugh thinking of how we played the typical foreigners coming in and thinking we could change things with quick and fast solutions. But once again, India swallowed us up whole.