Youth: My Indian Summer
(Left) The author with Pandu, one of the nursery kids who brought out a little Telugu that she didn’t know she had in her.
A young Indian-American volunteer discovers treasures in a humble, rural school in India—love for learning and teachers who love to teach.
For a long time, I wanted to do volunteer work in another country. Then my mom suggested I talk to my uncle, Dr. Vikram Akula, a businessman and philanthropist, who visits India during the summer with his son to volunteer at a village school. Dr. Akula told me about The Bodhi School and how he and his son, Tejas, spent a couple of weeks there every year, assisting the teachers and spending time with the students.
I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to start off as a volunteer because I was going with people I knew to a country that I had visited before. Excited as I was, I must admit that I was somewhat nervous, too, about going to India. This would not be my first trip—I have travelled there many times with my parents. During those trips, my parents would take care of everything. We would stay in five-star hotels, eat at fancy restaurants, and travel in our own chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned car. This time I knew I needed to do some heavy lifting on my own.
On June 10, 2016, my dad and I went to New York; from there I was to fly to Dubai and then India. At JFK Airport, I met up with one of the volunteer teachers and we spent an hour or so getting to know each other. As I was going through the security lane, I kept looking back over my shoulder to get a glimpse of my dad. As he faded away into the crowd and exited the airport, I said to myself, Manisha, it’s just you and I now.
We arrived in Hyderabad late at night. The next day, Monday, June 13, 2016, we made the three-hour journey from our hotel in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad to Narayankhed, a little village in Medak District, Telangana, and home to The Bodhi School. Children as young as three and as old as 12 or 13 years attend The Bodhi School. Among others who volunteered with me were my uncle, his son, his son’s friend, and two teachers. I was to stay there for two weeks.
My first day in the village came as a shock. It was uncomfortably hot and there were bugs everywhere. Our living accommodations were basic to put it mildly. The contrast couldn’t have been sharper compared to the Park Hyatt at Hyderabad where we stayed when we arrived and spent the following weekends. I was tense but determined to shake off these impressions and focus on the purpose of my visit.
The sparsely furnished classroom didn’t compare in amenities to the author’s high school class in Milton, Georgia, but that didn’t prevent it from providing the kids what they needed the most: an education.
The school and our housing were in the same campus. The school contained around ten classrooms and two office rooms. It was made of cinder blocks that were painted in different colors. Each room had tables for the students and a chalkboard for the teacher to write notes on. The walls sported posters made by the teachers. There were also shelves filled with games and educational materials. It was primitive, compared to the high school I attend in Milton, a suburb of Atlanta.
What struck me though, was that the children who attended the school were happy and the teachers were sincere. For sure, The Bodhi School did not lack in love for learning and teachers who loved to teach.
The small playground outside the school had swings and slides. In front of the playground stood a giant chalkboard that teachers and school officials would fill with a daily quote, a new word for the students to learn, and general information—all this in three languages, Telugu, Hindi, and English. The large tree adjacent to the playground had a nice rope swing with a wooden seat. Every morning I would to go sit on the swing while talking to my dad 8,000 miles away. I loved going there at night as well to enjoy the lovely weather, the quiet, peaceful surroundings, and dark sky. The only sound I’d hear would be the call to prayer from the local mosque.
The day began with greetings, stretching exercises, and a prayer.
School started at 8:00 a.m. every day. Children arrived at the school in autos, school buses, or motorcycles with their backpacks and lunch bags. The day began with greetings, stretching exercises, and a prayer. On my first day, after the morning announcements were done, the teachers called us up to the front to introduce ourselves and hand out candy to the children. I was nervous at first facing all the children, their parents, and the teachers. I had no idea what I was going to say; I resorted to just saying my name and how excited I was to be at Bodhi. The other volunteers seemed better prepared. The students were then dismissed to their assigned classrooms to start their lessons.
We spent our school days playing different games with the children. Sometimes we would play soccer and other times we would play with blocks. Cricket was played often, especially during the PE classes. The nursery children loved to play on the playground, swinging on the swings and sliding down the slides. We would read stories and act out plays for the older kids, trying to help them understand English books. The children are taught English, Telugu, and Hindi, along with other classes like mathematics, science, and literature.
I spent most of my time making arts and crafts for the children to use while learning. I also helped teachers with the kids. We used household items to make alphabet flashcards. I spent a lot of time helping students learn in a Lower Kindergarten class. I participated in activities such as reading books and singing songs. I liked making alphabet letters out of playdough. Some of the children and I would race to see who could make the letters the fastest. I would always let them win.
At the end of the school day, all the children and teachers would go outside and socialize. I remember this one day when all the little kids started to kick around the lined up traffic cones, where they would stand and wait for the buses. The teachers tried their best to control the children, but it was impossible. It was a rodeo; I started laughing at all of the children and even joined in at one point. Some days, we played cricket or basketball, once all the children had left for the day. Other days we sat and talked to one another. It was fun being around everyone and just talking.
How very different life was in rural India, compared to what I was used to! My high school back home is about 50 times bigger than The Bodhi School which functions out of a single story building. My school has more students in one grade level than this school has in all grades combined. In place of the whiteboards and fancy projectors that I was used to, Bodhi had chalk and chalkboard. Importantly, for the children of Bodhi School, their school gives them what they need: education and love.
Back in the United States I often reflect on my time at Bodhi. I miss the little children, especially Pandu and his younger brother, two little boys to whom I’d grown very attached. We spent most of our time playing with soccer balls. Pandu and the other nursery kids brought out a little Telugu I didn’t know I had in me (I never speak Telugu at home—people speak to me in Telugu and I respond in English). I think about them every day, and about all the fun we had inside and outside the classroom.
The Spartan settings of the school and the author’s accommodations on its premises seemed daunting at first—but they grew on her.
This little school in this little village has taught me a lot. These kids and their families don’t have that much compared to me, but they are blessed in so many different ways. You don’t have to have fancy things in life to be happy. At the same time, I am very appreciative of everything I have. Thanks to this experience, I will never be unappreciative of the life I have been blessed with.
I hope I can one day go back to Bodhi, see the smiles on the children’s faces once again, and meet the teachers and staff who run this wonderful place. It was an experience I will always cherish.
Manisha Bommakanti is an 11th grader living in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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