Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” I found this insight to hold true during my visits to Ekal Vidyalaya schools on a recent trip to Bharat.
My connection with the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation chapters in the United States had always been through lending a hand during annual Ekal fundraising programmes. I was inspired by my mother, Prajna Khisty's, relentless dedication to Ekal work despite her load of professional and personal responsibilities. The tasks of setting up the halls, serving food, collecting pledges, making announcements, and singing the Ekal song were all a pleasure to do in the company of other individuals who were passionate about helping their homeland reach new heights. As I volunteered for more programmes, I was exposed to the images, sounds, and statistics of Ekal work in the target communities of tribal villages. The smiling faces of children, the sounds of their voices rose in unison reciting songs, and the growing numbers of Ekal schools and success stories were all positive reinforcements for continuing to volunteer for such a wonderful and effective organization. However, thoughts always lurked in the back of my mind about actually setting foot in an Ekal Vidyalaya school and seeing the village, the children, and the teachers working together to help the community progress. In addition, while watching the Ekal Vidyalaya videos and interviews, I found myself yearning to ask questions to the children and their neighborhoods about their feelings and thoughts about the Ekal Vidyalaya experience. The only solution for my impatient mind was to stop thinking and just go to Bharat to confer with the other half of the Ekal family.
Luckily, at the Ekal Vidyalaya National Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 2012, I met a very intelligent and benevolent person, Dr. Satheesh Kumar, who offered his help in connecting me to a real Ekal Vidyalaya school environment.
Dr Sateesh had come all the way from Bharat to link with Ekal members in the U.S. and share his experience and insight. He immediately came to our aide and through him, we were able to meet up with two local Ekal volunteers, Ms Sangeetha and Ms Savita-tai Kamathe. We set aside a Saturday and began a four-hour journey to some Ekal Vidyalaya schools near the Junnar District in Maharashtra. Our goal was to visit two villages, Ghangaldhare and Damsewadi.
Ms Sangeetha is a native of Ghangaldhare and had at one point been an Ekal Vidyalaya teacher. As her experience and expertise grew, she took on the responsibility of a managerial and guidance position, overlooking many schools, helping training new teachers, and setting a powerful example of immersing oneself in sewa. Ms Savita-tai also has a long history working for Ekal as a volunteer in the Pune area, along with her other life as an independent entrepreneur running her own business. It was really empowering to travel with such accomplished yet humble women, both strong and dedicated to serving others.
The beautiful scenery of budding farms and the clean, fresh rural air comforted us as we reached our destination in what seemed like the blink of an eye. The small village of Ghangaldhare greeted us with open arms, warm smiles, and a tika ceremony where the local women each blessed their guests. We were ushered into a small temple, the substitute location for the Ekal Vidyalaya lessons that day. As we stepped inside, bright, curious eyes and shy bursts of laughter welcomed us. A group of about 40 children, ranging from ages 4-14, sat neatly in rows according to their class year. The room was buzzing with their giggles and whispers but as soon as the teacher gave a command, the children demonstrated utmost discipline and quieted down. The next hour was a beautiful montage of songs, poems, multiplication table recitations, spiritual hymns, and joyful enthusiasm. Although initially shy, each child was eager to participate in solo and group demonstrations of their musical, history, and mathematics skills. Without batting an eye, each volunteer confidently stood up and belted out either melodious songs, answers to questions, or rapid recitations of multiplication tables of up to 25! We were extremely impressed that these children had memorized every word and every number of their lessons. Even the little ones joined their voices to the group as poised and self-confident students. When we got a chance to speak with the children, we were pleasantly taken aback by the eloquent responses of self-proclaimed future engineers, teachers and doctors. I was nervous when it was my turn to speak. What would I be able to say or ask as a total stranger to such a bright group of students! I opted for an analogy and as I handed out chocolates to each child, I simply reminded them that although material things like chocolates are here and gone in an instant, knowledge is a real treat that would stay with you forever.
We headed off to Damsewadi. It was also a small farming village, with a close-knit population of families. We walked into another classroom with about 50 students inside, this time sitting in rows according their grade and gender. Several mothers and grandmothers also joined the class and observed all from the back. As the lessons began, we were again electrified by the powerful voices and confident stances of each child. Students practically fought over who got to go to the board to solve math problems or write new vocabulary. Their zest and eagerness for new challenges created a wonderful energy in the room. They sang a song about the harvest seasons in their village and later, one little boy explained that he wanted to grow up to be a farmer to help his family. When we asked each child about their future aspirations, 80 percent of the class enthusiastically proclaimed that they wanted to be engineers. It was especially rewarding to see that most of these future engineers were female students, undaunted by stigmas of male dominance in certain fields. Other kids also gave unique answers such as becoming educators; farmers, doctors and one bold little girl even proclaimed that she intended to be the next Sonia Gandhi! It was incredibly inspiring to see how the Ekal Vidyalaya atmosphere had inculcated a passion and hope in these young minds about their own capabilities.
Exposure to agricultural skills as well as literacy and mathematics skills had created a unique fusion of knowledge in the children of Ghangaldhare and Damsewadi. I cannot wait to find out where their dreams and experiences will take them, but I know that Ekal Vidyalaya has already set them on the right path to success. It was a stirring and almost spiritual experience visiting the Ekal schools and ever since, all I need to do is reach into my memory to gain new bursts of energy, hope, and passion. The untapped resources of bright children are a wasted resource and I hope to continue working for the Ekal Vidyalaya movement until Bharat can proudly have a 100 percent literacy rate.