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Maureen came to Samthar many years ago as a tourist. Her first visit was followed by trips to Kerala, Bhutan and Sikkim, with Gurudongma. When I was having a hard time finding someone to guide our untrained teachers who were bravely trying to blaze a new trail, I sent an SOS to Maureen. In reply she turned up herself. Her arrival heralded a new era for our fledging school. From day one the children took to Maureen, like duck to water, and eagerly learnt.
With her love, affection, and dedication, she has not only brought change to the children’s lives, but has helped me in making them into change makers of the future. She has lead the teachers gently, opening new windows of knowledge and conduct and taught them how to handle young learners. To the village ladies she has been a friend, and has taught them new skills, and enjoyed social interaction.
Maureen‘s Samthar story
The Kalimpong area of the Darjeeling Hills has been very special to me since childhood. In 1950, my father was appointed Headmaster of Dr Graham’s Homes and we moved there from Scotland. I completed my secondary education there and fell in love with the place. However, work, marriage and children prevented me from returning for nearly 50 years. On my retirement from teaching I went back on holiday and found many changes but the views , the people and the character of Kalimpong still attracted me strongly. I even visited Samthar, which then, in 1998, was even quieter than it is today.
So when General Jimmy Singh emailed me years later to tell me that he had started a pre-school in the village and to ask whether I could think of anyone who was a retired teacher and could help in the school for 6 months, I jumped at the chance. My daughter called it my geriatric gap year!
I found a delightful little school with a Nursery class and 2 Kindergarten classes. The teachers were understandably nervous at my arrival, but we soon became friends as I was able to help them with simple but effective teaching methods from my own experience. The Awake and Shine teachers are not qualified, but are local young people who speak enough English and have been educated to class 10 or 12 standard. This has proved to be very advantageous to the school for the following reasons:
- They haven’t developed an authoritarian attitude to the children which prevail in other schools in the area.
- They are happy to accept our absolute restraint on physical punishment and shouting at the children.
- They are willing to try out new methods.
- The teachers are local, and thus the parents and children accept them happily.
As a result, the General’s aim that “the children should learn in an atmosphere of joy and love” is being achieved.
Soon it became apparent that a pre-school was not enough. We needed to plan for a primary school. We decided to do this one class at a time. The parents and children were delighted.
Since my first 6 months in Awake and Shine, I have returned every year for at least 4 months every visit. The school has now grown to 7 classes and our brightest ex-pupils are currently near the top of their (huge) classes in some of the best schools in Kalimpong.
Our greatest problem is finding suitable young people to train as teachers, so that we can have a teacher for every class and support teachers for Nursery, Kindergarten, Classes 1 and 2 and for Classes 3 and 4. A few years ago I ran a class for young people who had recently left Class 10 in the local High School. They had all been learning English for years, but none of them could speak a word. After nearly 3 months of informal classes with lots of games and laughter we gained 3 teachers who are all still with us. As well as learning to speak English, they absorbed teaching methods and ways of encouraging their pupils which they still use.
My work is mainly with the teachers, helping and encouraging them and showing them modern ways to teach. But I also love being with the children. They are quite delightful! They love the school and are so eager to learn. They always want me to read stories to them and have now gained much wider vocabularies as a result. Last year, class 3 from a very expensive local school came with their teachers and we put them together with our class 3 for a story. Afterwards, I asked all the children to think of another word for “big”. Our visitors suggested “large”, but didn’t know any others. Our children then came up with “huge, enormous and gigantic” – all words they had absorbed from stories. They also love maths, because we try always to teach it practically, using games and apparatus, instead of relying on rote learning.
As well as normal school subjects we have projects. The most memorable one I was involved in was the construction by the children of a mud oven which is still in regular use.
Visitors to our school are always amazed by the children’s confidence and friendliness. They love to talk to visitors and to guide them round the village.
I plan to go to the school again in August this year and already have a large pile of books and games to pack. I have even found a science kit so that Class 4 can make their own weather systems in a jar and see how clouds and rain are formed. I can’t wait to see their faces!
I am so privileged to be able to be part of this wonderful project which is transforming the life chances of so many children in Samthar. I will continue to go there every year for as long as I have my health and strength.
If you are a retired teacher who would like to spend a few months in this inspiring school where you will find all the things you love about teaching and none of the things which wore you down, I recommend you contact Jimmy and come and join us.
Rabindranath Tagore said it all in his poem Gitanjali:
I thought my voyage had come to its end at the last limit of my power – that the path before me was closed, that the provisions were exhausted and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.
But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.
Caversham jimmy Singh May 29, 2015