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The Lavender and St Teresa's Matriculation Schools in Chennai India
Imagine a school full of respectful, keen to learn and self- disciplined students where children as young as four or five are confidently speaking three very different languages. Smartly dressed and very happy, these children are exceeding the local examination averages and winning trophies in the process. Some of the teachers at this school have a Masters Degree but all are extremely dedicated to both the children and their profession.
This sounds like an ideal school that must be situated in the affluent suburbs of one of the world's great cities. Well, think again, because I have just described the Lavender School in a poverty stricken area of Chennai in South East India. Were it not for this school, and her sister school St Teresa's, found deeper into the Indian countryside, many of the pupils would have no education and would probably be hard at work in the surrounding fields.
I was fortunate enough to visit both schools in November 1999 to see the marvellous work going on. Let me tell you how my visit came about.
As the Director of Competitions for the recently formed International Federation of Memory Sports, I have started to liaise with countries around the world to assist in the setting up of National Memory Championships. It was a pleasant surprise when in May 1999 I was invited to Chennai, in India, to help adjudicate the First Indian National Memory Championships to be held in November 1999.
Quite coincidently, at about the same time Mr Benedict Xavier - also of Chennai, India - was searching the Internet looking for help for his school, St. Teresa's. His e-mail to Project HappyChild went into the website guestbook - and I chanced to read it immediately after receiving my invitation to the Indian National Memory Champshionships.
They say that coincidences are God's way of making things happen - and this was some remarkable coincidence! - and so I figured I would somehow have to fit in the time to visit Benedict at St. Teresa's during my trip to Chennai.
I am so very glad that I did.
In the taxi on the way to the school from my hotel, Benedict explained the complexities of the Indian education system to me. Education is highly valued in India and the state-run Corporation schools provide most of that. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, access to these schools is not always possible for the poor and the underprivileged. This is especially so in families where adult illiteracy is high and education not valued.
About 12 years ago, Benedict's mother, Mrs Teresa Xavier, established the Lavender Matriculation School in Chennai in a poor area of the city. Initially no more than a hut and a handful of students, it has grown into an establishment with two substantial buildings and nearly 750 pupils.
It costs approximately $20 per year to educate each child in an area where the average annual income for families is about $80. Many families can't afford to pay but the philosophy of the school is that they turn no child away and so the school is heavily dependent upon charitable donations and its own fundraising efforts.
When we arrived at the Lavender School, I was heartily greeted by a magnificent student welcoming committee. My "hello" and "Thank you" in Tamil were met with squeals of approval which left me thinking that either they were very impressed or I had to work on my pronunciation. After being presented with a garland of flowers, I was welcomed to the school and then entertained by students from each yeargroup. The children sang, danced, gave speeches and acrobatic displays and were very impressive not only with their talent but also with their enthusiasm. After some light refreshments I was shown around the school. When I passed each classroom, the children rose to their feet and bid me good morning. Each class had about 20 pupils who sat on hard wooden benches while a teacher taught from a chalk board.
The classrooms themselves were very small and dimly lit but this did not seem to deter the students from concentrating on their studies. I passed through Science labs and then entered a small room that contained the school's only computer. Benedict has a Phd in computing and supplements his own income and that of the school by designing and selling educational software. It is also used as a multimedia tool for some lessons and I briefly sat in on a science lesson that was looking at magnets and magnetism.
The school is a Catholic School but educates Christians, Muslims and Hindus side by side. I was most impressed with the Moral Science Class that teaches the children to be good citizens of the world by using examples from each of the holy books. All students are strongly encouraged to study their own religious text.
After lunch we then travelled the 10kms to St Teresa's Matriculation School, further out in the Indian countryside. After a bumpy 30-minute drive along muddy roads we arrived. The school consists of a single-storey stone building with two classrooms and a corrugated tin roof. A couple of outbuildings house a storeroom that also doubles up as a classroom, the night watchman's hut, the toilets and the well.
Again when we arrived there was a welcoming committee of students and teachers. St Teresa's was established only six years ago and has 4 teachers for 60 children, most of whom were between 4 and 6 years old. The children sang songs (I never thought I would hear "I'm a little teapot.." on my travels to India sung so beautifully!), danced and acted out a play.
I offered my own entertainment when I struck my head on one of the low beams supporting the leaf-covered verandah. The children giggled and I felt sorry for the poor headmistress who spent the remainder of my visit desperately trying not to laugh. Well, it was funny (I'll look next time!).
Once again I was struck by the respect that the children had for each other, the teachers and for me, a complete stranger. I was also touched by their enthusiasm and marvelled at their command of three languages (English, Tamil and Hindi).
Potentially the school could reach nearly a thousand children in the surrounding area but it is money that prevents the school from expanding. Clearly Mrs Teresa Xavier is a woman of vision. St Teresa's has an impressive gate into the compound that currently far exceeds the land requirements of the 60 children who attend. Mrs Xavier wants to equal the success at the Lavender School within five years. Support for the cause is high among the parents of those who attend. Although illiteracy is high there are many proud parents of children who can speak and read in three languages.
Education is a great leveller in India and rewards those who excel, irrespective of background. The Lavender School and St Teresa's offer hope to the children who are taught there. All are keen and willing to learn and it was a pleasure to spend time with them. Throughout my time with them I kept thinking back to my school days and my more recent experience of education through my work and I couldn't help thinking that we perhaps take for granted what we have in the UK.
I am going to go back to the school next year and hopefully I'll be taking more than just my support with me.
I am sure there are many thousands of schools like St Teresa's all over the world, each with just as many needs. However, after spending time with the children and the teachers there, St Teresa's and the Lavender School now have a very special place in my heart.
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4th March 1998: