The sounds of the gong from the monastery register in my mind. Six o’ clock. It’s time to get up. In fifteen minutes I gather the courage to wriggle out of bed. The dawn sun illuminates
my room. I have a quick shower with ice cold water,
and am out in the nippy morning air. As I walk along a silent path,
Khangchendzonga graces me with its presence,
a wonder to my eyes every day.
I reach the school, and am greeted by a hail of “Good Morning Sir”, by rosy faced children, carrying their bowls and plates for breakfast. I join them, in the queue, to kick-start a glorious morning.
That is how my days started at Denjong Padma Cheoling Academy. It is a school for tribal children in Pelling, West Sikkim, where I taught in November and December last year. It was started by esteemed monk Yapo Sonam Yongda of Pemyangtse monastery in 1980. Since then, it has been an important centre for learning in this area. From Nursery to Class X, it gives free education, lodging and food to all the students. Kids stay here from a young age and take care of themselves on their own, away from their remote villages where there isn’t any school. Many here are orphans who have been adopted by the school. The school imparts cultural education on Buddhist traditions to all the students as a part of the curriculum.
Children lead a tough life here. The funds are not enough, so they are served basic meals. There is water shortage sometimes, and the boys and girls have to walk to the nearby tank across the road to fetch water for all their needs. To see all the girls and boys, washing themselves by the road is endearing and heart breaking at the same time. Their uniforms are old, and in tatters sometimes for the younger kids. Their books are handed down from one class to another, and are falling apart.
Despite all these hardships, their smile is warm as the sun. They have a spring in their step, sharing a camaraderie I haven’t seen elsewhere. The older kids take care of the younger ones like their own siblings. The ones in nursery are 4-5 years old, and need to be looked after. Some of them are orphans with no families. For such students the school is their home.
I was teaching Science and Mathematics to classes nine and ten. It was clear that the school desperately needs some good, motivated teachers. Right now they have just one teacher each for Science and Maths in the higher classes, which is not ideal for the faculty as well as the students.
The students have fundamental weakness in Science, Maths and English. I am assuming it was the same in Social Science as well. Bhotia, their fifth subject is quite good, as they practice it during Buddhist prayer ceremonies. They chant these prayers regularly at Pemyangtse and Tashiding monasteries, and annually in Bodh Gaya.
The kids here are bright and quick to learn. However, due to the steady attrition of teachers, their study is affected. There isn’t a good structure in place for teaching and evaluation. The teachers are not monitored about their methods, and so follow their own set patterns, which might need a relook. The approach towards learning was a little lax, for which I feel the teachers are more to blame. Then again, I had gone at the end of a session, so things might have been different earlier.
While I was there, I helped in co-ordinating the Children’s Day and Sports Day events. It was a lot of fun, as I felt the energy of the young participants rub on to me. Football, volleyball, badminton, tug-of-war, and all the races were contested with fervour, by boys and girls alike. Then there was the feast at the end of it, where all the teachers helped with the preparation. It was a gala affair.
It was a revelation for me, experiencing all of this first hand. I had a great time. The boys and girls at the dormitory beside the monastery took good care of me. I regularly cooked something or the other for everyone in the evening, and we shared our meals, in the kitchen, which doubled up as the dining hall. Before dinner, I usually sat with the children as they studied. I helped them with their problems whenever needed. I developed a close bond with all the children at the monastery dorm. I have stayed in touch with some of them, learning about what they and the others are up to in the winter.
I played badminton with the teachers in the evening sometimes. I walked up and down the roads and paths, shunning vehicles as much as possible. It was refreshing to be on my own, with no internet and the disturbance of crowded streets to bother me. The weekends were spent exploring the locations around Pelling. So the time passed away in a tizzy.
Finally, it was time to go. The tenth class students were also bidding farewell to the school, which had been their home for ten years. They were quite emotional to part from their home away from home for ten years, and prepared a valedictory dinner for the teachers and themselves. I treated them to some savories at Lotus Bakery, with a promise to return and stay in touch.
These kids need our support. They are all very attentive and eager to learn. They need better facilities and teachers. The funds from the tribal ministry is not enough, and late most of the time. Lotus bakery, which is part of the school’s trust, barely supports it through the lean periods. The school doesn’t seek donations, and so has no other source of funds. It needs some publicity and grants, so that better teachers can be hired, and the infrastructure improved.
The principal and the director of the school, as well as the teachers are selfless souls. They have devoted their time and energy into preparing these youngsters for the future. With a little help from others like us, we can help these children live a better tomorrow.