Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where I Used to Beg

One hot, dusty summer night, I went out for a walk with a small woman who was the mother of a Merasi School student. She wanted to buy milk, but, knowing it wasn't safe for someone of her caste to be out alone in the evening, asked me to come along.

As we walked, our talk traipsed easily across stories about our fathers, how to make a perfect cup of chai and what kind of cheese Americans use on pizza. It was a conversation that felt like it could have happened at a sidewalk cafe in New York City or in front of a bathroom mirror on a break from dinner with friends.

We arrived at the little wooden booth and purchased a small plastic sack of milk for the morning's chai. I cupped the bag in my hand and walked alongside the woman. As we turned the corner, she leaned against my arm and indicated a dilapidated old house in front of us.

"I used to beg there," she said quietly. I started at the rundown heap of bricks and mortar that stood flimsily just off the street.

"That's why I send my children to school," she said, walking on. "They shouldn't have that. Their life is more than that. I know this."

And she's right. Their life is more than that. And so is hers. We cannot heal the wounds of the past, but we can fight fiercely to ensure that they are not replicated in the future. This generation of Merasi children will have new fights to fight, of this, I am sure. But with every class that's taught, every mind that's engaged, we move further away from the reality of the past and closer towards the possibility of the future.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Daywu Plays Offence

Mr Daywu Khan

Daywu Khan is a dignified presence. Around 3:30 every day, his slender figure appears walking down the street to The Merasi School. By the calmness of his demeanor, you’d never suspect the danger of his journey from the one-room house his family of six rents on the outskirts of Jaisalmer City to The Merasi School near the center of town.

Daywu moves quickly through certain neighborhoods where the paint is always bright on the front doors and heaps of discarded food lie soggy in the sewers. These are upper caste homes where kids laugh and point at Daywu’s ragged shirt, make jokes about his mother, or throw pebbles at his back.

At Daywu’s house, the paint is faded and peeling and the altar is a small tableau of dry flowers and a single stick of incense. There is never enough food.

While most Merasi School students sip afternoon chai, Daywu retrieves a slate, chalk and small red rug. He settles at the foot of the stairs that lead to the roof and begins to practice ‘D-A-Y-W-U.’

Daywu writes and rewrites, erasing his work with the sleeve of an old blue blazer his brother grew out of. He practices each letter until he is satisfied with the smooth curves and angular cuts of his name.

“I have a few dreams,” he says. “My father thinks I’m stupid with my dreams. But he can’t write his name. And I can.”

“We give kids enough knowledge to have dreams,” says Merasi School co-founder and onsite director, Sarwar Khan. “For most kids, being called a ‘student’ is enough. For 37 generations, we have been told we aren’t worthy of education. Now, kids have a school to call their own. That’s a garden for dreaming.”

While many students loudly declare their ambitions, Daywu spends each afternoon steadily building his future. It is unclear what the coming years hold for Daywu. But it is quite clear that tomorrow at 3:30, he will be at the foot of the stairs, doing everything in his quiet power to see a dream or two come true.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jill Biden, The Merasi School and the community college model

Yessie, a learning student

In a recent NYTimes article, Jill Biden, community college professor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, described community colleges as the "way of the future" for developing countries. As Pakistan and Qatar pore millions of dollars into what they hope will be the future Harvards and Oxfords, well-educated minds have been emerging from less ivied, less endowed institutions since their formal inception in the 1970s.

What, exactly, do these little educational nooks have to do with The Merasi School? In essence, everything. The community college model is shaped around community needs: it draws students from the immediate area, offers practical classes with functional application at a suitable time of day and, to stay in existence, must be constantly revising the curriculum to maintain relevance. They are repositories for fast, efficient training necessary to participate in the workforce, which is exactly what the global economy needs at the moment.

We're not so different out in our desert classroom. While few community college students work from slates or sit on brightly colored rugs, both of our curricula are functional by design. Classes are tailored to give students the most useful, applicable skills to participate in and shape the landscape within which they exist. Or, as an elementary art teacher once said: "Our job is to give you the basic skills to paint the full expression of your ideas."

The job of The Merasi School, that is shared with many community colleges, is not to develop learned individuals, but learning students who, from their education, gather the ability to articulate their most constructive thoughts in words and action.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Full Time Job

Suriya Khan practices the harmonium (pump keyboard)

We just wrapped up summer holiday at The Merasi School. As the June sun pounds 120 degree rays down onto Jaisalmer, children visit relatives in other villages and our small school building undergoes intensive mending from recent earthquake damage. But while the literal functions of school are slumbering, the mental rhythms continue to play out.

The Merasi School children are taught to be students at every moment of the day. Fridah is a student when she reads the label on a package of milk, Daywu is a student when he tallies the total for his father’s medical expenses, and Iyeena is a student when she stirs the chai in four and six beat rhythms. The kids are in a charged continuum of knowledge that can only begin at The Merasi School.

The real classroom is bartering with mango sellers, catching an error in the cloth vendor’s receipt, gauging how much salve is needed to treat a cut. Building the connective tissue of knowledge is the heart and soul of education. ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ mean nothing on their own, but when nestled in the context of ‘abacus’ or ‘black,’ their significance and use explodes.

As soon as a little guy or gal makes the connection between an idea on the chalkboard and an immediate application in their lives, the imagination takes charge and, through messy experimentation, students discover the power of the written word and the utility of addition. And this intersection of ideas and actions is what differentiates education from all other forms of community development.

Education is bigger than the sum of its parts. When constructed purposefully, it is the most powerful current in a stream charging towards social justice. Each one of our students has the capacity to be a pacemaker for this body of water.

Yes, it was summer holiday at The Merasi School. But it’s only a holiday from the physical structure. Being a student is a full-time job.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Dark Art of Poverty

A troupe of Merasi rehearse in the Thar Desert

Poverty is a dehumanizing state. It is not simply the lack of money, but the total absence of choice, opportunity and hope. The shadowy reality of poverty is that it assigns people negative value; individuals are defined exclusively by their deficits.

On the surface, the Merasi (musicians) live in expansive poverty. Yet valuing a community based on what they are not is a fundamentally disrespectful approach to change. Human substance does not reside in what we are not, but in what we are. And the Merasi are many, many things.

The Merasi are a community of musicians who narrate the folk culture of their Indian desert landscape in ancient song systems. They stir chai (tea), lay bricks, horns, inhale in rhythm. Music is the beginning, middle and end, and as the global hand of modernization sweeps across India, that music is on the cusp of extinction.

The Merasi School exists solely to support community-driven change. While the world calls the Merasi ‘Manganiyar,’ meaning beggar, the Merasi define themselves by their artistic prosperity rather than their social poverty.

Through daily academic and music classes, we supports the development of creative minds, hearts and hands capable of social transformation. There is no poverty at The Merasi School, only the loud, relentless rhythm of possibility.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Six Degrees of Connection

Sahju & Akram work through a complicated rhythm

If my neighbor Sarah from rural Algeria can connect to Kevin Bacon in less than six degrees, than there's no reason why we cannot link the realization of two desires into one coherent mission. The Merasi community wants to both preserve their 37-generation old musical legacy and create a reality unobstructed by discrimination. When we put our heads together to shape a curriculum that met both objectives, we discovered that these artistic and social ambitions don't just go hand-in-hand, they are downright inseparable.

Rhythm is as fundamental to the Merasi as food and water. "We cry in rhythm," they say. Children are rocked to sleep in five-beat patterns and a lone dholak (drum) is never without a player for long. Art is life; yet life for the Merasi is the art of survival. Enter education, an academic map that navigates students from a futile, reactive fight against crippling marginalization to a proactive, empowered reformation of art and justice in the contemporary world. It's a bumpy road; we've a lot along the way. But every hand that reaches out in the darkness makes a powerful difference. Click here to find out what you can do.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Splatter Method of Discovery

Neelu wears her heart and smarts on her sleeve.

Not too long ago, Anne Lamott wrote a terrific book called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. There are mounds of wisdoms packed into these pages, but the piece that lodged right into my brain is that any project, from folding a paper airplane to painting the Sistine Chapel, starts with a first fold, first brushstroke, first step.

I just got off the phone with Sarwar after an extended chat about education for toddlers. As I hash over our discussion, no clear narrative arc emerges, but rather a Jackson Pollock splatter of ideas, each bubbling and steaming with various degrees of possibilities. And this is how most innovations are launched in our desert classroom.

A chorus of pint-sized voices launches itself out of the peanut-gallery and into the spotlight: we want to learn how to use computers, our students say. So we began discussions about the whys and whats of computer literacy, got a few generous souls to donate some laptops and started one of the most popular pieces of our programming.

The method is that ANY idea is possible as long as you have the ears to listen, the heart to believe and the feet to take the first step. Of course many ideas do some serious shape-shifting en route to realization: The Merasi School Garden, a great dream of Afreen and Akram's, never fully materialized due to poor sunlight and soil quality. But what emerged in place of a flower bed was a plot of land for recess, home to kite construction and flying, chalkboard painting and elaborate paste and coloring projects.

Speaking from the podium at Stanford, Steve Jobs spoke about connecting the dots retrospectively. After we plunge passionately into our idea-realization, Sarwar and I work fiercely to distill replicable patterns and practices from our pilot projects and test runs and thus curricula emerge. But first, we swim in the alphabet soup, with the faith that there are enough vowels and consonants for the right words to rise to the top.