I wasn’t able to post for the last few weeks I was in India, so this is a final post to fill you in on my time at the Victoria Armstrong Memorial School in Kotagiri.
Volunteering at Victoria Armstrong Memorial School
On a radiant, cloudless day in Kotagiri, I checked my timetable, tapped on the classroom door and went into the standard four classroom of the Victoria Armstrong Memorial School. Time for their Spoken English class. I started, as I always do, by speaking to individual children. ‘Good morning. How are you?’ I asked a boy looking at me, as most were, with keen attention.
‘I am not well,’ replied the child, a picture of health.
‘Oh dear,’ I responded. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I have …’ Then, with a huge grin, ‘a headache.’
‘And how are you?’ I asked, pointing to a child with perfect plaits.
‘I am not well,’ she replied, smiling. ‘I have a cold.’
After getting similar replies from two other children, I was worried that the whole class had come down with something. Then I realised that the pupils were practising the conversation I’d taught them a couple of days before: how to answer someone when they asked you how you were, and you didn’t feel ‘fine’. And that was typical of my experience of the school. The children were so eager to learn, and keen to show me what they’d learned.
I’d arrived in Kotagiri a few days before, with my guitar and dusty rucksack, not sure what to expect but ready and willing to do whatever would be useful. I needn’t have worried. My first meeting with the school principal, Mrs B Poovizhy, put me at ease. We decided that I should take Spoken English classes in the mornings, and music lessons in the afternoons. She wanted me to devote some extra time to the school choir.
Before arriving at the school I’d puzzled over what songs to teach the children. I’d prepared some English children’s songs, but wondered whether I should be looking for songs with an Indian context. Mrs Poovizhy explained that as the school was an ‘English medium’ institution, in which English was the principal language used for teaching, she’d welcome it if the children could learn English songs. I was pleased that to hear this, as I’d hoped the songs would be a way of helping the children, even the very young ones, learn some English words and phrases.
The singing lessons were tremendous fun. Here, as in the Spoken English classes, I was grateful for the support of the teachers. The children overflowed with enthusiasm and excitement, and I sometimes needed help to keep them quiet. The whole school enjoyed, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, not least because yellow school buses were an integral part of their life, ferrying them to and from school every day. They loved doing the actions, too. Without a doubt, the favourite line, with accompanying actions, was, ‘The horn on the bus goes beep, beep, beep!’
But other songs, too, were popular. The choir loved a little song I made up about breakfast, titled, ‘Dal and chapati’. They also tore into ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’ with great gusto, enjoying the strong rhythm. But the favourite, with both students and teachers, was ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ a song written by the American singer Bobby McFerrin. The sentiment was one we could all relate to, with a universal appeal. Even on the day I left, groups of children were singing it to me as I passed.
The Victoria Armstrong Memorial School is a special place. For a start, its origins were unusual. Victoria Armstrong was a British schools inspector who came to Kotagiri in the 1980s, and was captivated by the place, and by the essential work being done by the Nilgiris Adavasi Welfare Association (NAWA) to support the tribal communities living in the Nilgiris (the Blue Mountains, which straddle Kerala and Tamil Nadu). The foundation of a school for the children of these tribal communities became one of her aims. With NAWA, she worked to make this vision a reality, and though she died before the school was opened, she left her property and assets to NAWA to achieve this and other initiatives. An admirable woman, who is remembered in the name of the school, and celebrated at the annual School Day in November. Though the school is also open to children from all communities, its aim is to encourage and support the tribal children, who often have to travel long distances, and had, in the past, had a high drop-out rate. Efforts are made to make the school atmosphere as stimulating and welcoming as possible. To this end, the whole school has karate sessions twice a week, and a wonderful classical musician comes in once a week to teach the children Indian classical songs.
But back to the songs. Mrs Poovizhy was keen that I should work with every class, so no child was excluded. One sunny afternoon I found myself sitting with fifty children under the age of five singing, ‘This is the way we wash our face’ – with actions, of course. I had huge admiration for the children, because for those from tribal communities English was often their third language. They spoke their tribal language at home, and were then asked to speak and write in both Tamil and English. Needless to say, they went at the song with great gusto, and learned some English words along the way.
At the end of the school day I was taken back to the cool, characterful bungalow made available to NAWA visitors by Rosaleen Mulji and her son Kabir. Here Susheela, the housekeeper, would have a meal ready. ‘Eating, Madam!’ was her command, as she placed the delicious food in front of me. The bungalow was surrounded by trees filled with tiny birds. There was no television, no internet, so after eating I’d watch the birds and play guitar before enjoying an early night. Someone offered to try to get the TV working, but I was happy without it. I can watch TV and mess around on the internet all day long at home. In India, I wanted to do something different.
The Nilgiris are beautiful. Lush, covered in tea plantations or native forest, they rise into clear blue skies. Days are bright, and nights are chilly. On my time off Mrs Poovizhy and Mr Alwas, the hospitable Secretary of NAWA, arranged for me to visit nearby towns and beauty spots. One evening we lurched over a forest track to visit a tribal village. Mr Alwas laughed when I wondered whether the jeep could make it, while trying not to look over the steep drop to the side of the road. ‘That’s why we have the jeeps,’ he said. And indeed we made it there and back with no mishaps.
My two weeks at the school flew by. On my last day the principal had arranged for the tribal children to do some dances for me. Wearing tribal costumes they performed beautiful steps. Much laughter ensued when I tried to join in with their elegant movements. We rounded off the session with a rousing performance of ‘Don’t Worry, be Happy’, from members of the choir.
Before I left I was asked whether I could return. I said I’d think about it. Now, a couple of weeks later, I’m pretty sure I’ll go back, to build on the work I’ve done, and perhaps introduce a new project, such as drama. I don’t think the school has seen the last of me.