The Sweet Stench of Service

10 Apr

“It feels like entering an indoor, heated swimming pool. It’s just missing that chlorine smell,” Wesley says.

“Eww. You’re right,” Marielle agrees.

The echoing sounds of children’s laughter and the palpable waves of heat truly do bring a swimming center to mind. We’ve just left the oasis of air conditioned taxi and are now preparing to enter the Chennai Girls Higher Secondary School, where Avanti Fellows holds its after school programs. Avanti Fellows is an organization that provides a variety of mentoring and learning programs to supplement the education of students from low income families. We’ve currently teamed up with them to expose the students to something a little different than the STEM and rote learning they’re use to.

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Sweats pushes our clothes towards our flesh, wet stains growing large and round near the most attractive bits of our bodies, that is the armpit and lower back. Five minutes out here, and now we smell as if we haven’t showered in days, despite the daily -sometimes twice daily- bathing rituals we take part in. We glide across a sandy field towards the school building. Large feet try to avoid tripping over the narrow steps as we go up and around. This staircase doesn’t quite spiral so much as it takes sudden, sharp turns. At last, we reach the classroom where the Avanti Fellows’ students wait for us.

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The teenagers, all in 12th standard, sit clustered together towards the front of the room. Young men in collared button downs segregate themselves to a few tables. The rest of the desks are filled with young women. Their garb is far more diverse. It ranges from western dress to colorful kurtis, salwars, dupatas, to abayas and a mixture of the bunch. As we enter the classroom, some students wave and invite us in on their conversations. We say “hello,” “how are you?” and listen closely as they ask us questions about our lives. The small talk soon ends, when we split them into groups. One, Two, One, Two, they count off. Some students try swapping places to ensure they’d be in a group with their friends; others simply sneak into the other group when they think we aren’t looking.

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Now we begin the workshops of the day. Every week we cover new subjects. Thus far topics have included poetry, environmental issues, public speaking and social entrepreneurship, just to name a few. Each lesson the students challenge us as we challenge them. This mutual learning process makes the fact that we are damp and reeking completely worth it. Especially, when a young woman writes a poem for the first time, and in it shares the struggles she’s faced in order to continue her education. Or when applause erupts after a student delivers a speech in perfect English on how to combat corruption in his society. It’s worth it because these students now have an opportunity to know other ways to learn, and luckily enough for us, they now have the opportunity to teach.

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