Praroyna School, Ultadanga, Kolkata

December 26, 2006

The taxi makes a left turn onto a lane, a right into an alley, has to wait for a van coming in the opposite direction to cross a one-car-wide bridge, edges down a dirt path, and then cuts diagonally across a field before stopping at the one-room Praroyna School in Ultadanga, Kolkata. We walk in to cries of “Happy Christmas Auntie!” from the thirty students and five new enrollees from Beleghata slum who range in age from four to fourteen.

Mark and I and Carol, a volunteer from France, accompany Rosalie Giffoniello, the co-founder and director of Empower the Children, for the Christmas party for the students of Praroyna School. “Indians are holiday obsessed, but we only give these students two parties a year – one for Durga Puja and one for Christmas,” explains Rosalie, as we carry in the Christmas tree and her Christmas box full of props for her lesson – even though this is a party, it starts with a lesson.

And this lesson is no different from any other lesson Rosalie teaches – it starts with a story. Rina Das, the Director of the school, translates into Bengali Rosalie’s English extrapolation of a Dutch pop-up book about a little goat whose Christmas wish is to pull Santa’s sleigh. The children let out an exclamation of wonder as the first page pops up. Rosalie stops after each page of the story so that she and one of the two full-time teachers with a second copy of the book show every child each pop-up picture as Rina questions the children on the story. After the story, Rosalie takes out a plush bear in a red cap that each child gets an opportunity to hug. Next, a smaller Santa bear in a sleigh is passed around. Then, Rosalie asks me to make sure every child gets to hear the “singing” snowman, whose song unfortunately ends in “…dashing through the snow.” The malfunction is a bit jarring for me, but of course, the kids don’t understand or care.

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Rina and Rosalie with the children of Praroyna School

Then it is time for the drama. A little boy is selected to wear a Santa costume, others are his “helpers,” with the appropriate masks, while still others are reindeer, with antler headbands. The rest of the children are the audience, and they get to wear felt hats with pompoms. Because the classroom is too small for the enactment, we take the students outside into the field. All the other children who have been looking in through the window and door become audience members. Santa, his helpers, and reindeer fly to America to pick up the presents, but not before being fed by Mrs. Claus. Before the presents are distributed, each child is given a Christmas card and share the 12 scissors available in the school to cut out the pictures to make ornaments for the tree. The cutouts are hole-punched and tied to the tree with string. Carol hands out a toothbrush and pencil, taped and tied together with ribbon (for the more significant holiday of Durga Puja, each child gets a made-to-order set of clothes) before we take our leave and the teachers and students continue the party with cake, candy and other little gifts.

Praroyna School is one of more than a dozen programs that Empower the Children operates each year on a total budget of U.S. $25,000. (Praroyna School runs on an annual budget of U.S. $4,000.) Rosalie strives to make sure that each of her educational programs fosters free expression and independent thinking and does not mimic the standard government education by rote memorization. After the standard educational curriculum in the mornings (to prepare the children to sit for the Board examinations), and a nutritious mid-day meal (which includes fruit), the children at Praroyna are instructed in the creative arts – music, art, and drama – in the afternoons.

Rosalie, despite a soft heart that can never say “no”, is an exacting taskmaster and teacher. But her fiscal and educational rigor is tempered by the love that she has for each and every child in her programs. And she has been able to attract educators who are equally passionate about the children they serve. Rina Das, the director of Praroyna School, loves each child in the school as she loves her only son. For every success, such as the five new enrollments today, she has failures, such as the eight year old girl (pictured below) who was pulled out of school (which she attended every day with her younger sister) to take over the household duties for her mother, who survived having her sari set on fire (presumably by her husband). But she continues to scour the Beleghata slums to plead with parents to let their children come to school.

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Running the household at age eight

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