The Derbyshire Churches in Partnership with The Church of North
Lorna Bale's visit to Calcutta (Kolkata)
January to April 2012
I think of myself as an adventurous person but when I touched down at Kolkata airport even I was a little nervous because I had absolutely no idea what awaited me.
Before I even packed my bag it became clear that requesting detailed information about my trip was futile. I knew that the Bishop had plans for me,
and that was about it. Where I was going to live, what I was going to do, if I was going to be picked up at the airport....I had no idea about any of it.
However, as soon as I met Father Nigel Pope and Reverend James I knew I had nothing to worry about.
From that moment I was looked after as though I were a member of everyone’s family as well as being a most honoured guest.
To be honest it took a while for me to get used to this position, being treated with great reverence before I had done anything at all to deserve it,
but I was a young woman alone in a country far away from my home and they felt it was their duty to take care of me and make me feel loved and they absolutely did that.
I have to say I was astonished at the outpouring of genuine love and affection towards me.
I was living in a large apartment right next door to Father Nigel’s family, in the grounds of the newly refurbished St James’ church.
It was an ideal place for me to stay because there were two families nearby, the Popes downstairs with their young children and the Banerjees upstairs with their daughter in her 20s.
There was also St Monica House in the grounds where people came from all over the world to stay while they were volunteering with Mother Teresa’s charity which is just down the road.
So whatever company I sought, it was there! I became quite close with all of them; the little children were especially hard to leave!
After a few days of uncertainty (I just had to relax into not knowing what was going to happen!) it was decided that I would visit a different school
for each of the three months I was staying in India and it was up to each school to use me however best they saw fit.
I spent the end of January and all of February enjoying the gorgeous weather right next door in the junior section of St James’ school for boys.
This is a school which sees itself as one of the elite schools of Kolkata and attracts students from middle to upper class families.
It is a very popular school and tries to take in as many students as possible to take advantage of this with the result that class sizes are huge,
55 – 60 is a very normal class. It took a couple of weeks for the staff to accept that I actually wanted to help and not just be lead around and feted
as the prize international visitor but eventually I settled down into a routine of working as a teaching assistant in English classes as well as doing a bit of substitution work where needed.
As in all the schools the children were extremely well behaved given the class sizes and very motivated to succeed. Nevertheless it was quite painful for me
to see how the less confident and less academically gifted children could easily fall through the cracks because the teacher had to spend so much time focussing on discipline
and getting through the syllabus that differentiation had to take a back seat.
Schools in Kolkata only have classes in the mornings (after 1 it is too hot to think let alone work) so after a siesta I had time to go and help at the NGO school
run inside the St James’ buildings. It was difficult to communicate with the teachers there because it is a Hindi medium school and the teachers spoke about as much
English as I speak Hindi but we managed something and I started to teach English lessons there, to a different class each day and sometimes to the teachers too!
Their level of English was almost zero and I absolutely loved teaching them.
I spent March in St John’s Diocesan school for girls, which has an extremely strong sense of identity and school pride.
The classes here were even bigger, some classes had up to 70 students which was pretty tough on my weedy little voice!
At this school I was put to work more productively and given various English classes to take in classes 5, 6 and 7. I really got into these classes,
Kolkata was a great place to be a teacher in that the majority of the kids want to learn and on top of that they are very affectionate which I obviously loved!
After Easter the weather really started to heat up and the humidity became a bit of an issue. Luckily my apartment was on the first floor and quite an old building
with high ceilings and thick walls, characteristics that happily kept my rooms relatively cool and with the help of the fans I didn’t have too many problems.
Upstairs in the Banerjee’s house it felt like a furnace, I really don’t know how they managed to sleep!
For April I was at the smaller Union Chapel School at which Mrs Banerjee was the headmistress. By this point it was understood that I wanted to work and not just smile
and wave so I was given my own classes and allotted substitutions which was exactly what I wanted. Teaching ‘As You Like It’ to year 10 was one of the highlights
of my whole trip. Union Chapel School really feels like a family, especially coming from the massive schools that I had been at previously.
There is much more evidence of struggles with issues such as poverty and religious differences but Mrs Banerjee is very aware of these things and continually focuses
on women’s rights, respect for all and the power of peace whenever she talks to the children.
Overall I feel that my trip was a complete success. I had a huge variety of experiences both in and out of the schools and I both learned and enjoyed myself a great deal.
I went to India in order to form my own relationship with the country and I wanted to be more than a tourist, to let the country get under my skin
and not just sit majestically on my shelf in photos of the Taj Mahal. As a budding teacher I think this was the ideal way to do this.