Feet on Fire: My Life in the Garden

Out of all the surprises that have come with my first month of service in India, one of the biggest was how much my feet felt like they were on fire. I have always prided myself on being somewhat accustomed to physical discomfort, but walking barefoot all day on the hard, hot Indian soil was almost more than I could take. If it was just rocks, I would like to believe I could have handled it with no complaint. What really astounded me, though, regardless of the time of day, was the sheer heat of the soil. I had no idea how my apparently delicate feet would be able to acclimate.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the students I work with at Kattaikkuttu Sangam, my host organization for the next 10 months, do not have the same problems I do. They do, however, show a touching amount of concern about the welfare of the soles of my feet. Every time I pick my foot up too fast or show the slightest discomfort, they always rush to my side. 

“Tess Miss, are you ok?” 

“Miss, come walk over here in the shade.”

“Do you need your sandals, Tess Miss?” 

But after a month here, I have begun to notice the pain in my feet much less. And that is in no small part because of the students. Not because of their concern about my welfare- which is still very much present- but because of their sheer enthusiasm and excitement for being outside in the garden.

Students find a worm in the garden and spend some time exploring.

Kattaikkuttu Sangam is a unique placement opportunity for several reasons. It is a traditional school in the sense that it offers elementary and secondary education, and students can take the official public exams at the end of their time to obtain certificates of study (equivalent of a high school diploma). Math, science, social studies, English, and Tamil classes take place every day. There are deep friendships, small squabbles, and lots of laughter. But what is not traditional is that in addition to the standard subjects, students also are educated in the art of Kattaikkuttu, a rural theater form practiced in Southern India. Students learn to sing, dance, act, play musical instruments, and become performers.

Kuttu performance
Students participate in an all-night village kuttu performance. Photo credit: kattaikkuttu.org

It is also a residential school on 7 acres of land, meaning all 50 students, ages 7-17, live on campus the majority of the year. Three of the seven acres of land are dedicated to food production for the school, which is what has brought me here. 

Many of the children who attend the school are from underprivileged and economically deprived families, which means a lot of students struggle with issues such as malnutrition, gender discrimination, undiagnosed learning problems, and emotional trauma. This can create substantial learning backlogs, making school uninteresting and frustrating for students, and often leads to higher dropout rates.

The garden at Kattaikkuttu Sangam has been improving students’ educational experiences through several means. Most obviously, it provides the school with fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. In a state such as Tamil Nadu, where an estimated 23% of children were underweight in 2016, access to such foods can create a huge impact on the health of the students.

Garden plot
A morning view of one of the garden plots at Kattaikkuttu Sangam. Photo credit S. Gobinath

Perhaps equally important, however, is the practice of using the garden as a teaching tool. For students with attention problems, learning difficulties, or who are disinterested and disengaged when traditional teaching methods are used, using their hands to create and maintain something can be a powerful and centering experience. The garden creates a space for students where hands-on physical labor produces something tangible- a mango, tomato, radish. The students use the growing space as an outdoor laboratory, making connections with what they learn in the classroom. Building a new garden bed is a math lesson. Learning how seeds turn to plants makes science come to life. And of course, waiting for the produce to be ripe is an essential lesson in patience for the younger students!

Planting greens for the kitchen!


Every morning for the past month, I have been working with the students in the garden. From weeding to planting, creating maps to cooking and learning the nutrients present in what we grow, each student has taken a small part in growing food for their lunch, dinner, or snack. And for some of these students, they take that responsibility very seriously. I have seen the care that some of the younger boys take when weeding their garden plots, and can hardly believe they are the same boys that tear around the school and have seemingly boundless energy. I have witnessed a student who has learning difficulties swell with pride when he helped a classmate complete a difficult task in the garden. And while not every day has a moment like that, the simple fact that those moments where a connection is made, a child feels accomplished, worthy, or intelligent, and food is grown, is why I no longer notice the pain in my feet when I walk through the garden.


Garden cleaning
Everyone’s favorite: garden cleanup!


  1. Deshpande, Ashwini, and Manjistha Banerji. “India’s Great Education Challenge: Low Attendance, High Rate of Dropouts Plague Rural Schools.” Firstpost, 11 Apr. 2017, www.firstpost.com/india/indias-great-education-challenge-low-attendance-high-rate-of-dropouts-plague-rural-schools-3378802.html.
  2. “Kattaikkuttu Sangam and Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, Tamil Nadu, India.” AfID – Accounting For International Development, www.afid.org.uk/countries/Asia/India/Kattaikkuttu+Sangam+and+Kattaikkuttu+Gurukulam.
  3. “Malnutrition in India Statistics State Wise.” Save the Children India, Save the Children, 9 Sept. 2016, www.savethechildren.in/articles/malnutrition-in-india-statistics-state-wise.
  4. Waikar, Namita. “Storytelling the Kattaikkuttu Way.” People’s Archive of Rural India, 13 Nov. 2015, ruralindiaonline.org/articles/storytelling-the-kattaikkuttu-way.

Tessa grew up in Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in Political Science and minors in Environmental Studies and Economics from Luther College in Iowa. After studying sustainable international development at the University of Oslo International Summer School, she returned to Iowa to give back to her community by serving as a FoodCorps member and then as Youth Education Coordinator at a local non-profit. Tessa has spent five years in the Cedar Rapids community, working with youth aged preschool through high school to create a love of growing and eating healthy food. She has also worked with teachers in the school district to implement nutrition and garden lessons into the curriculum, reaching those students who learn best through alternate, hands-on activities. In her free time, Tessa is a voracious reader and loves experimenting with new vegan cooking recipes. She is excited to take her experiences of outdoor education into a new setting in southern India.

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5 thoughts on “Feet on Fire: My Life in the Garden

    1. Great to have Tess with us. The kids love her and the out-door garden experience – learning without having to sit for hours in a classroom. And the produce that the organic garden begins to yield goes to our kitchen and helps reducing our (food) expenditure.

  1. Compelling reading, seems like a wonderful experience that shows the power of connection both between the students and their interaction with their environment.

  2. Awesome post Tess! A garden is such a simple concept but it has a lot of potential to engage kids and help them build confidence.

  3. I love your project so much Tess! Each day I believe more and more in the power that learning about food, cooking and healthy eating can have in empowering all of us (and especially children!) to thrive. I look forward to reading more.

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