There were very few things that three-year-old (or 6, or 8, etc) year old me liked more than reading. From an early age, a great book, changing shape by definition as time went on, was a way to explore and understand the broader world around me. In fact, I can thank a great book for my first introduction to the world outside of the U.S. Unicef’s Children Just Like Me captivatingly portrayed the everyday likes and dislikes of children from around the world. It was through these pages that I began to discern a greater existence outside of my own, and give faces to places on maps that I was at the time without access to. Fittingly enough, my exposure visit served as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of books to my own life and my current time in India.
One of the many appealing aspects of the AIF Clinton Fellowship when I was applying was the opportunity to visit another Fellow during the spring, a trip that demonstrated the Fellowship’s dedication to building a community of Fellows from Orientation all the way to Endpoint, as well as offering a great way to travel and see a new part of the country. For my exposure visit, I decided to visit Delhi and the Delhi Fellows, specifically Mohit Raj at his organization Nidan. There is one particular moment I’d like to focus on. Nidan is located in a small office, between Jalebi and Samosa Chowk (no, neither corners have particularly well-known Jalebi’s or Samosas). The office, a small space on the second floor of a building, serves as both a center for small community loans and a school for children whose parents are involved with the informal sector – in many cases, migrants from other areas of India.
I entered the small room with my co-Fellow Mohit, who was joining me on my travels from Dharamshala, and a sense of unknown about exactly how the day would be spent. Quickly, the opportunity presented itself – reading time.
As I jumped into reading the picture book I was handed, using my budding Hindi skills to translate basic words from Hindi to English, I began to slowly skim the story, quickly realizing the dangerous paradigms the story reinforced. The book, whose name escapes me, was a donation from the Indian government’s reading program. Filled with nice illustrations, the story itself told the tale of a family in a small village, reinforcing the societally accepted norms of a mother spending all day cooking the food, eating only after her husband has eaten, and staying at home while the father went away. While most likely an accurate mirror for many of the children’s own home lives, it was not exactly the opportunity to explore alternate concepts of reality that a well-written children’s book may provide.
Understandably, the organization probably faced a choice: accept these books – a free way for children to access the written word – or have nothing. While I don’t condemn the decision to provide literature to children (even poor quality literature), I do condemn our general low expectations for educating the poorest members of society. The lack of proper expectations is not relegated to India. As a proud elementary attendant of a Cleveland public school in a district notorious for its poor standardized tests scores and violence, I’ve witnessed the importance of teachers that set high expectations with an acceptance of nothing less. High quality standards are critical, and providing reading material to children – no matter where they are from or where they are going – that inspires, captivates, and provides a lens to a world outside of their own, is not something to compromise on.
The rest of my exposure visit was spent visiting the office, talking to the loan officer, and helping with a few of the donation distributions the office organized, but those few moments of reflection on story books will continue to stand out for many years to come.