A lockdown and a ray of hope: reflections from a day of prepping for a Quest in New York

Quest reflections

Mihika Tewari

09 May 2016

Programme Manager Mihika meets two of our hosts and reflects on the role education has on people’s lives.

Last week I visited one of our hosts in New York: a food programme that’s being run out of a school in East Harlem. Big building with a playground, happy-looking except for the zoo-like grills/grates on the windows. Lots of hand-drawn art on the walls and all the amenities you’d see in a private school in India. The idea of the programme is to get the students to have balanced meals here (provided by the Department of Education), because they may not get anything substantial at home. I had a lovely time with the kids in the cafeteria, and went in to visit Eileen, the warm and very huggable principal, to talk about the design of our upcoming visit.

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As I went in, she got a call on the intercom: “Shelter in, I repeat, shelter in”. She looked nervous. “It’s the school next door”, she said to one of the other teachers (explaining to us that it shared the compound and building with us). We were shut inside the principal’s office, and could hear people disappearing into classrooms and slamming doors. The intercom buzzed again: “Lock down, I repeat, lock down”.

I was with Eileen and two other administrators who were desperately trying to figure out what was going on – but were clearly forbidden from communicating with the outside world. Lights were turned off, shades were drawn and we waited. The words “lock down” kept crackling from the intercom and the principal’s hands were shaking. I wanted to run far away from this school and I’m sure that, while no one said it, we were all thinking that there might be someone outside in the corridor with a gun. Turns out it was an angry parent. Sounds funny except it wasn’t. Security is called at any sign of a threat in this area, and the police were out in full force because “better safe than sorry”. Nobody knows what can happen in a school anymore.

Cut to 2pm that afternoon. Still shaky, but getting back to normal, I was ready to meet another of our favourite hosts – Shanti Bhavan, an NGO from Bangalore. Two teenagers from rural Karnataka popped into the room, bursting with infectious energy and overwhelming confidence. They were visiting New York with their Director of Operations, and had spent the last three days covering a lot of ground in the city. Now they were getting ready to speak at an event that evening. These kids come from backgrounds that, were it not for Shanti Bhavan, would have sentenced them to a life of very little opportunity and quite possibly daily violence (given the stories we heard about their parents). They literally glowed when talking about their NGO; they called it “home” and considered it their “family”. I was struck by their certainty that they’d change India by repaying what Shanti Bhavan had given them: opportunity through a quality education.

As we know in Leaders’ Quest, a stark contrast makes us reflect. We almost can’t help it. Those two events in New York, happening so close together, made me think about the role education has played in my life. What opportunities do I have because of the school and college I went to? I’m sure that my school made me who I am – after all, I spent more time there than anywhere else when I was growing up. Did my school protect and nurture me? Did it give me something I couldn’t get at home? So how can I repay my privilege? In broader terms, how do we marry computers, curriculum and purpose and hope? What priorities win out when schools have competing resources? How can schools be agents of change when facing issues like gun control or the caste system? I hope to find some answers as I continue to visit different kinds of schools and talk to students in various parts of the world.