If I were to pinpoint one thing that I learned from my time with the kids of Janwaar Castle, it would be this: steadfastness; an approach to everyday life that I had previously not held so close to heart.
These are kids that are growing up well below the poverty line. Their primary meal is a simple lunch served by the government school in the village as incentive for attending class that day. They have only one or two sets of clothing, and many of the youngest walk barefoot before they grow into shoes the village has around. They wash in the water pump on the main road. They cannot afford any type of school supplies. But these are simply facts of life. What we commonly paint as ‘backward’ seems radically inappropriate in Janwaar. Sure, it’s village life- but it is by no means disadvantaged. These children find ways to thrive under most any circumstance, fueled by a willpower and wellbeing that is unparalleled in any of the cities I visited during my time in India.
Each morning, Ulrike and I woke up to crisp air and the familiar burnt-orange kind of Indian sunlight. The weather was just beginning to turn out of the winter months, so we took advantage of it and brought our beds outside to sleep on the deck. By mid-morning, we’d caravan with the two other volunteers, Anna and Philip, making our way by motorbike to Janwaar Village, just outside of Panna National Park.
The kids would hear the bike from a mile away, and already be waiting by the road when we pulled up. “GOOD MORNING ULRIKE, GOOD MORNING MOWGLI (this is what they nicknamed me on our first day together).” And we’d high-five each of them, pick up a little-one to carry on our hip, and walk as a big motley crew up to the skatepark.
There was a definite language barrier between all of us. Ulrike and the other volunteers often found themselves speaking in German to each other and would have to backtrack to explain in English to me. The kids spoke only Hindi, in their local dialect.
We were constantly bouncing language around, inventing new Hinglish (Hindi-English) words, and using as much body-language as possible. And for the most part- it actually worked. At least, we were able to get the main ideas across: “No school, no skateboarding!” And “Girls First!”
These are the skatepark mantras. And though they seem at first to be directions for etiquette, these two little catchphrases are speaking to something much larger. Through the skate park, these kids are learning work ethic. They are being held accountable. They are learning to navigate rewards and/or repercussions. If they don’t attend school that day, they are not allowed to skateboard- no ifs, ands, or buts about it. They are learning to build bridges between their interests and their obligations- and in doing so, learning to see the value of education.
At least, these are ideas that we’re slowly chipping away at. Girls are always allowed to skate first. After a quick co-ed warm-up session, the girls get the park all to themselves for the first 45 minutes before the boys are allowed to join in. The girls learn their worth and see that they too are empowered to navigate the world on their own terms. The boys learn that common courtesy and respect extends across the gender divide. And by extension, across the ethnic divides that exist in the village as well.
For those who best lived up to these park rules and managed to distinguish themselves in some way, Ulrike had the idea of rewarding them with a trip to New Delhi. Though I was not a part of the selection process, I came to understand why we chose the kids we did to be a part of this special trip. Ajay, Priyanka, Little Priyanka, Brijendra, and Doctor Kuch Kuch really are a riot, in the best way possible. These kids were ready to make waves in their own town, and prove themselves in Delhi, too.
We arranged everything to the best of our abilities, (even wine-and-dining the school principal) in order to take these five kids on the trip. Even then, we had to pull a little jugaad into the equation. On the morning of, I arrived in Janwaar with the taxi driver and wrangled the five into the vehicle- “Toothbrush? Backpack? Skateboard? OK.” We peeled away from the park, past the school, with the rest of the village kids chasing after the car waving goodbye and tapping on the car windows as we passed. There was no jealousy, mostly curiosity.
We didn’t make it very far. These kids may not have ever been in a car before, and their stomachs were increasingly uneasy with each bend in the road. We must have made ten stops for puking, and then dry heaving, but in time we made it to the train station in Khajuraho. The five kids, Ulrike, a puppy from the village!, and myself took our own cabin on an overnight train to Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi.
The idea was not to take the kids on tour. Rather, it was to let them craft a learning experience of their own- whatever it may be. Intentionally, we did not brief them on any of the areas of town we were taking them to, the people we were to meet, the school we were to visit. We simply gave them the tools, resources, time, and confidence to engage with these areas of town on their own. Partially, this was because of the language barrier. But even more so, this approach is grounded in Ulrike’s philosophy about education all together.
Like them, I came to Delhi for the learning experience. With twenty other students and two professors, I was shepherded around the city and instructed about the history of monumental structures, guided by mapped routes, and basic Hindi-language lessons. But this method was very different than what the Janwaar kids were to experience. The trip wasn’t about the history lessons and cultural exposure, it was about enabling them to better get to know themselves. And sure enough, they brought their unwavering, sure-fire enthusiasm into building their interpersonal relationships with each other and learning about their own strengths and weaknesses.
At the end of the trip, I briefly interviewed each child with the help of a translator and dear friend, Vivek. I asked Priyanka what she learned on the trip, to which she replied, “I learned about making friendships. Especially with the teacher in one of the classrooms. It was my favorite part of the trip.” To the same question, Ajay replied, “I learned to jump on a skateboard. There were some older boys at the park, and they were friendly and taught me how to jump.” It was this kind of socialization, these interactions that they will take back to Janwaar- mentorship, building relationships with their teachers, recognizing how far their enthusiasm and openness to learning will get them.
It’s been three months now that I’ve been back in the states, but I still think about the lessons I learned during my time spent in Janwaar, almost daily. These children really did uphold what I call steadfast good nature. They proved their loyalty and faithfulness to each other, their families, and village. They recognized their nationality. I saw their commitment to a system of shared values that extended well beyond relations at the rural skatepark. I saw a sense of dignity and a constant source of joy and eagerness towards learning. These kids had morals, and in terms of emotional intelligence- were leaps ahead of the city kids. They were devoted to self-improvement and had high hopes for themselves and for each other. As I’m gradually putting together a film about this entire experience, I get to relive moments through skimming old footage. I really do feel fortunate to have built a connection with this community- however rapidly it must be changing and growing on the other side of the world. Janwaar Castle is a project and a people that I couldn’t help but pour my heart into. They’re truly doing something radical in their own community, and across new generations of skateboarders in India. I press you to pay attention to the symbolism of their actions. This is momentous.
In a few short weeks, I will be traveling back to India to screen my documentary film about the social significance of skateboarding! I will be purchasing a projector and projection screen to set up at the Janwaar Castle skatepark and equipping the children with a digital movie library. I will also be teaching English and yoga classes in the village every morning. If you would like to donate to this initiative, please follow the crowdsourcing campaign I’ve put together! http://gofundme.com/namaskate