My time volunteering

I belong to that generation of VSO’s who went straight from school or university, without any particular skills, to teach school children. With just one week of ‘training’ I went to a boarding school in India to teach ‘spoken English’. The school was founded by the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. It was part of a complex of educational institutions he established, including a university, music college, dance academy and visual arts college. My degree was in history, and it was discovered that they needed someone to teach an M.A. course in an area I had specialised in, and I took that on, as well. In fact, I was offered a permanent job in the university, but was not in a position to accept!

The impact of my placement

I hope I did not do too much harm because of my lack in appropriate skills. The feeling I got was that I was not really needed, but that it was considered quite prestigious for the school to have a British VSO in place. That said, in addition to the spoken English classes I took, I was given classes on the standard English curriculum to teach. I enjoyed the work, and discovered some natural affinity with teaching. I extended my time for four months so that I could complete the school year in December.

My unforgettable moments

It was the special character of the place that I can never forget. It was the acknowledged heart of the renaissance of Bengali language, music and culture dating from the British period. The children called us by our first names, with the suffix for ‘elder brother’ – it was an attempt to get away from the  rigid formality of most schools in British India. We taught outside, under the trees. All the great festivals were celebrated with colour and enthusiasm – with processions, dancing, music. People came from miles away to witness them. And there we were in the middle of it al.

The impact my placement has had on me

It transformed it. By the end of my sixteen months I was in love with the language,  music, scenery and, above all, people of Bengal. I returned to Britain to train as a clergyman. Three years after ordination, I received an invitation to go and work with the church in Bangladesh. I accepted and stayed for sixteen years. When I returned to Britain, it was to work for another thirteen years with the Bangladesh community in the East End of London, in the area of race and community relations. Bengal has been my life! Last year, by a chance friend of friends’ connection made through Facebook, I am now again in contact with children I taught as a VSO. They send me pictures of their children, update me on their careers, even inform me of their impending retirement! The best message I received from one of them was “John-da [elder brother John] we loved you as a teacher and as a man.”

Patha Bhavan, Santiniketan

Visva Bharati,
West Bengal

23.6776471, 87.6852323