The classroom is hot and sticky and windowless. There's neither air-conditioning nor a fan in sight. I thought regulations were in place for this sort of thing – room temperature should be 18C. Judging from the pool of sweat settling at my feet though (I'm doing nothing more aerobic than sitting) it must be at least 35C. Should a complaint be lodged with the local council or my MP? No, because the classroom I'm in is thousands of miles from the one I'm accustomed to. I'm not at home, but in Kerala, southern India, visiting a little girl called Retty, the child I've been sponsoring with charity World Vision for five years.
If twins Claire and Oliver thought Day One at their local primary was a culture shock, they should try this 390 pupil school out for size. Health concerns about Wi-Fi and interactive whiteboards aren't relevant – there are hardly any blackboards, let alone chalk. There are only four actual classrooms, the rest are partitioned off areas in the school hall. The library consists of a few books in the school office and the most prized, life-changing piece of furniture isn't a chair or a desk – it's a huge tank that harvests rainwater.
Retty, 10, is beautiful and it was an honour to meet her. Witnessing such abject poverty first-hand was a shock and yet Retty and her family are the lucky ones. Five years ago they were homeless. Now they have their own stone house (albeit basic) and their own squat lavatory (of which they are very proud). Retty and her younger sister both want to be nurses, study hard and are glowing about their school.
The standard of education in Kerala is very high, particularly for women, who in most other Indian states don't have any education at all. With so little they do so well, their headmistress told me. Small children can add, subtract, multiply and divide. They learn three languages – Malayalam (the local tongue), Arabic and English – and they like to read. Sitting among them to watch traditional folk dancing performed by some of the pupils, it was clear to me that they were happy to learn and eager to be there. A sea of excited hands reached forward to shake mine. "Hello", they cried. "What is your name?" "How are you?" Even the six-year-olds knew some English.
After the performance I was asked to speak. "Namaste! Do you like your school?" A resounding "yes'"came back. "You must study hard because your education's very important. Will you promise to do that?" Their faces were full of hope and interest as they promised. Overwhelmed, tears pricked my eyes. How lucky are my twins at their cosseted little primary with free fruit in the morning and western facilities?
Back in the UK, Claire, five, was relieved to see me return from India. She and her best friend have had a falling out. "I told her I didn't like her new dress so she went to Miss Perry who made me apologise. I shouldn't have had to apologise though should I Mummy? I didn't do anything wrong." I have taught my children to be honest, a lesson which has backfired.
"No, you didn't," I comforted. When the matter was still not laid to rest a couple of hours later, some perspective was called for. At the school I went to in India the teacher wouldn't have got involved, because there wouldn't have been a new dress. At the school I went to in India there are more pressing things to worry about.Reuse content