This year Guru Tej Singh came to India to personally drop off his son, Sat Kartar Singh, to join the school for his first time. As Guru Tej was one of the first children of 3HO to come to school in India, I was curious to hear about his first impressions and how he came to the decision to send Sat Kartar this year. He stayed to settle his son at school for two weeks and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us before he left.
When we came to school in India it was 1981 and I was very excited to come at the time. A lot of people have talked about cultural shock, but I think children are too young for cultural shock. They just adjust really quickly. They’re used to accepting whatever is around them, whether new or different. They are used to being told what to do by their parents, so coming to India wasn’t such a big deal and it was exciting.
At that time our chaperones just dropped us at the school and disappeared. Although the school was well established and organized it was quite an adjustment for us. It was an Indian school run along the principles of a British School boarding system and it was very strict. We had to call all the adults “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Corporal punishment was used as the main form of discipline, including beating and things like this.
Also at that time there was no communication available other than letters. There was one telephone for the entire school at the Principal’s office and students could never use it. There were essentially no public use phones available at all in India. The world at large at not yet been introduced to cell phones or the internet.
Most of us were dropped off and remained for years with essentially no contact with our families other than letters for that entire period of time. We didn’t go back home during the school breaks, nobody came to visit. It was pretty challenging so we made our community by just bonding together as a group. Some had a really bad time and some had a good time. Nobody had a really great time, but we made the best of it.
We pretty quickly recognized that there was nobody there to care about the social aspect of things. There was no presence of kindness or loving care, there was just the expectation that you do your school work, be at school, follow the rules etc. Nobody was watching out to avoid bullying and the usual stuff that can go on in a group of kids, where the hierarchy quickly formed between the older and the stronger down to the younger and the weaker. Eventually they did send some western staff who understood us better, but they were not specifically trained in dealing with children and that brought its own problems.
During that time the school was in the mountains and we went traveling together during the school breaks. We were basically a group of up to forty western kids making our way around India. We learned Gatka, we toured around Delhi and the Punjab. We all bonded together like family members. Sometimes maybe you like them, or maybe you do not like them, but they are your family, your brothers and sisters, and as soon as they show up at your door asking for help, you´ll do anything for them, even still. Not everybody sees it that way. Some people have a lot of bitterness and anger about it, especially those who had a really bad time of it, but for the people who didn’t suffer as much, it is pretty much that way.
Since Miri Piri Academy was established and got its feet under it, the word has generally been good. I have friends from earlier generations who were in India themselves and are now sending their children, and most of them are very positive about it. I gathered a lot of information about the school from different people that I trust, and I started to look at it seriously as a place where I would send my son because of the Sikh Dharma education, which is for me the main reason for sending my child; to get the chance to live with other Sikhs who are living the Sikh lifestyle and get that support, to be in the historic area of the Punjab, to see the Golden Temple, to tour and go to places like Anandpur Sahib, Fatehgarh Sahib, and Tarn Taran. I wanted him to see that this not just some abstract idea his father has been talking about because we live pretty much in isolation from other Sikhs in Germany.
I had kept him in the same school since he was young so that he could be in an environment where he felt comfortable, but at the end of his 6th grade last year, he asked to come to India. I asked him why, but he wouldn’t tell me, he only said to me “Just because.” I don´t really know what was motivating him, but I think he must have seen my interactions with my friends and knows what kind of network I have. A really close friend of mine told me, “Look, he watches you your whole life. Pretty much you go to every city and every town in the world and you have someone that you know. They greet you, you can stay with them, they help you out. He sees that this is not necessarily true with other people. He sees that this is something special.”
This might be just someone’s speculation, but I can imagine it’s true. He sees the community that’s been developed this way. He sees the connection. Nearly every child at boarding school bonds in this way. Because they are far from home, they all come together to survive this experience.
Generally I had the idea that I would send my son when he was around 14 or 15, but now he’s just 12 so it’s a little bit early in my opinion. I felt he wasn’t quite ready to be on his own. In terms of his own hygiene or his ability to put up his hair and do his turban. I am also concerned that the kids don’t get enough sleep. Obviously the kids are here and they are living and they will survive, but it is still a concern.
Something else I want to add is that the most important thing for me is a sense of honesty. We got a letter from each teacher and they are all kind of the same:
I’m so and so, and I’m happy to be here, my main concern is your child. This year is going to be better than ever before.
You think, well, what else should they say, there is not much information to share at the start of the year actually. It is nice that the contact is there and I would rather have that than no contact. It was like a nice surprise to get all that information and everybody indicated they are open to getting feedback, but I am hoping to see meaningful, honest, specific information about my child as the years progresses.
I also continue to have concerns about the academics of the school but I don’t know about the academic program yet. I brought him here sort of despite that, and I hope that it is good. It does sound like it’s improving, especially with the introduction of Cambridge. I might consider having him here for a year or two years and then bring him back for his upper grades unless I am convinced that he can do it. If he really wants to stay, and his grades are acceptable I would probably work to send him back.
The bottom line is that I don’t think I would send him if he wasn’t willing to come, and I for sure wouldn’t have sent him if I wasn’t comfortable that he would be okay.
So that’s the background of my son and I coming here. I’m really glad I came because I got the chance to see the campus and see things in operation. My first impressions of the campus were almost breathtaking. I was used to India and I had certain expectations, and even arriving at the airport and driving to the school it was like ‘Yes, this is what I remembered.’ Orderliness, cleanliness, organization and infrastructure are not comparable to what most of us are used to in the “developed” world.
When I came in and saw the buildings, saw the grounds and that they were groomed and maintained, it was just beautiful. I mean stunningly beautiful. By any standard. The fields look spectacular, the sports facilities, the basketball courts. They were not cracked and falling apart. The soccer field looks just fantastic, the nets for the volleyball and badminton don’t look like they are ten years old and stitched together ten times. Everything looks great!
And on top of that, the entire time I’ve been here everybody has been very, very accommodating and friendly. I had free reign to walk around and observe whatever I wanted. I tried to kind of stay out of the way and not be invasive in the school, so I dropped my son off and the students went to Anandpur. Although as parents we were invited to come along, I didn’t go so that my son had his chance to acclimate and not straightaway run to papa with every little problem or question.
Afterward, he complained to me that he didn’t like it, but every third-party piece of information I could get (from both staff and other students) indicated that he had a great time. Any time I observe him here where he doesn’t see me, I see that he’s having a great time. I see him interacting with other kids and I have a very good feeling about it. I think he’s fine here. I feel really comfortable that he will be okay.
I think one of my main concerns was lack of discipline, and a lack of control of the kids and their interactions with each other, but in my limited observation so far, the kids seem pretty nice to each other. I’ve been in the dorm and seen some of the kids picking on the others. So far it seems mild and I think this is really okay. As long as this doesn’t get out of hand and the students feel that they have a recourse if they are feeling harassed, it is just part of being a kid.
I don’t see any really heavy stuff going on. My son indicated that the older kids especially nice. They were helpful in showing the him the ropes or tying his turban. I’m sure that there is always going to be some teasing or some sort of the usual jockeying for position among the children, but the vibration that I have seen in my short time here has been very mellow and very positive from my point of view. Things look really good.
I also would say that my experience with the staff so far has been really good: Jugat Guru’s interactions with the children, Amrit Singh’s interactions with the children and the Mukhia Jethadars. There seems to be a kind of a strict discipline, but a really good sense of care. I don’t want to go overboard and say lovingness, but maybe even that. I get the idea that they really care about the kids and they are strict for the sake of keeping discipline. I see the interaction that Jugat Guru and Amrit Singh have had as leaders here and it looks really positive. The kids respond to them as far as I can tell, and their way is stern, but there is a certain kindness and I think the kids see this and react to it. They know these are not bullies, these are not just guys in their ego trips, these are guys maintaining discipline but with the overall well-being of the students in mind.
On the student life side it came across like it was a really well prepared environment that the students came into. There were signs posted about how you can change your room if you wanted to. The procedure looked very fair and I personally like that. I know my son. He probably gets from me his overblown sense of fairness and justice. The kids are being told at the beginning what is going to cause them problems—like for example if they are late or they don’t do things they are told—without it being very heavy. Little by little they get more consequences, but they were sort of eased into it, so I have the feeling that it is not a heavy military thing where you do something wrong and you get some heavy punishment. I really like the way it was done here, where they started with a warning that you can’t be late in the future because there will be certain consequences. This really made a big positive impression on me.
I heard from the staff that the students mostly are kids that want to be here and I have that impression. It really helps a lot, because it reduces the problem with people that have nothing to lose by acting up. In the earlier days the kids could act up and do whatever they wanted, because their goal was actually to get sent home.
That it will be disciplined also gave me a sense that there won’t be chaos. That there’s enough discipline with the regular formations that happen throughout the day just to make sure that everybody is around. It breaks the energy of kids just running wild. It seems really well thought out. On the other hand they seem to have a lot of freedom, maybe even more freedom than I would normally like, but my impression is that it is healthy. They can play their own music and run around in between. They are exposed to the Gurdwara, they are exposed to yoga, they are exposed to seva or even compelled to do it in some sense, but it’s really balanced out with a lot of other things. They have some time to wear their private clothes, they have some time to wear the sports clothes and not always bana. There is a uniform, which creates a kind of egalitarianism to the whole thing, but it looks like a really nice balance to me. They’re not being beaten into being Sikhs, although their uniform is a Sikh uniform.
I think a lot of my generation ended up being a bit resentful because they were forced to do this and forced to do that, and a lot of yoga and meditation, a lot of indoctrination. I think it doesn’t really work. I think this approach is really better. The ones who are going to be inspired will be inspired, people who are open-minded will be inspired, and people who are not into it, maybe they will never be Sikhs, but they will go away and put this experience and the technologies they learn here into their personal “tool kits”. They will know about yoga, they will know about meditation and it looks to me that they will have pretty much a very positive association.