Saturday, June 15, 2013

Day 447: A Beautiful, New, Sustainable School

For maximum effect, Chris led us by the old school first. There it was, around the corner from the temple, a tiny tin shack with the Coke-bottle light still giving some light, but otherwise dark and stiflingly hot. But not one child was there, no whites-of-eyes peering out through the darkness, trying to learn in those oppressive conditions. It had returned to what it should have always been--a storage shed. What we had come to celebrate, then, was the transformation of a place. We had come to celebrate a new building.

Transformation, however, is perhaps not the best word. For what we saw when we emerged from the tiny corridors of the Hindu cobbler village was really not much different than what I had seen at the same spot eight months ago. There was the small causeway leading to the site, the orchard of young guava trees beyond, and the storybook loaf of piled-up hay. It was still cool, damp, and quiet--insulated by the foliage from the noise of the village road. Shafts of sunlight, just as before, were breaking through the dense canopy of mango leaves above. And the two calves, who were once busily munching on a pile of water hyacinth, would have been there too (for their tiny feeding station was still there) if they had not grown up and moved off to graze somewhere else. And yet somehow a school was there too. A beautiful, new, sustainable school. I remembered wanting to linger and watch life grow out of this latent corner of the earth. And now the school was there, indeed, as if it had grown right out of the earth.

Ananya and Shareq
Shahed recognizing Marc
(currently in Dubai)
So integration seems a better word. Harmony is even better. This harmony with the trees, the soil, the light, and the breeze was achieved through the dedicated work of architects Shareq and Ananya Chowdhury and the ingenious builders from SAFE (Simple Action For the Environment). Shareq and Ananya were front and center at the ceremony--along with Chris and Shahed Kayes of the Shubornogram Foundation, directing the dedication--and they shared their vision with the small but diverse group of teachers and community leaders that had gathered to celebrate. In Bangla and English, they explained how they wanted to remain true to tradition, Sonargaon being the ancient capital of Bengal, where, in the ancient past, classes took place outdoors under the protection of the trees. In accordance with their vision, students will now learn as they did centuries ago: in the lap of Nature, our greatest teacher. Chris, keeping with the motif, presented a young mango tree to be planted at the site as an enduring symbol that the community and the new school will grow; but if the community commits to caring for the school daily, it will flourish.

Chris celebrating his partner
He was speaking of sustainability, and this is where the new building stands as a rare example. This is why we should take a moment to celebrate a mere building, letting the limelight linger for a while on the structure before the light inevitably falls on the dozens of precious young lives learning inside. Sustainability, in a word, is balance. It is harmony. Through harmony with nature, the new school is sturdy, cost-effective, comfortably conducive to learning, and aesthetically welcoming. It harmonizes in a way that suggests it may not even be there. That something as substantial as a new school is barely noticeable in its environment is a much needed example for our world. Too often development means obtrusive eyesores and disregard for nature, and sustainability seems to be measured by the amount of rebar one has sticking above the concrete columns on one's unfinished concrete roof. What's worse, this vision of "progress" in the developing world has been bequeathed to it by the "developed" world, and so the "have-nots" will likely always want to have their development the way we in the West have presented it: fast, ugly, and unsustainable.

But not this time. An American and an Australian have joined with dedicated Bengalis (and many others along the way) to present a new village school. One that defies stereotypes of progress and presents a new standard. The only true and lasting standard. So when these students sit down to learn, they will be doing so with a leaf-scented breeze brushing their faces, or the light green glow from the guava grove reaching their eyes, and they will be embracing a new standard, but a standard as old as nature. With hope and time, they will gradually see that one's degree of harmony with the environment is the truest measure of a successful life. It will be as subtle as the stirring banners of color over the stairway and as unnoticed as a light shaft that shifts a mood from bad to good. But it will be perhaps the most important education they could ever receive.


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