God and the Queen

Trip Start Sep 01, 2009
Trip End Jul 01, 2010

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Flag of India  , Tamil Nādu,
Thursday, October 8, 2009

I wasn’t well prepared for my assignment to Ooty. My editor had given me no instruction, as usual, other than the customary instruction to read the magazine. But Dilip was surprisingly unhelpful and wouldn’t even tell me how many words he wanted, much less how he wanted me to write them. I’m a journalist, yes, but I need an editor, not just to clean up my work but also to inform and shape it. 

Without guidance I was lucky to find my hosts well prepared for me. Mark had scheduled a number of meetings with staff, students, former Principals and parents who had arrived to attend the festival and pick up their children for a two-week break.

The sky over Ooty was bright blue and scattered with puffs of clouds and the warm morning sun streamed through skylights in the roof of the student dormitories. All male students and girls aged 9 to 12 boarded at Hebron, while older girls stayed in a hostel off campus, and all boarders were cared for by dorm parents, faculty and sometimes former boarders themselves, who lived full-time with the students and their own families.

The dorms were comfortable and relatively neat, and the kids seemed safe and happy and loved. There were computer labs linked to the Internet, chemistry and biology labs and a library overflowing with books and resources and student projects and artwork. There was a guidance counselor, a stern European woman, to help students with their university applications and academic workload. There was also a department of personal development to help students with learning difficulties and those who needed ESL support.

In recent years Hebron has taken on more students from Asia, including those from countries like South Korea and Thailand who need help to cope with the English instruction. “We could fill the school just with kids from Korea and India,” Lynn Noonan commented as she showed us around the school. “People are actually moving to Ooty and running their businesses from here to get their kids into the school.”

Not that such a move would help. Hebron accepts one in every three applications, and priority is given to expatriates and Non Resident Indians doing humanitarian or missionary work in remote areas of India and Southeast Asia.  Hebron is also part of the larger Nilgris region, a hub of 35 boarding and international schools. The others are more conventional institutes run, I was reliably told, with military precision and old-fashioned discipline.     

“Our students are focused on people,” explains VP Academic, Nigel Hinton. “Unlike my previous school in London, where the students were focused on money and success, Hebron kids are more concerned about people and relationships.” Those London alumni might not feel so attached to their alma mater either. Hebron, it seems, draws people back.

Several I met spoke of life-long ties to Hebron, and half of this year’s staff is alumni. John Barclay, who sent the drama festival invitation to EducationWorld, was a former student, parent, teacher, and finally, principal. “This school does have a magnetic effect that pulls people back,” he mused. “Hebron is unique in its family around the world. We are really brothers and sister. We’re family.” One international guest, a young Welshman named David, was even born there (“On the other side of the hill,” he smiled) when his parents were teaching at Hebron.

I met groups of parents and staff and students in the Alumni room of Lushington Hall, a meeting and lounge space devoted to memorabilia, trophy cases and bookshelves of school yearbooks and texts. The parents were particularly eager to sing the school’s praises (“We wouldn’t send our kids anywhere else, frankly” and “I wish I could have come here”) but the highlight was our session with the students.

Principal Noonan had scheduled an hour or so with each of the groups, and joined many, including the kids, who were seniors and members of the student council. We began by talking about some of the charity work the students undertake. Hebron supports at least three local charities, including Smyrna Home for the disabled and Freedom Firm, an anti-prostitution organization.

But then Mark left the room and I asked for the goss: What was it really like to live here, what were the rules around dating and technology restrictions, and what were they thinking as they prepared to graduate? When Mark returned I announced that no one over 40 was allowed, which my host took with good humour, requesting only that I tell him everything that was said. Left to talk freely the 13 students relaxed and seemed to enjoy themselves.

They were a tight group, bright, inquisitive people. They talked about the challenges of living in Ooty, of the “Hebron bubble”, and their attempts to express their growing independence. We all laughed when one explained the school’s dating policy. The older students are allowed to date, but only with the expressed written permission of both parents and under the supervision of the teachers and dorm parents. “We’re allowed to hold hands in public, and no kissing,” he said as the room rippled with laughter. “But they’re just trying to keep all cultures happy.” 

The students also took issue with the fact that they were not allowed laptops or iPods, and that data storage devices had to be checked and approved by the computer teacher. There was also a list of banned music and movies, everything from Britney Spears to 50-Cent. “Every year we raise these issues,” said one student, the editor of the school newspaper, Zenith. “Every year we get somewhere but not as far as we’d like.” 

I asked them about their imminent graduation. “We’re shit scared,” admitted one young man. “In a way being here has helped us but it’s also not helped.” These kids were different, isolated, and acutely aware of themselves and the world outside the bubble. And they were conscientious, the young man who swore adding, “You know this place affects you when you think twice about swearing.” 

Many of them had applied for university overseas and the group was curious about campus life. “Older students tell us about the culture of drinking and say you get used to it,” offered one of the young women. Allyson and I spoke about our own experiences at university and the group took it all in. It was a treat to tell them about my experiences, which were varied to say the least. These were heady kids curious about things of which they had only vague notions. I told them to stick to their guts, have fun and be careful, especially with sex. Thanks Uncle Dave.

But what began as a mass interview became an intimate conversation with interesting people on the brink of independence, and I could have talked with them for hours. Our time was up, and I enjoyed shaking hands and exchanging best wishes and words, and noting the kids stacking their chairs and generally tidying up after themselves in an effort that was without thought.  

My head was swimming with quotes and figures and narratives while I turned page after page of scrawled notes in pencil. I was saved from information overload by Joseph and Jarebb; visiting alumni who arrived in Joseph’s sporty black Suzuki to take Allyson and I on a tour of Ooty.

Joined by Carolin, a German IG at Hebron, we explored the central market and St. Stephen’s, the oldest church in Ooty. Joseph was a barrel of a guy, with a swaggering walk and a look to match. He had a sharp soccer jersey and bright new sneakers and stylish wrap-around sunglasses, and owned an art gallery in Cochin.

His friend and former classmate was equally stylish and successful, with a quiet smile under a freshly shaved head. He was a Production Assitant in Mumbai working on Bollywood films. He smiled when I showed my appreciation. My late uncle was in the film business, and I know that to be a PA at his age Jarebb must be both very good and extremely lucky.

We wandered the market’s dense warren of small stalls and alleyways, butchers, spice sellers, and vendors selling everything from fruit to photos of the gods. I found charcoal burners at a metal tool shop, and haggled for one of stockpot size. In Zambia these are called mbaulas and on a chilly night they are a treat. I paid 150 rupees for the burner, a quarter of what they go for in Bangalore, and I like it too much to actually use it.

But in Ooty the church stole the tour. We arrived at St. Stephen’s just as the guardian was locking the gates, but Joseph pleaded with the man in Tamil and he let us in using the biggest skeleton key I’ve ever seen. It was like a movie prop key to the city, made of gray metal rubbed smooth and luminous, which he refused to let us photograph.

We could take pictures inside the church though, and Joseph aimed his impressive Canon digital SLR around the room, while the rest of us wandered respectfully down the aisles and antechambers. It was cool and distinctly old, decorated with intricate stained-glass windows, stunning stone masonry and bronze and marble plaques commemorating the British officers and missionaries who died in and around Ooty during the Raj.

There was a large and overgrown colonial cemetery on the slope behind the church, and we wandered among the tombstones and towering eucalypt trees. The guardian waited patiently and Joseph thanked him with a few 10 rupee notes as we prepared to leave. Next was a spot of shopping at a handicraft shop run for the Toda people, a hill tribe that inhabits the Nilgris and remained largely secluded until the British arrived.

Our tour of Ooty was running short on time, however, and we had dinner and a play to attend. Back at Hebron there was a party atmosphere as dozens of parents and children ate and talked and played in the lead up to the night’s performance. Dinner was delicious mutton and potato curry, rice and rotis, and with a full belly and a smart Toda scarf (a length of woven cotton embroidered with patterns and fringes of red and black) wrapped around my neck I was well prepared for Dicken’s Oliver Twist.  

The stage was larger than the night before, on three wooden interconnected platforms, set with furniture and black curtains. The cast was large and the performance strong, with all the gravitas of a graduating class putting themselves out there with passion and force. Every aspect of the drama festival was run by the students themselves, and though they were overseen by a variety of drama and music teachers the kids themselves staged the show. Allyson and I had arrived for the last two nights of a six-day event, and the finale was suitably grand and ambitious.

The story of a street urchin and his slavery and salvation has been done many times since it was written in 1838. The Hebron performance was passionate and raw. Actors pored themselves into their lines, and puffs of baby powder⎯used to add gray to otherwise youthful hair⎯exploded as characters stormed about in fits of rage or fright on stage.

It was a good show, and I enjoyed seeing onstage the students I’d met earlier in the day. Our time had been sweet but also short, and we were bundled off to catch our bus just a half hour after the performance end. Ooty is in fact an amazing place, and seeing Hebron was a huge privilege. I promised to return, with Amanda, who as a teacher will be interested in the school, and as a traveler will love the journey. I will be back, and better dressed.
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