I have always turned up my nose at school uniforms. Perhaps because I never had to wear one myself, I have always considered them, well, so uniform.
Until last week.
I was in India with Leaders' Quest, spending the day with Bonnie Singh (Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh Dundlodh) at his ancestral fort in rural Rajasthan. Bonnie Singh is a descendant of the royal family of Dundlodh. His deep sense of compassion and connection to his homeland have inspired him to use his influence to serve marginalized communities, turn the caste system on its head, and help close the socio-economic gap in his village.
We were visiting a school in the village of Dundlodh. Bonnie helped start the school in 1996 specifically for Dalit children. The word Dalit means "oppressed" or "broken" and is used to refer to people previously known as "untouchable", who perform tasks considered too menial and degrading for higher caste members. The legal name today is "scheduled caste/scheduled tribes" and includes communities traditionally excluded from society. Although discrimination based on caste was outlawed over 50 years ago, in reality the caste system still holds sway today, especially in villages, where Dalits are often relegated to the outskirts of communities and considered unworthy to drink from the same wells or attend the same schools as the upper castes.
We were excited to visit the school. There is something refreshing and grounding about spending time with young people. We had fun singing nursery rhymes with the preschoolers and conversing with the older children. We told them about our families and which countries we were from. They told us which sports they play and what subjects they enjoy at school. We were struck by how similar our hopes and aspirations are, even across a seemingly significant cultural and social divide. One of our group, Jonathan, was from Brazil and taught the children some phrases in Portuguese. The students taught us how to introduce ourselves in Hindi and giggled at our pronunciation. The children showed us and their teachers a great deal of respect, always standing up to speak and listening intently when another person was speaking.
Mostly the students were quiet, shy, looking around for someone else to speak up first. Until the school uniform conversation. We asked them, what do they think about wearing school uniforms? I was expecting them to shrug their shoulders indifferently. To my surprise, in a single instant the entire class came alive. All fifty faces beamed from ear to ear. They love their uniforms, they replied with glee. Wearing them gives them a sense of belonging and purpose. And what do your parents think of your uniforms, we asked. Again the energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. The children laughed and smiled as they reflected on their parents' sense of pride and hope for the future as they see their children going off to school, taking advantage of opportunities they never dreamed could be within their reach. And in that moment as I stood in the shoes of the students and their parents, the school uniform took on a whole new meaning.