by Kathryn Cross
In a dark place where discrimination is high and education is low, Mira Costa sophomores Meera and Pooja Nagpal found a light.
This past summer, the 15-year-old Nagpal twins utilized their culture and interests to pursue an educational curriculum in Hamachal Pradesh, India. Starting from scratch, Meera taught English while Pooja taught self-defense, making female empowerment the focal point of their programs. Their classes became the sole course of study for three weeks for ninth and tenth graders in Arya Public High School.
With more awareness and volunteers, they hope to expand their programs, “Teach for Himalayas” and “For a Change, Defend” all over India, and possibly the world.
As informed and astute teenagers and family members in India, the twins said they heard about the “horrible treatment of women and we wanted to empower them through knowledge.”
Being a second degree black belt, Pooja said she wanted to “put into use” some of those techniques to help women defend themselves. “I’ve been reading a lot of stories of all of the atrocities, like gang rape that happen to women, especially young girls,” she said.
Meera, on the other hand, knew English would be a useful tool for women to find more opportunities. “Because English is a universal language, by learning English, more women have opportunities to go into cities, talk to people, and do more things in their lives,” Meera added.
To get their programs started, they contacted their father’s cousin, the former Arya Public High School principal. They asked her if they could teach English, self-defense and women empowerment at her school. Their relative told the current principal and upon his agreement, “the school was absolutely thrilled,” the twins said. The school even prepared to cut all of their classes for the entire month in order to have Pooja’s three-hour session of self-defense and Meera’s three-hour class of English each day.
At the beginning of August, Meera and Pooja finished their summer school courses in Manhattan Beach and then set off for India. Upon arrival, Meera and Pooja learned that each teacher received a wage of 5,000 Rupees per month, or approximately $80. Meera pointed out that “the scale is kind of different because things are cheaper in general, but it is still really low. And with such a low wage, what kind of incentives do they have to teach?” Nonetheless, the teachers did teach. Although the students’ English was limited, it was present.
After meeting their group of nearly 40 female students, Meera and Pooja started teaching. Meera began “Teach for Himalayas” with her first lesson, which set the framework for every lesson to come. The class began with two to five vocabulary words. Next, Meera wrote sentences for her students and they had to fill in the corresponding word. They would also do some journal entries with the words they learned. These would be about a student’s village, favorite memory, favorite place and more.
To make the class more convivial, “We did these really fun scavenger hunts,” Meera said. The students would have to answer an English question with multiple choices that each had a different location. Each right answer would lead to a place where another question would be. Students would scour the school until the “YOU WON!” paper was gloriously found.
The winners could redeem their winning paper for a set of pencils, erasers, and a ruler. “I thought it was a very fancy prize to them because a lot of students come from really humble backgrounds,” Meera explained. She mentioned that sterilized food and water are scarce and many of the children face malnutrition and three hour walks a day just to get to school. Even during the three week span that Meera and Pooja were there, they lost weight from the lack of clean, good food. They also confronted very high fevers and other negative effects of contaminated water. Nonetheless, Meera and Pooja forged ahead and always came to teach their students.
Unlike Meera’s class, Pooja’s self-defense and women empowerment classes were held in an outside area. Every day, the sessions consisted of about 90 minutes of self-defense and one hour of strength and stamina building exercises. Pooja, with seven years of training under her second degree black belt, was prepared to teach self-defense. However, she also gathered some lesson plans from her Taekwondo masters, self-defense videos on Youtube, and other online sources. She also used fake knives, guns, and chokeholds in order to teach self-defense in different situations.
During the final half hour of Pooja’s class, she taught women empowerment. Pooja emphasized the importance of education, goal-orientation, and escaping poverty.
“I tried to link self-defense and women empowerment by influencing the mentality that if you have a lot of physical strength, you have a lot of mental strength as well,” she said. “This mental strength could take away the shy demeanor that many of them had.”
Pooja soon noticed why so many of the girls had this demeanor. “Many of them have been influenced by their parents, who tell them that they should just be stay at home wives and not become educated,” Pooja said.
Despite their discouraged personas, Pooja observed that “the students give more [than the average teenager].”
“Everyone shares their lunch and people hold hands, even the guys do and it’s not even considered gay. They’re just close,” she observed.
This close-knit relationship and respect for one another truly made Pooja “definitely pleased” by the end of the summer, she said. Pooja was also satisfied with the progress that was made throughout her curriculum. As a final diagnostic, Pooja would grab each girl randomly and see if they could escape it well. Some of them even “hurt [her] really badly,” she remarked, laughing.
Improvement was seen especially in her appointed junior teachers. While Meera also taught many teachers English, Pooja taught self-defense to only a few teachers. To promote leadership and empowerment, Pooja chose two female students to be junior teachers for sustainability. One of the destined junior teachers was a girl who at first seemed to be lacking confidence, she recalled. By the end, Pooja noticed that “the way that she walked and her assertiveness in class had changed. She showed the most leadership qualities” and became a junior teacher.
Meera’s program also proved to be a success. On her last day of teaching, the students took a final diagnostic test, where the average was found to be 25 out of 39. Meera’s endeavors were applauded as the first day’s diagnostic test’s average was a mere 15 out of 39.
At end of August, it had come time for Meera and Pooja to return to Manhattan Beach to start school. However, they left the “Teach for Himalayas” and “For a Change, Defend” curriculum in place. Pooja’s two junior teachers teach self-defense to all of the school’s kids two days a week. They teach with the multifarious videos Pooja left in the school’s office. The adults that sat in on Meera’s class also continue her lessons with the 169 tests, quizzes, and informational sheets that she left. One of the the Nagpals’ most significant gifts was a large computer that the school can use to video chat Meera and Pooja at any time. Additionally, they use their new computer to report their English test scores to Meera each month.
Meera and Pooja are considering returning to India next summer, but it may conflict with numerous school activities, they said. Nonetheless, they are ready to send any willing volunteer to Arya Public High School to augment their phenomenal program. One may need prior experience with Hindi though, as they had to use their Hindi-speaking father when language was a barrier.
If one doesn’t want to travel all the way to India, Meera and Pooja said that just making a self-defense tutorial video to send to Pooja, donating a laptop to modernize a school, or liking their Facebook page could make a monumental difference. Pooja and Meera hope that through Facebook, they will be able to spread awareness about their program. They would like to gain numerous volunteers to help any school that doesn’t have enough opportunities.
Some volunteers have already spread “For a Change, Defend” and “Teach for Himalayas”. Last month, a few students from Arya Public High School went to a neighboring school to teach English, women empowerment, and self-defense. The Nagpal twins hope to create a ripple effect through their students and Facebook as well. They say that any volunteers to just teach for “even 15 minutes a day would make a big difference.”
Leading “Teach for Himalayas” and “For a Change, Defend” taught both them and the students “that anyone can and will strive towards achievement,” the Nagpals said.