So. My name is Gareth. I am a Coca-Cola Company expat. At this point in time, I am plying my trade in India, looking after Still Beverages and Innovation.
On a fairly ordinary Spring morning in Delhi, I set off across this vast city to visit a school. Not the first time in my years with the Coca-Cola system that I have been to schools that we are involved in. I once helped refresh a township school in Cape Town, and one near Luxor in Egypt. I chat with my colleague Sameer along the way who, in between the relentless honking, weaving cacophony that is Delhi traffic, fills me in on SMS.
This is the Support My School program, where we essentially partner with other companies and organizations to uplift and develop schools in India.
As the imposing concrete and noise of the city gives way to the lush spacious expanses of Indian farmland, I start to get a sense of what I am heading for. This will be a more simple way of life. This will be more reflective of the 600m people in India who are rural dwellers. A lot of people.
Tarmac turns to dirt roads, carving their way through emerald fields, as Sameer breaks in his update only to tell the driver which obscurely marked road to take next. His personal passion for SMS is evident. He updates me as if I were a potential angel investor in his tech start-up. He speaks of the kids in the school as if they were his very own.
‘The kids will be shy’, he tells me, ‘you are a South African, talk about cricket and inspire them, they’ll love that’.
‘Right, cricket it is then’, my mind grasping desperately for the Indian players and their stats.
The car halts in a cloud of dust, and I see gleaming inquisitive eyes peering around the corner of the gatepost of Chhatera school. Look-outs. They vanish around the corner. In we go. I am immediately struck by the basic nature of the grounds as I walk in. I can’t help but think of the stark difference between this quaint and humble little rural compound, and the sprawling modern campus of the private international school that my kids are lucky enough to go to in Delhi.
The Headmaster introduces to me to three young lads who are my guides for the day. They revel in the task, virtually jumping out of their socks to answer my questions first. The Headmaster proudly shows me the certificate for ‘Best School in the District’. The certificate commands pride of place on his wall.
‘Coca-Cola made this happen’, he explains.
‘Really?’, I smile.
Onto the first classroom. Bright eyes. Big smiles. We explain about South Africa and that helps the kids loosen up to ask questions.
‘What is your name?’, asks a pretty little girl eventually.
‘Gareth’, I say. She looks puzzled. ‘Can you write it on the board?’, she asks.
Chalk is hastily produced by the teacher and I turn to the
blackboard. Almost immediately I am thrust back to my own childhood. The smell
of the crumbling chalk, the hair-raising squeak as I slowly and carefully print
out my name. To the extreme amusement of
the kids, we grapple with my very un-Indian sounding name, and eventually
arrive at a version that would hopefully turn my head in a crowd.
They are so very proud of the little that they have, and eager to show me the changes that the SMS program has made to their school – from a computer, to the water supply, to the electricity, and most critically, to the ablution facilities. Especially for the little girls. Sameer can barely keep up with the translating for me to hear it all.
The last classroom is overwhelming. As a father of a Middle Schooler, I am only too well versed in the constant challenge of Math. Even as a 6th grader, I watch my daughter grimly and studiously tackle complex multiplication and long division, just as I did as a kid. The board is full of challenging multiplication problems. I glance at the kids, glance at the board, glance at the kids again. Little kids.
‘Surely not’, I silently muse.
Surely! A little girl of no more than 4 or 5 bolts up to the front of the class, barely 3ft high. She wastes no time in swiftly solving one problem after the other. I sit. Amazed. Look at this child! This is normal for her. Methodically she works her way through the challenges on the board. She clutches her reward Maaza like a trophy. Eyes twinkling. Triumphant!
‘Hang onto that spirit young lady’, I think, ‘it will stand you in good stead in life.’
The day ends with a traditional dance, some songs, a game of
basketball, and my terrible dancing to the gleeful delight of the kids. In some
closing remarks, I stress that education is the key to everything for these
wonderful young people. Stay in school.
Make your parents proud. Be something in your community and your country.
I settle into the car hoping that my message sticks with them. I realize suddenly that as The Coca-Cola Company, we have such awesome ability to fill the gaps where perhaps public sectors are not as organized as they should be. We really can help to make schools the best in their district. We really can help little boys and girls to learn and grow, and raise themselves up to be contributors. The SMS program is something that we should be proud of, and it’s then that it dawns on me….
The kids have inspired me, not the other way around. I am leaving far richer than when I arrived.
I will return.
Gareth Stevens is Category Director Still Beverages for India & South West Asia at The Coca-Cola Company.