By DAVID GREEN
As eighth grade geography teacher Thom Green works his way through the school year in White Bear Lake, Minn., he always looks forward to his favorite unit: Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement.
Next month, the former Morenci resident will gain some firsthand experience that should change his teaching forever. He and his wife, Ginny, will embark for India to retrace Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt March to the sea.
“Students seem to enjoy learning about Gandhi and I like to teach about him,” Thom said. “Shortly after finishing the unit this year, I received information about the Fund for Teachers grant. It seemed like a perfect fit.”
Ginny says it was a long shot chance to win a grant for a teacher’s summer dream proposal, but the St. Paul-based foundation latched onto the plan and offered $3,500 for a two-week study trip. An educational foundation in White Bear Lake added another $950 to cover the cost of an additional four days in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) so Thom could interview a great-grandson of Gandhi, visit a Gandhi museum and research center, and tour several holy sites.
The plan to retrace portions of Gandhi’s 240-mile Salt March—a protest against the British salt tax that proved to be a key incident in India’s move toward independence—could be in jeopardy due to weather conditions.
In a letter from Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson, Thom was cautioned about what he will encounter.
“I don’t think it’s advisable for you to come in August,” Gandhi wrote. “At the moment the entire area throughout the route of the Salt March is reeling under unprecedented floods. Parts of the region have been cut off from the rest of the country. Trains are now just beginning to ply. There is massive damage.”
And this was still in July, the very beginning of the wet monsoon season. Historically, Gandhi said, August is the period of the most intense storms.
If the trip can’t be postponed, Gandhi said, he’s willing to help in whatever way possible, such as in securing a guide to accompany the visitors.
“We may not be able to do any walking at all,” Thom said. “We would spend time in Ahmedabad [the home of Gandhi’s original ashram] and Mumbai, and drive out into the countryside where there are no floods.”
The monsoons are just one challenge, Thom said. There’s also the possibility of illness from local parasites, language difficulties and dealing with the poverty he’ll experience.
Thom looks at the adventure as a means of strengthening his classroom work. Walking the countryside of India will offer an understanding of the culture unlike any other mode of travel. He expects to interact with shopkeepers, farmers and children along the way to acquire a firsthand understanding of Indian life.
“As a social studies teacher, this opportunity will fuel my desire for bridging the difference between cultures,” he said. “This should lead my students to steps of understanding those different from themselves.”
Thom intends to videotape interviews with Gandhi specialists and relatives, and most importantly, with everyday people. He has already contacted several schools along the route hoping to establish cultural exchanges.
Thom would also like to instigate service projects with his students to collect materials for poorly-supplied Indian schools. He noted Gandhi’s well-known statement that poverty is the worst form of violence.
Finally, the trip will serve as somewhat of a pilgrimage for Thom, himself.
“Walking on the same ground walked by Mahatma Gandhi will bring me closer to a man from whose life I continually receive inspiration,” Thom said. “The more I read about Mahatma Gandhi, the more questions I have about his life and his movement of non-violent resistance.”
Thom serves as a role-model to his students and there are times when he turns to Gandhi as a model of tolerance.
“At times when I find myself losing control,” he said, “thinking of how Gandhi remained calm and steadfast gives me strength.”
He tries to model Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence and peace right in his own classroom.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi said.
Thom has made the decision to act.- July 27, 2005