It's a scene of contrasts in Loreto Sealdah School's Rainbow class: the white and starched uniforms of the privileged students who are playing the role of "tutors" versus the multi-colored, ill-fitting skirts and tunics of the street children who are their "students" (although, clean, they bear the obvious imprint of hand-me-downs); neat plaits and ponytails versus straggling curls and untamed locks; the sober mien of the older girls versus the impish exuberance of their charges.

But it's not the differences that are so striking. It is the affection and care that flows between the Loreto Sealdah students and their street-dweller students. The boundaries between the protected, privileged world of the former and the survival-of-the-fittest environment of the latter appear to have dissolved here, replaced instead with a bond forged of humaneness and mutual understanding.

This is exactly what Loreto Sealdah school is aiming for. "Our school environment allows empathy to develop naturally and consistently by providing opportunities for children of very different backgrounds to interact as peers," says Principal Sister Cyril. "If we want our school to nurture relationships that transcend the barriers of caste, creed and economic status, we have to enable and nurture empathy. A child doesn't 'learn' empathy through the intellect: she or he learns it through hands-on experience, the senses, and exposure to situations."

Courtesy Picture: Students in Loreto Sealdah School's Rainbow class

"Loreto Sealdah enabled me to learn empathy through my body – through real experience," agrees ex-student Sharmistha Sarkar. "And it was an incredibly empowering process."

In a country stratified into layers of "haves" and "have-nots," Sister Cyril Mooney, principal of Loreto Sealdah school since 1979, has pioneered an educational process where kids from different economic and social sections of society study, play and share together as equals. Empathy, the emotional capacity to feel for, and with another, is at the core of the process and is internalized rather than taught.

The student population is a healthy mix of social, financial, and religious backgrounds. At least 50 percent of students are non-fee-paying children from the surrounding slums. About 800 of the 1,400 students do not pay a school fee. This unique mix, which is not the norm in India's caste and status-conscious society, was a very deliberate move.

Thus, from day one, students are exposed to a heterogeneous peer group. As a result, their ability to be sensitive to other realities, and their emotional ability to respond appropriately are honed and expanded. Compassion and caring evolve from textbook concepts and become internalized ways of being. "We can interact with anyone: from the richest to the poorest, and build real friendships," says Class 12 (12th grade) student Salma Suleiman. "This is something really fantastic – it's one of the most precious lessons the school has given us."

The school reinforces and encourages the nurture of empathy by focusing on cooperation, not competition. Teachers undergo workshops and orientations so they too are sensitized to the school's overall purpose. As the children progress through school, they are constantly exposed to experiences that reinforce the values of tolerance and inclusiveness, sharpen their emotional intelligence, and make them more aware. For example, the Rainbow School is a tutoring program for homeless children who hang around on the streets near the school.

Tutoring takes place during school hours on school premises. At present there are about 250 Rainbow kids, but the number of participating students fluctuates each year. All students in classes 5 to 10 (fifth to tenth grades) spend 90 minutes each week, individually tutoring these children. This sustained interaction nurtures their ability to empathize by stretching their capacity to be patient, to listen, to interpret nonverbal cues.

At the same time, the Rainbow kids, whose brief histories have left them emotionally crippled, respond to this acceptance from the "didis" (older sisters) by gradually becoming more confident, receptive, and able to empathize with others. When Rainbow children have been brought sufficiently up-to-speed they can be integrated into a regular class. The process then takes place in the most natural manner because the two groups are already comfortable with each other.

Making Connections: Rural Villagers and Child Domestic Laborers

The Rural Child-to-Child Program also dismantles barriers between social groups and builds empathy through sustained, constructive interactions. Once per week, 150 Loreto Sealdah students from classes 5 to 10 go to neighboring rural areas to tutor village children in their own age group.

Some 2,600 village students are participating in this program. Beyond the academic benefits, it creates an opportunity for two groups that would normally never interact to come together and understand each other's worlds. They learn from and about each other, and discover that despite all the differences between rural and urban, and rich and poor, they are young people with common interests and emotional needs. The day-long weekly visits quickly become lessons punctuated by gossip, laughter, shared meals, and shared confidences.

The Hidden Domestic Child Labor Program is a new empathy-nurturing experience for students. It is a campaign built around the underage domestic workers employed by countless urban families. While the issue of child labor in the agricultural and industrial sectors has become part of the public debate, and laws have been enacted to curb this evil, the public gaze has not yet turned to young domestic workers. They remain in a world behind closed doors, confined to the private space of the home, and therefore are largely overlooked. While most people know they exist, because they are seldom visible outside their employers' homes, they have not yet become part of the public agenda.

"How can you value someone else if you don't value yourself? Even if a child is punished for a transgression, she or he gets a hug before going home."
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Loreto Sealdah children from classes 5 to 8 have formed four-member clubs that have the mandate to seek out at least 16 of these underage workers (some as young as age five or six) once a week to play with them and listen to their stories. "Companionship that returns them their childhood, even if momentarily, is what this disenfranchised group needs the most and this is what the students provide," Cyril said. For the privileged students, this is a sensitization process that makes peers and friends from a population they'd seen, yet one that had remained "unseen" in any genuine sense.

Empathy as a Lifestyle

Cyril emphasizes that all of these programs are integral components of the school curriculum rather than options. Moreover, the children don't get additional academic points for participating: "They are part and parcel of the experience of being a Loreto Sealdah student, and developing empathy for those around you," she says.

As a result, these students are far more caring, sensitized, and responsible than their counterparts in other schools. "Our kids are, on the whole, more mature than their peers in other schools," notes Nomita Sarkar, former vice-principal and a teacher at Loreto Sealdah for 35 Nomita Sarkar years. "They are much more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others and able to be self-reflexive. They are less judgmental, more accepting."

"Empathy can only be possible if you are aware of your own feelings," Cyril says. For this reason, students are continually pushed to reflect and to look inward. This practice is encouraged as a way of life, and it is reinforced through a weekly value education class that is a part of the entire curriculum, from class 1 through 12.

Most of all, each child is made to feel precious, for "how can you value someone else if you don't value yourself?" Cyril asks. "Even if a child is punished for a transgression, she or he gets a hug before going home. The message is clear: you were punished for your bad deed, but the hug is for the good person that you are!"