Madurai, India — Kodaikanal School is not in Madurai, but in the hills above it. In the early 1900s, the missionaries who did not climb Kodai, could, for 24 cents, hire a "hon-go-gum" chair, supported by two poles and four men. Today, it is a three-hour bus ride.
Kodaikanal School, started 79 years ago, educated the children of American missionaries and the Tamil children who came to the mission. The curriculum was American; instruction was in English; the preparation was for further schooling in the United States.
In 1966 Kodai's student body in Grades 1-12 totaled 400, but then fewer missionaries were welcome; instead, short-term foreign experts were highly sought after. The student body dwindled and survival became an active question.
In 1972 the missionary board was dissolved and a new board was formed with multinational, pluralistic, nondenominational Christian goals. Today, there are some 375 students from 21 countries and a 56-member staff from around the world. One administrator articulates the new emphasis: "We don't want to be a funnel to the American life style."
Instead, it is the interplay between the school and the Indian community, the dimension of the third-world experience, that adds depth to what could otherwise be an isolated boarding-school existence.
As the increasing number of European, Middle Eastern, and Indian students bring their cultures into the traditionally American circle, the staff questions how they can gain a compromise among these cultures. And they ask themselves: "What is a Christian international school?"
The new principal, Frank Jayasinghe, who is a Sri Lankan, explains: "the first challenge for us is to maintain a Christian atmosphere, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the beliefs of students and staff of other faiths. everyone is exposed to Christianity, but we don't proselytize. At present, we have Protestant and Catholic services. Whether we will have other places of worship on campus is being debated."
Since 1977 Kodaikanal School has awarded the international baccalaureate and now maintains an international curriculum instead of a strictly American diet. Dr. Jayasinghe explains that some Asians are lost at first when they come into the informal American-type classroom.It is so different from the "guru" relationship they have had before.
For many of the Western students, social restrictions seem difficult.
In the cafeteria, two lines form at every meal: vegetarian and non-veg. "Veg" is for Hindus, who don't eat beef, and for Muslims, who don't eat pork. Brahmans, the highest Hindu caste, may also have a special diet, eliminating certain root vegetables. The dietician is like a juggler, balancing nutrition, teen-age tastes, and cultural traditions.
There are utensils, although many students, not necessarily Indian, eat with their fingers. With finesse, and the right hand only, they mix curry and rice into a tight ball, never letting the food come above the joints of the thumb or first two fingers before they toss it deftly into their mouths.
Joe Thomas is a Mar Thomite, belonging to a Protestant group within the Church of South India. Joe was born in Malaysia and has lived in Australia and New Zealand.
"Last summer I worked as a bass guitarist and vocalist in the Hilton International in Malaysia," he says. "I earned $700 a month. I told my father I would pay my way through Kodai." A blue-eyed, blond Colorado boy says: "I really like it here, but I'm ready for college in the US."
Salim Behlany is a Muslim from Oman. He speaks Arabic, Swahili, and English. He remarks: "In Kodai we have more freedom than in the British schools. There what the teacher says goes. I like it better here, because we learn to think."
Last year, all 50 graduates went on to college.
But for one Texan, Denise Roanne, there was some reverse culture shock: "It was hard for me to return to the States. I felt everybody was so narrow-minded. They didn't care about anything but their own little community." Denise has lived in Egypt, Nepal, and India as well as the US.