Oak Park girl takes 94 pounds of books to India

When Najda Hadi-St. John, 11, made her first trip to mother Samina Hadi-Tabassum’s native India in 2013, she noticed a glaring absence of something she took for granted: books.

“It was kind of weird because I’m really a kind of big book person. I thought everyone had books, really,” the Percy Julian Middle School sixth-grader said.

To bring children in India closer to her norm, Najda joined with Sivan Aharon and Nya Schwartz, two of her fifth-grade classmates at Beye Elementary School, to collect books in a box outside their classroom. This year, when Najda returned to India, she carried a suitcase with about 100 books weighing 94 pounds.

“I kind of feel that everyone should get a right to education and a right to get a good career,” she said. “I think that for the kids that have education they should really have books.”

Most of the books were intended for 7- and 8-year-olds, but the few books Najda and her mother took for their two-week teaching trip to Mumbai, India, last year were Harry Potter books and above the children’s reading level.

“They didn’t really get it. They aren’t really advanced readers as in America,” Najda said.

Though Hadi-Tabassum speaks Hindi to her three children and her mother sends down Indian meals from her upstairs apartment, Najda said she still has much to learn about her mother’s culture.

“I’m kind of surprised at how they think of schools as opposed to American kids. American kids think it’s a right, and in India the kids think of it as a privilege,” she said. “I was really surprised by their level of energy because they don’t eat much. Like one family ate only salt and bread.”

As a junior teacher, Najda bonded with the Indian students at the all-girls Red Cross School.

“It was nice. They called me didi, which means ‘older sister,’” she said.

Though it may be early for her to settle on a career, becoming a teacher like her mother is not out of the question, Najda said.

“I think it’s kind of easier to show yourself as a teacher, and it’s really nice to bond with people in a short amount of years. If you’re a doctor, you don’t really have the time to bond with people,” she said.

The trips to India really have opened up teaching moments for Hadi-Tabassum and her daughter.

“I remember we had a conversation and she said, ‘Why can’t the teachers just bring in their iPads?’ I told her, ‘The teachers barely have enough electricity to run the fans,’” Hadi-Tabassum said.

“One of the things she noticed immediately was the lack of bullying, and the kids loved each other,” Hadi-Tabassum said. “At the same time, the kids had a lot more responsibilities at home than she had.”

Hadi-Tabassum who has taught at Dominican University’s School of Education for 12 years, said she was especially excited to show Najda her hometown, Hyderabad, India, which is where they spent their two weeks this summer. Hadi-Tabassum takes some of her Dominican University students with her to India each summer through the global Teach for All program to immerse them in multicultural education.

“My daughter and I had ended up teaching in the same school where my mom had gone,” she said. “It was a great tie for my daughter to see where I came from.”

Najda helped organize the books in the classroom.

“The children just ran. Books are such a rarity,” Hadi-Tabassum said. “We really emphasized nonfiction books, which are much harder to acquire there.”

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