For most American parents, their morning routines can probably be compared to “herding cats.” They involve dragging kids out of bed, feeding them, and getting them to school, usually while those kids are resisting every step along the way. In those frustrating pre-dawn moments, parents may forget that process is a Western luxury, and it probably never even occurs to their children that this effort is a huge privilege. When watching the four-part Netflix documentary Daughters of Destiny, the viewer gets a glimpse of what this parent-and-child relationship looks like in a place where learning is a luxury. It’s not the parent who carries the child, but the child who dreams of one day carrying the entire family.
The docuseries is set in Shanti Bhavan School in Bangalore, India. The boarding school takes in and educates children from India’s most impoverished class. The trailer for the documentary explains that this class is usually denied education. And, the first episode Daughters Of Destiny explains that the cycle of poverty for these families goes back more than 1,000 years. By educating their children, the cycle can be broken.
The Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project website states that the mission of the school is to “[empower] children from India’s lowest socioeconomic class to break the cycle of generational poverty through education, leadership, and compassion.” The site also lists statistics detailing the 20-year-old school’s success rate: 97 percent of students graduate from high school, 98 percent graduate from college, and 97 percent of alumni are employed in full-time jobs.
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The children not only face socio-economic challenges of being the first in their families to receive this level of education, they also battle internalized societal expectations. Shanti Bhavan students come from extreme poverty and have experienced trauma, racism, and discrimination. The documentary depicts the prejudice students have faced with stories from the children and the school’s founder Abraham George. They recount stories about being told that pupils wouldn’t succeed even if given the opportunity because of their caste, that those of the lower caste could “pollute” others, and that it is a waste of time to educate girls. These are just some of the stigmas the students face.
The pressure to receive an education and pull one’s family out of poverty is not lost on the students. In the documentary, children as young as kindergarten age discuss the desire to graduate, go to college, have a career, and pull their mothers, siblings, and families out of poverty. And, this pressure isn’t described as a burden, it’s an opportunity for which the students are grateful.
The children also explain on camera that only one child is selected per family. On a visit home, the audience sees students explaining what they have learned to their mothers and siblings — students are already trying to share their education with their families. Some of the students’ homes are only one room. Their parents work in the rock quarry, make matchbooks, or hold other labor jobs. The first episode of Daughters of Destiny explains that these families live on less than $2 per day.
The students are also well aware of the disparity between life at home and life at the boarding school. They discuss homesickness, but it is curtailed by the extreme gratitude they express for the school and for the meals, shelter, and education it provides. From a young age, these students understand the power and privilege of education.
The children explain that they are willing to take care of themselves, their school (cleaning the dorm and weeding the lawn), and their studies, so that one day they can be successful and take care of their families. Some of them already express that success could also mean helping the communities where they were born.
This morning routine of dorm chores and serious study is a stark contrast to the scene painted at the beginning of this piece. American children are probably much less conscious of the reach of a good education and how it benefits their families, communities, and even their country.
The students at Shanti Bhavan School do not see education as a chore or pathway to individual achievement or success. These students see their education as a device to first help their parents, then families, then communities, and, lastly, themselves.