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Torrey shares India journey with students.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Only a little the worse for wear, "Flat Skylar" is safely back home at Eugene's Howard Elementary School after a three-week journey through India.

It was the second trip to India for Flat Skylar, an unassuming boy made of paper encased in plastic laminate, but the first for his escort, Kidsports chief and former Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey.

Torrey found himself an unexpected emissary last month, toting Skylar, two other flat characters (more on them later), a stack of picture books and a bagful of letters from second-graders to Howard's sister school, the Ann Mary School.

The 12-hour train journey to Dehra Dun, a town in northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas, was a not on his original itinerary. But in a visit to Howard on Thursday, Torrey told students the detour proved to be a highlight of the trip.

"Let me tell you, you have friends in India you didn't know you had," said Torrey, clad in a shimmery, knee-length gold and black smock he said was typical of what male teachers wear on the job in India. "They wanted me to tell you that they love you."

The connection to Ann Mary School actually began three years ago at Walterville School, where teacher Judy Davies' first-graders created "Flat Skylar" after reading the classic children's book "Flat Stanley." The book tells about the adventures of a boy who is flattened by a bulletin board and able to travel in ways - by mail, for instance - that only a flat person could.

Flat Skylar's first trip abroad was to Germany. A co-worker of Davies had friends there, who in turn sent him on to friends of theirs in India - Silvia and Deepak Arora, who run the private Ann Mary School.

On a trip to visit friends in Portland later that year, the Aroras swung down to Walterville to meet Davies and her class and return Flat Skylar, who came with a new friend - Flat Bharati, the creation of students at Ann Mary. Students at both schools began exchanging letters.

When Davies left Walterville for Howard in 2004, she brought Flat Skylar and Flat Bharati along and kept in touch with the Aroras. Soon, her Howard second-graders were exchanging letters with Ann Mary School. Other teachers have since joined the effort.

Davies met Torrey when he visited the Howard summer program as a guest reader. When she heard he was traveling to India, she begged him to visit Ann Mary School and take along Flat Skylar, Flat Bharati and Flat Rumina, the Howard students' contribution to the circle of flat mascots (Flat Rumina stayed at Ann Mary and will come home later).

On his visit Thursday, Torrey brought along a thick photo album from his trip, as well as more letters, some hats and T-shirts bearing the school's name, school newsletters, picture books and gifts - brilliant silk scarves - for Davies and fellow second-grade teacher Lupe Callihan.

He also brought stories that met with wide eyes. Ann Mary's 1,600 students, who range in age from 3 to 16, do yoga twice a week in special white and yellow uniforms, he said, and most have beautiful teeth - perhaps the result of eating very few sweets. They also go to school on Saturdays.

"I wouldn't want to do that," said Jessie Welch, 8. "I like to sleep in."

At some of the government-run schools Torrey visited, class sizes were as high as 80, he said. He saw monkeys, elephants, water buffaloes and other exotic creatures, right in the middle of the road. Everywhere, he said, the food was spicy - too spicy for Torrey, who often resorted to grilled cheese sandwiches.

He also saw unimaginable poverty, and villages where families could barely feed themselves, let alone send their children to school.

Visiting schools was the trip's primary purpose, said Torrey, who traveled with his 16-year-old grandson, Bradley Bjornstad.

"I thought that the students in India were producing tremendous results with very little in the way of physical support in terms of quality of buildings and reduced classroom sizes," he said. "In every instance, the number of kids in the class was substantially higher than we would think is acceptable here in the United States."

He was struck by the intense focus on education among all but the poorest families. Many students visit private tutors every day, both before and after school, he said.

While he didn't think that intensity was altogether healthy, there were aspects of the educational system he'd love to see duplicated here.

"Early education for 3- and 4-year-old kids," he said. "Those kids were having a great time in school. They were learning two languages. They were able to read fluently at 5."

While there was little time for student questions Thursday, Torrey promised to come back to Howard for an extended question-and-answer session with students soon.

CAPTION(S):

Howard Elementary School second-grader Destiny Morgan, 8, holds `Flat Bharati,' a gift from the sister school in India.
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Title Annotation:Schools; He took with him Howard's "Flat Skylar" and the rest of a circle of flat mascots
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 21, 2005
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