Yesterday, in the course of a conversation, a friend shared his concern about an eminent social activist having changed tracks and moved from education to rights activism. The person he was referring to had started and successfully steered a very dynamic education support network till he decided to move away. My friend seemed a little disturbed at this. At the time I let it pass and we moved on to other matters.
It is only much later that I pondered about the whole matter and wondered why someone would make such a change. I guess the answer is simply because activism has greater impact and is more visible. Or is because working on the field makes you more aware of wrongs that need to be righted? Be it the skewed education system or the non-existent child protection laws. Or one is tempted to go even further: the possibility to change social systems. It is true that when you are engaged in imparting education to a handful of children, as no matter how many you reach it out, it only remains a handful in a land as large as ours, your vision is limited and your scope restricted. And its is also true that when you have done this for years, your desire to redress torts becomes more acute. So for many the time comes to move on to a place where you feel you can make a real difference. And the sphere of activism beckons you.
I wondered whether after 10 years of battling grass root issues I too could one day be so tempted. The answer was a loud and clear NO! I have my reasons and the one that stands foremost in my mind is that children cannot wait and need to be helped now as they sadly do not have time on their side. For them tomorrow is already too late. So no matter how small the handful, for them you are the only chance they have and for me each and every child has a right to that chance.
For the past few weeks we have been on a mission: find 2 good English teachers for our new focus on quality programme scheduled to begin on April 1st. To be on the safer side and ensure that all goes according to plan, we decided to begin our search way earlier and try out potential candidates so as to be ready on the given day.
Finding a teacher to teach spoken English to class 2 to 5 kids did not at first seem a very daunting task. We would soon find out how wrong we were! We first took the easy road – word to mouth – and spoke to everyone we knew. The result was negative, no one came forward. I was a little saddened as I had hoped that some one would come forward. We then decided to place an ad in the leading newspapers. We did get flooded with calls but the moment the word slum was mentioned, the potential candidate backed out. In some cases we were the ones who beat a hasty retreat as astronomical salaries were asked ( 30 and 40 K)! However we did have a tiny handful of people who accepted to come for an interview.
We finally selected two on trial: one with no teaching experience but a pleasing personality and a good command on the language, and the other with some teaching experience, a fair command on the language but a slightly reserved personality. Whereas the former worked out like a dream and now teaches at the women centre, the later was a sad reflection on the reality that is India. Both ladies belonged to the middle class, but whereas one had an open mind the other was closed and set in her ways. When she realised that her colleagues at Okhla were from an inferior social strata, she shut them out choosing to isolate herself. She did not even sit with them at lunch time. One would have looked over that aberration has she bonded with the kids, but here again she kept them at bay. She never smiled or laughed with them but chided and scolded that all the time. It was a nightmare that has to be ended and we thanked her and asked her to leave. What really shocked us all was when she said: If you expect me to take a child on my lap like the volunteers do, I will never do it! Well said ma’am, and yes we expect you to do that but we understand your reluctance but do not and cannot accept it.
So the hunt began again and we found a person who had taught for 14 years in an English speaking school in a small town in India. We called her for an interview. We asked her the usual questions and were a little perplexed when all we got as answers were one words: No, Yes, I can.. She was unable to form a single complete sentence. The poor lady was simply a reflection on the state of education in the country. We of course rejected her and as I write these words the search is still on.
It is sad but true that some realities permeate every aspect of our lives. The innocuous search for a simple teacher shows the abysmal state of our education and reflects the depth of our social stigmas making us want to scream once again: all is not well in India!
Over the past years I have come to realise that it is our special kids who have truly amstered the art of having a ball! It is in this class that I have, more than once, experienced pured unadulterated joy and it takes practically nothing to get them going: a few tins and bottled to beat on, or paint to splash with.
Yesterday they were gifted a bounce ball and though they had never seen one before, it did not take them time to figure it out and get going, and everyone had her or his turn. It did not matter if you could walk or hear, you indeed could bounce. And bounce they did! And for a few minutes time again stood still, everything was forgotten as they bounced to their hearts content.
These precious and unique moments were caught on camera by our photographer volunteer Lorraine. So come bounce with them and have a .. ball!
When Peter sat down to draft a leaflet to highlight project why’s work, young Naomi, age 11, asked whether she too could make one. Naomi has never been to project why as she lives in Cranfield in the UK. Her vision of our work comes from what she has heard and interpreted with the wisdom only children have. For them dreams and reality coalesce and the yet impossible becomes very real. Or is it that they have the gift of seeing in the future? I do not know. To me Naomi’s words are blessed; perhaps a message from my friends the God of small beings at a time when I needed to be reassured.
Below is a transcription of Naomi’s leaflet..
Hello, we are project why the charity that helps children In India.
Did you know that over 11 million children are homeless in India. Did you also know that families of 6-7 live in slums which are not much bigger than the back of a small van.
How we help
When a poor child can walk they are sent to beg on the streets until they reach the age of six when they are sent to school where most pupils would have learnt to write because they had gone to private kindergarten school. For those who are poor and cannot afford kindergarten do not understand school as they have not learnt the basics. So we at project why started running free kindergartens and have also been helping children with their homework.
Once they finish school they come and work at the new hotel we have built and when they are ready we move them to work in other hotels. So children can have a good start in life. The children of India need project why and we need money to help them...
Once again I take my virtual pen to vent my fury over the sad state of education in India, the land that has finally deigned give its children the right to free and equitable education. It took the so called rulers over 60 years to loosen their purse strings and do that. These are the same rulers who take but a day to vote an increase in their own salaries! And let me set the record straight: the right to education bill has been passed, but its implementation is still a long way coming.
But let us talk of the ground reality and here I am not talking about the underprivileged child. Nursery admissions in up market schools have just closed and once again an innumerable number of children are left in the lurch as they have not made it! In a land where education is a right, children are rejected at the tender age of three. You see they do not live on the right street, or have parents who have not been to the right school, or are the wrong gender, or have no siblings. Maybe they need to petition to God to give them the right credentials before they are sent to be born in a land called India!
Oops I forgot to add one thing: their parents do not have the right bank balance as this year again slammed doors could be opened if a fat cheque was handed out. I know of one case where a parent was asked 10 lacs (on million) by a well known school! In many cases a real mission impossible.
The writing is on the wall: there are too many children and not enough schools, an ideal situation for commercial enterprise and a quick buck. But hold on. If you look around the city, in every nook and corner you will find what is know as a sarkari school (government run school). Prime space that far too often houses a ramshackle single storied building. Imagine if each of these could be transformed into a state of the art multi storied building that was run to perfection. Utopia? Not quite. Actually the real answer to education woes. However there is one small hitch. The likes of us would have to accept to have one’s child rub shoulders and share benches with the children of a lesser God.
It may not happen willingly but maybe as force majeure. When there are no more up market schools to take our kids or when the money needed becomes far beyond our shrinking pockets. Is the common neighborhood school slowly becoming an inevitable reality?