Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The kids





Teach For India /Akanksha

Cotton Green is a tiny suburb close to Parel. Huge empty cotton mills, a beautiful Heritage building which use to be the cotton exchange and unused smaller granaries mark this central Mumbai suburb.

Akanksha, the NGO runs a primary English medium school in Abhudaya Nagar Municipal School in Cotton Green.

I began volunteering as a teacher assistant in this school a few months ago. Reason: I found myself in a space where all I did, felt and experienced was so very mundane. To do something meaningful became the order of the day, while I struggled with my rat race syndrome. While helping a friend write her TFI fellowship essays, I felt just enough inspired to sign up for the volunteer program.

The approach to the school from the station is rather tedious and I felt a strange sense of glory in my purpose of social work. I had never really done any serious volunteering, a weekend here there apart. This commitment felt substantial and meaningful. The approach is through a tiny slum, the narrow by lane passes through small pale blue two storey structures (Kacha pakka house) on either side where a hundred households are squeezed together –one room apartments with no bathroom. A long line of men stand waiting their turn in front of the common bathroom of the settlement. It stinks! As I mentioned I felt somewhat extraordinary, taking the effort to take time out from my busy, muddling and always stressed mind to volunteer at an underprivileged municipal school. The false sense of worth lasted for less than a week after I found myself interacting with highly inspired, dedicated and strong minded group of teachers, care takers and Teach for India fellows in this tiny space of overwhelming goodness called Akanksha School in Cotton Green. My effort and intention seemed so common among this lot.

Yash Kumar, the Teach for India fellow, an IIT Bombay Grad, a young boy of 23-24 has dedicated the next two years of his life to teach at this school. We all know what starting salary IIT grads are offered on graduation. So to see a young, smart and highly motivated guy counting down from 10 to 1 after a lunch break to bring to order an unruly classroom of seven year olds is indeed a revelation.

I assist Yash in teaching the second standard class at the Akanksha School. The class room walls are pasted with charts and posters and wonderful pictures. Yash and the Akanksha Team have taken efforts to beautify each classroom. The young children coming from various backgrounds are lively, cocky and cute. For me, it brought back memories of a time in school, which most of us cannot recollect and our parents reminisce about most.

This age is wonderful, children are wholeheartedly accepting, loving, and eager to please and easily impressed. When a young Geetanjali wrapped her arms around my waist and rested her chin on my side her gazing up at me as I spoke to Yash, I struggled to keep a straight face as Yash continued briefing me on my task. I wanted to do a skippity hop as Geetanjali’s warmth emanated. I sighed as I watched Yash struggle to walk as three kids had wrapped themselves around him the same way.

It is a primary English medium school – junior KG to third standard. The children come from various backgrounds, with faded uniforms and slippers and sandals. The staff is young and smart. There is Yash Bhaiya of course, the TFI fellow as they are called, Rekha Didi who reminds me of my favorite English teacher when I was a kid – short stylish hair, tastefully dressed, kind eyes, a warm smile and an air of sophistication which as a child is always such an enigma. Then there is Serenity Didi, an international volunteer from London. The language barrier is obvious and so is the fascination most Indians have with foreigners. Serenity seems at home, she is like any other teacher Then there is Nahida and Shahnaz, Akanksha trained girls, their confidence, their vibrancy is quite impressive. People like me who come for the first time to such an environment always have certain pre conceived notions, well at least I did. I found each and every person I met in the school unique and noteworthy. Shuttling between the rat race (each to his/her own) and this place makes you obviously regard the above mentioned people as special and so much more meaningful.

At school it is business as usual. English, Maths, EVS, Music, Play, Hindi/Marathi are the subjects taught. The teachers make it a point to speak with each child in English and also the children are expected to reply in English. As I watch Yash rattling away instructions in English, I see young eager faces trying to grasp the meanings of the words spoken; from their faces it is obvious they are looking out for familiar words which can help them understand. Along with the official syllabus, the management of Akanksha is also actively working on bringing a comprehensive depth in the learning. Yash explains that it is important to really make sure that they understand what they are speaking instead of blindly mugging English text. A practice common in most government run schools.

Akanksha and Teach for India are fully committed to the cause of bringing about substantial change in the society by way of education. They operate in underprivileged and tough neighborhoods. They have managed to set in motion a movement of sorts to inspire young, educated college students and professionals to become teachers and role models for kids and have touched so many lives.

The school follows certain set rituals to nurture hygiene practices, healthy mindset and good manners.Parents are reprimanded if nourishing food is not found in their child’s lunch and snack box.Play time, the kids play either play games or with toys. The toys are clearly donated, some are missing limbs, some a wheel and some just resemble a game that use to be. The little children still pick and choose with zest and play along making the most of the school hours. {Please donate more}

As my initial incredulity and awe settles in, I see that much work needs to be done.I know I hazard an expected preachy, mushy and clich├ęd discourse. Social awareness in India among the educated privileged mass is definitely increasing. A social revolution on the horizon as community service becomes a part of a person’s life plan and not just for those individuals seeking admissions abroad and unable to get a fake volunteer certificate. Initiatives like Teach India, Teach for India and varied volunteer programs are on the rise. College students even more involved. It feels nice when I learn that individuals like Yash and Purvi are two of many many.

And yet I find it a bit disconcerting when I realize that I have been doing this for only a few months at the age of 25. That it is now that I found the time, the inclination and desire to contribute towards a meaningful cause. And in my social and friends circle, a lively, well meaning, motivated, aware and educated bunch of individuals who love to bitch out India (over drinks and coffee mind you ), I know of only two persons who do community service of any form.

It is not easy, very often tedious. I sometimes struggle, get lackadaisical and distracted. But the experience of it all makes it worth while. I am not quite there, but I am on the path, a part of a change, a social awareness and I find myself eager to give more.

Please visit:

Akanksha

Teach for India


Teach for India/Akanksha - My work.

Yash assigns me eight kids, the ones who are struggling with class room work and need special attention. That is where I come in.

I start writing exercises with the little runts, and it is a struggle. Rehan seems to comprehend nothing, when I ask him to write ten sentences on ‘My School’. Little Pratik begins to write but is unable to string even simple words, Sajida narrates 5 beautiful sentences verbally and fails to write a single sentence, Sabina sits thinking for days together, Imtiaz (a cute one I found myself being slightly partial to) speaks random gibberish and struggles to write, Ayaan seems disgruntled and angry so I humor him initially, Sahil is just a bit slow.

Three days a week, I would spend 30 minutes with each child as they struggled with Basic English sentences. By week 2, I realized who were plain distracted, who were disinterested, who only needed special one on one interaction to get them on track and who all had a genuine problem.

After a month of relenting and unrelenting sessions, one day little Imtiaz sat on my lap reading from an A4 size sheet, a story he wrote on his own. I treated a friend to coffee that day. But every class is a different story. Ayaan the moody one would some days write long dreamy sentences and on other days just grunt and give me attitude which I finally learnt to handle. Pratik , I realized after few weeks was one of the lucky kid who had someone educated in his family, only more so, unfortunately that someone was doing all his homework. Sajida has dyslexia, Rehan is plain disinterested and always distracted.Sahil just needs personal attention, eager to please, eager to learn and eager to rush through lesson just to attract my attention .Then there is Sabina. Sabina lost her father last year; her young mother is a care taker in the school itself. Sabina is struggling more than the other kids in her school work-- she is struggling with her sentences, her words and sometimes even letters. She is unable to grasp even the basics and always seems distracted. Initially I found her exasperating and extremely difficult. Also I realized she did not like me much.

My learning and understanding curve gradually rose, as I began to get more involved with the kids.Each assignment held an interesting lesson for me. For the assignment -Write ten sentences on –My house, I found most of the children struggling. They were unable to write more than 3 sentences. I failed to comprehend the reason even though it was staring at me in the face. And one day on my walk from the station to the school past the slums, I realized why. Most homes had nothing in it; a single room housed a kitchen, a bed, a small chair, a table fan and five people. This is where my children came from.

For the seemingly innocuous assignment – ‘My Family’, I learnt even more lessons.Most children come from difficult households. Abuse, domestic violence, dead parents, lack of basic amenities, money and space and many more problems is a part of the society they come from. The kids are earnest; they smile, grunt, sometimes whine through the lesson, but never seem to lose heart and spirit.

A lot remains to be done.

School is closed for summer vacations. I make my way through the tiny by lane towards the school. I continue going to the school, an hour before work, to teach little Sabina. I am still struggling with her. But I think she is beginning to warm up to me. I feel guilty on the days I am not able to make it. Summer school is going on, and I get to meet some of the other kids I taught and young college volunteers. I feel happy, a bit proud and very satisfied.

The walk from station to school which I found always ever so unpleasant and worth bragging about to add a sense of glory to my volunteership has now made me humble and so much more aware. It prepares me for the class ahead; I smile at the little kids running around, wondering whether they are from my school, or whether they go to school at all.

I realize now how small a part I am playing in my society. So much can be done, and so easily , if each one of us can take some time out.

Most importantly, this experience has made me hopeful in ME, in society and in the power of Community Service.