The Safety Net of Things
It was when Varsha wrote her first letter to me in broken English, when Laxmi told me that her favourite story was ‘life’, or when Gaurav stated that a leader should show ‘respect, teamwork, kindness and perseverance’ that I realized the grave importance of this profession.
A child without prejudices, complexes and notions is put under your care to mould as you wish, this in itself is scary beyond comprehension. But then you realize that the lower the socio-economic status of the child’s community, the greater the teacher’s responsibility and power should become. Tragically, in most cases, the opposite happens. While highly trained and motivated teachers teach children of affluent communities, children of poorer families are relegated to an indifferent, ill-equipped education system.
It had been on the third day that Shubham had been pestering me to visit his house, that I agreed to go with him. So, after the bell rang he promptly stood outside the class doors to escort me.
Now Shubham is no teacher’s pet. He is sharp as well as boisterous (although his ‘image’ is not helped by his bald head except for a tiny hair-knot in the middle). He is a whiz at math and can perform all four basic functions in his head, but absolutely abhors English - something that has been a constant struggle for me, because it seemed that there was a barrier he couldn’t jump through.
He’s also tenacious and hardly the sort who loves to butter the figure of authority (me). So I was pleasantly surprised at his attempt to keep me in a good mood. He led me into the Government Approved Flats beside our school, and I thought, ‘not bad.’ He continued however, and led me further into a ghetto that suddenly burst through the pristine flats. Within the bustling lanes of this community, he led me further into the evidently unauthorized maze.
We finally reached a house, which I entered to note, with surprise, was tiled with marble. This didn’t last that long though, as Shubham led me up the narrow stairs into a one-room house where a young girl was washing clothes while a woman was coughing away in the bed. There he kicked off his shoes and took off his uniform to reveal a set of clothes which he had been wearing for close to 5 days without taking a bath, as he doesn’t get hot water. The young girl was his sister, 18 years old and in class 12th.
She was a bright girl who had always scored well in school and aimed to score above 80 in her boards. Yet, she hadn’t been to school for about a week as her mother wasn’t feeling well and she had to keep the household running. This was a pretty regular occurring she said, and she didn’t really mind. When I asked her what her plans after class 12 were, she fell silent. I asked her mother, who said that her father would decide – they would probably go back to their village and either continue her studies there or get her married off.
Now, for a low–income school teacher these words ‘back to their village’ ring alarm bells. These words mean either a month or two month long break, or sometimes an indefinite one. I asked them what would happen to Shubham’s education and they said he had dealt with it before – which intrigued me and I pressed on.
Apparently, when Shubham was in grade 1, his father had decided to shift to their village indefinitely so that their mother could take care of his ailing father. While there, Shubham, a bright, confident child of 5 lost interest in his studies and his level dropped. After a year they decided just as suddenly to move back to Delhi. Before getting admission, Shubham began going for tuitions to ‘prepare’ for admission. This teacher, while helping him come up to his peers’ level in math, couldn’t do the same for English. Thus, when he rejoined the schooling system, his confidence in Math remained, but that in English took a big hit. I realized then, the reason for discrepancies in his interest and performance in the two subjects. I then sat him down and explained that no subject is complete without the other. He also said that whatever happens, he would not go back to his village as the education there is just not stimulating enough. He said he enjoyed his studies here more, so he will probably continue longer here than in the village.
Shubham helped me realize that the history and dynamics of the family of each child is instrumental in their future path. We take too much for granted and pat ourselves on the back for achievements that are only results of the privileges we have been accorded. Equally bright minds, enthused individuals, determined people fade away into obscurity simply because they can’t afford to stumble – they do not have a safety net. They fall straight into the pit.
Edit: Shubham made progress by leaps and bounds within the months after this story was first published. Despite his diminutive figure, he had been cast in the role of the antagonist Ms. Trunchbull in the Matilda musical we were performing together. This meant a considerable amount of dialogue in the language he previously despised. A fortnight before the play, however, I found out that his father had come through on his promise and moved back to the village. Despite my best efforts, I could not contact him or his family.
My Fellowship eventually ended, I often wondered about Shubham – where must he be? Still coping with the cards dealt to him through lightning-fast math drills? Shying away, once again, from the promise of mastering a second language?
Until one day, a month after my fellowship ended, I went to visit my students, and there, sitting with his mischievously twinkling wide eyes, I saw the familiar face looking up to me. On being asked how he managed to come back, he said, quite dramatically, “I had promised you, didi(big sister).”