A visit at Pratham

Sir, actually I read mostly from the guide books… Neeraj Publication or Ramesh Publication and means abhi to mujhe kuch learn nahi hai puraana… Yes I loved Wordsworth and Shakespeare…Bass wohi padne ka mann karta tha tab to…I have the books but sir… Yes Vivekananda ko Wordsworth ki Wanderer wali poem achchi lagi thi… I don’t remember exactly.

She tried well to keep up in a conversation about her Masters in English, which to her surprise (and mine too), I had taken a disproportionately high fancy to! I think I was trying to find a common ground or any ground for that matter to start and I had digressed too far. Thankfully, her candour came out well in time to zip me up.

She was an english teacher at Pratham’s open school in Jaipur. I added that I too would be in a soup if she were to ask me anything about electronics. We both smiled but I am sure she did not believe me on that.

I was visiting one of the three open schools run by Pratham. Batta Basti here, is a muslim ghetto and as one could imagine, constraints to a girl’s education are more than just financial. In the given social context, they were supposed to tend to their families, help in their daily wage activities and live protected till they are married off. These conditions were almost sacrosanct and it was within these constraints that Pratham (the organisation and its staff) and the students were working out a healthy compromise.

These were girls who had dropped out of school as early as second grade, and stayed out of the formal education structure for many years hence. The teachers out here had to survey the locality, convince the parents, allay their fears and get these girls up to speed to be able to write the National Institute of Open School’s examination for the tenth standard. All in an year’s time or less. And that to me was the trickier part. It was a bit counter-intuitive for me to believe that these seasoned school drop outs could be coached to a level to perform well and clear the class 10 boards examination.

Aptly referenced here by Greatbong, years and years of social activism had done well to prompt a well known superstar to take up a ‘problem of the week’ in a classic story retelling format cycling through various expressions, “the-oh-my-God-I-had-no-idea” (“Apko police ne yeh kaha?”) as if he is hearing the guest’s story for the first time. That in turn had pricked our conscience and done well to remind us about the social issues which plague our society but I was still pleasantly surprised to see these kids ramping up so well. They still had to juggle the daily chores and their studies and they seemed to be doing quite well.

There were four teachers and a center coordinator to help me put things into a perspective. It is indeed tough for these teachers to convince an unwitting father who finds it hard to convince the parochial society he grew up in. But once a child is enrolled, there are quite a few innovations by the organisation and the teachers here to build upon the trust – offline and online classrooms, online quizzes, parent teacher meetings, extra classes, financial assistance for filing the forms etc. Each initiative counts and there are no broad brush strokes.

For some reasons, I chose not to interact with the students. I was invited to do so but in all honesty, I was way too much awed by their sincerity that I did not feel like punctuating their on-going classes with a borderline stupid small talk!  I remembered a TED talk I had seen some time back. Bunker Roy of the Barefoot College fame mentioned a case of a student educated at one of their night school where among other things, they run a full functional student body. She was the head of that elected body for the year. Link, here.

She got the World’s Children’s Prize five years ago, and she went to Sweden. First time ever going out of her village. Never seen Sweden. Wasn’t dazzled at all by what was happening. And the Queen of Sweden, who’s there, turned to me and said, “Can you ask this child where she got her confidence from? She’s only 12 years old, and she’s not dazzled by anything.” And the girl, who’s on her left, turned to me and looked at the queen straight in the eye and said, “Please tell her I’m the prime minister.”

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