...I have never felt such a sense of responsibility as I did today. Sister Pushpa has given me the ability to not only change but completely revolutionize the futures of three young children. It hit me today, while talking to the parents of promising students, that my decisions will have impacts far beyond the scope of my comprehension. --Madhu, age ten, is one of my students who has never been to a formal school--
I left the house this morning on the hunt for six-year-olds with three major traits: excellent leadership and intellectual potential, a proven passion for learning, and an improbability of ever attending a formal school.
I should note here that the slum school I have been volunteering at is really not a school. There is a room and there are teachers but structured learning is almost non-existent. All that students will learn here, without the help of consistent long-term volunteers, are the ABC's and numbers 1 through 100. In fact, the primary purpose of the school isn't really to educate the students but to get them in the habit of going somewhere every day to study and to get them and their families to understand the importance of education. The end goal is to funnel students into the formal school system. It's a way of taking loitering unproductive children off of the streets and gradually working them into an academic setting.
However, there are some students here who show vast capabilities whose parents will never send them to school. Most of the residents of this slum are from a state called Bihar (over by Nepal and Bangladesh), which is notorious for being educationally backwards. Many parents here have never received any education, are illiterate, and do not comprehend the benefits of learning. Only some (about 30%) will cite financial strain as the reason for not sending their children to school.
Sister Pushpa specifically requested six-year-olds, so I was on a hunt today for six-year-olds meeting my stringent criteria. I first joined the morning class at the slum school. I isolated the six-year-olds from the group and had them perform some exercises to evaluate their knowledge levels and attitudes. I usually work with older students in the afternoons and am therefore not as in tune with the morning students' abilities. However, I have still seen them enough to remember many by name.
--Gathering six-year-olds to evaluate them--
--Helping each other--
While my intention was to see how well each of the students could perform certain tasks, I was intrigued to see them helping each other. They added a new dimension I hadn't considered.
I then evaluated the attendance records of all the students while each of them taught the class and led chants and songs. I also talked to the teachers about their opinions of each of the students in both the morning and afternoon classes. I was getting the feeling that this would be a very long process and a difficult decision to make. I could think of dozens of perfect candidates ages 7-14, but not many of age six. School soon ended and I took the head teacher (who speaks the best English) with me to translate while I interviewed some of the brightest students and their families at their homes. At this point, no one had any idea what I was doing but still answered all of my questions very willingly.
The first interview I conducted was with a six-year-old boy named Ankit and his mother. His father was working in a factory, so I asked Ankit's mother questions to help find out certain statistics but most importantly the likelihood that he would ever go to public school and how she hoped to prepare him for life.
--Left to right: Guyatri, Gudiya, Saraswati, and Neha
It just so happened that Ankit lives next to the two most promising girls from the afternoon class, who I found out for the first time are sisters. Their father, a cycle-rickshaw puller, was just arriving home for lunch. I interviewed them as well and found out that both of the girls would probably never go to a formal school. Their father said they would marry at about 15 or 16 years old to become housewives.
Ramotar (their father) and Guyatri (their mother), do not know how old each of the girls are but they think Gudiya is 10 and Neha about 7. Even though Neha might be older than the six-year-old limitation Sister Pushpa placed on my search, I still wanted to give her a chance. She has the potential to achieve greatness.
I asked if they would ever send Gudiya and Neha to private school. Ramotar responded that he could not afford it. Then I got a little bold. At this point, having heard that these girls would probably never be given the opportunities they deserve, I was willing to pay for their educations myself if I had to. I asked if they would send their girls to private school if I found a sponsor to pay their tuition. The response seemed to be a confounded but unequivocal "of course!" After some more discussion on the matter, I think Ramotar started to realize what was going on:
After about fifteen minutes of talking with Gudiya and Neha's family, I reminded them that nothing was finalized but that I would do everything I could to get the girls into a private school.
--Gudiya (top) and Neha (bottom) playing on ladder near their home--
We interviewed two more families but I did not come away from them with the same feelings of desperation that I felt at Gudiya and Neha's home. One family, for instance, was already sending their older daughter to an inexpensive private school. I felt assured that their younger daughter would follow suit.
--Three of my students in Carmel Convent School uniform sweaters--
Although I had noticed school uniforms on some of the children before, I had never given them much thought until today. I asked where all of the Carmel Convent School sweaters and blazers were coming from. I was told that some were donated from the school and some from the employers of sweepers (maids) from the slum. My wish is that some of these special kids will have their own sweaters and uniforms soon.
I went home for lunch and then returned to teach and evaluate some more.
I came away with some good ideas of whom I wanted to give opportunities first. I know that I will probably not be able to help all of them. I will focus on one student at a time to ensure that each who receives my support will have the very best chances of succeeding. All of the sudden, May 1st looks far too close.