For a country reeling under various ills, we’re probably all in agreement that illiteracy is the root cause of our problems. We’re also, paradoxically, a country that prizes education, knowledge and learning. So our educated junta, say, like the OA, sometimes even have two post-graduate degrees. Because we don’t consider it a waste of time. And because for us middle class, bourgeois lot, not having a degree is a matter of shame. All we have to give our kids, is our so-called middle-class values and a good education.
When I was growing up, ‘failures’ in school were looked down upon. It was a convent school and a couple of our classmates were children of the class IV staff. The father of one was our school bus driver, of another, the guard at the school gates. And while they were given the opportunity to study with us, they could barely keep up. Pretty much a misfit in class, I spent a lot of time with these girls who the rest of the class wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. And I enjoyed the time I spent with them. Great girls, other than the inability to keep up with the rest of the class.
At PTA meetings, the class teachers complained to my parents that I was a bright kid who would fare better if I weren’t allowed to mix so much with the ‘failures’. That I must change my seat and my friends to get better marks. I remember making a token attempt at changing my seat and hanging out with the other girls, but it didn’t work out. In retrospect I realise I was a sensitive kid, quick to take offence, ashamed of my shabby skirts, let down twice and very aware of how different I was, in the UP upper caste milieu.
Anyhow, the girls failed again and were asked to leave school. Those were days when we didn’t have email and cellphones and soon I lost touch with most of them. As time went by I grew into myself, made new friends, changed schools and ditched my misfit image with it and was soon Head Girl, on the school magazine editorial board and generally living it up.
But I always did wonder what happened to the kids who were asked to leave. No other school would take them, because they had failed twice in our school. So who took a chance on them? Was that the end of the road? Did they go on to become Class IV staff too?
It all came back to me a few days ago when I was reading up on the Right to Education. How do these poor kids manage? I know that inspite of coming from a family that was far more educated (even my great grandmother was more educated than the mothers of most of my classmates, some of them not even Class X pass), I still felt like an outcast. Children can be cruel and girls can be worse than boys in terms of discrimination. Money talks. Money matters. Skin colour matters, no matter how hard we try to tell our kids otherwise.
It took immense strength, moving to a co-ed school and creating a new image for myself before I truly began to believe in myself. Labels aren’t easily cast off. As I walked the ramp, took the mike at debates, led the school and marched through the city streets carrying the school flag, I grew in my mind. Grew into a person worthy of my own as well as others’ respect.
So how hard, I wonder, will it be for these kids who come from less privileged backgrounds, forced into rich private schools, to sit alongside kids who take their summer holidays in Europe, come to school in Audis and go for piano, ballet and horse riding lessons every week.
I was also pleased to see that a father here, went to court and prevented his daughter from being expelled from school, for failing twice. I don’t want to be unreasonable so I really would like to know why this number has been picked. Why twice? Why not once or thrice or ten times? And what do schools imagine these children will do once they’ve been expelled?
Also – while there is now the right to education, are there enough facilities? Some schools don’t even have water for the kids to drink. There aren’t enough teachers and there are no classrooms, just broken down shacks. On the other hand, I hate to be the voice of doom. Something is definitely better than nothing and I am sure we will soon see each of these problems being tackled. The road ahead looks tough but I respect Kapil Sibal for every positive step he’s taking. He has my vote, every single time.