– Posted by Jasmine Luthra (ASER Centre New Delhi team)
“Was it a happy school?” asked the wise lady. Promptly, without a thought I replied, “No! Of course not. It was anything but happy.” She smiled, looked me in the eye and with great affirmation in her voice said, “You’ll come across one very soon and when you do, write something happy about it.” Riding high on optimism, I bid her goodbye. I could not wait! I was already thinking about the opening lines of what I could possibly write, how I’ll share it with the people I know on my social networks, how they’ll virtually pat me on my back, and the New Yorker would print it.
I was replaying the conversation in my head as I walked towards my training boot-camp in the soaring heat. Despite its brimming prospects, something about that conversation did not seem right. In that 200-meter walk, a hundred questions must have sprung to my mind. “Why was I so hasty with my response?”, “Why did I not give it serious thought?”, “Why did I not consider the good aspects of the school?”, “Was my judgment clouded by my bias and cynicism I tend to have towards government-run institutions?” It all boiled down to one honest query to self: “Was it really not a happy school?”
I tried pushing these thoughts away because it required an honest introspection to answer these questions, of having to accept I am not as neutral and impartial as I’d like to believe. It did not seem easy. But it did not seem right.
The questions kept irking me through the day. Finally, with some reflection and over-analysis of the situation, I could say that I was unfair in answering the wise lady. My judgment was tainted with prejudice. After all, it is much easier to critique what’s missing than to appreciate what’s present.
Earlier that morning, I had visited Kanya Middle School, Sarifaganj. Located in the outskirts of the city, the school was housed in what seemed like a vintage two-storey haveli. However, the structure seemed dilapidated by time and the hustle-and-bustle of its 300 students. The classrooms were dingy, and its walls, bleak. There was a serious space constraint. Standard I and II classes were being conducted in a small courtyard. The other grades shared a large hall. The staircase was broken in places and creaking. The flooring seemed fragile; I would experience some form of an earthquake every time a handful of students stood up or walked around the hall.
In terms of physical inputs, the school was a ship wreck. Yet despite its shortcomings and imperfections, the school had an element which raised its happiness quotient. It was the staff of the school, both teaching and non-teaching. The lack of space or light did not seem to hinder their moods. Our presence in the school did not affect them either. Before we could get started with our assessment activities, they had already started teaching their respective classes.
One of the teachers, who taught Standard I and II, stood out in my memory. During the morning assembly, he took a short session briefing students on the daily news and current affairs. It was the 16th of May, 2014 – the day poll results of 15th Lok Sabha were declared. He informed students of the competing national and regional political parties, prime ministerial candidates, details of the polls and so on, all the while maintaining objectivity in his description. Not once did he let out his personal opinions. I was impressed. My first thought was I wish I had someone like that in my school. It would have saved me the many hours on Wikipedia.
The lady who prepared the mid-day meals at the school was a remarkable person too. Her smiling demeanor was infectious. A special meal was arranged for us on the day of our visit. I was very reluctant to eat. But I could not turn down her sweet, smiling appeals for too long and I am so glad I did not. It was one of the best meals I had on this trip. I was also happy to see that such a loving woman was preparing meals for these kids. It was heart-warming.
The school’s principal: Her sincerity and love for the school were evident in the way she helped the staff make the best of the little resources available in the school. She spoke animatedly with the DIET faculty about improving the infrastructure and other lacking amenities. The government functionaries also applauded her efforts for running the school so smoothly despite its visible constraints.
It was definitely not the perfect school. But it had the potential to be one. With the faculty’s dedicated efforts, classes were being conducted and the students were seen studying, and hopefully learning. I would like to believe that with some external help, these elements could turn the school around.
I think I found my happy school.
Background: This incident took place on one of my recent travels to Patna City. I was one of 120 participants from ASER and Pratham in the grand Chalo Bihar school assessment. I participated in the state-level training of the assessment. This was my first experience of working on a survey of this magnitude and to put it simply, it was overwhelming. There were a few initial glitches but then I soon picked up. I was amazed by the number of things I learnt in that week, not just about the assessment but more about training, engaging the audience, effective communication, planning with precision, envisioning and managing the logistics of such projects. All this was learnt by just observing my colleagues and fellow participants. Then, there are those learnings which form a part of one’s becoming.
This story summarizes one such personal experience.