My young friends, I am going to share a few stories and anecdotes with you. When the latest ASER report comes out, for some, it will be a lot of data on the ordinariness and problems within our education and governance systems. But if you all carry back the real stories from real people, this will bring believability and humanity to it. It will make many more people, some very powerful ones, holding, high positions, take note and say this is very important. They will ask “ What can I do to make this better? Tell me.”
In the early years, when ASER started, we were in the North-East regions of India. Travelling through the jungles of Tripura, tea gardens of upper Assam, the hills of Meghalaya and the river banks of Siang. It was great fun to catch a bus, hitch hike on a truck or a tractor, ride a boat or simply trek to reach a village on a map. But the best part was getting to meet the kids. One winter day, when we were in Tura in hilly Meghalaya, a young boy walked passed us with his water cart. I asked him “you are working hard, when do you play?” He told me holidays come only after the paddy is harvested because in hilly Tura these are the only flat surfaces where they can play football! Rest of the days they work hard for the harvest. Sometime later I was in Darjeeling on a Dassain holiday. Every kid was getting ready to play or watch the local club football play in the village ground and no one agreed to read till the match got over. Trying to get the children interested, we honestly, told them that we will make a big report that even Bhaichung Bhutia will read! Suddenly all the kids seemed interested! Smarting up, we led with football stories in the villages in Tripura but in wet rainy Tripura when the sky turns clear and blue in winters all the kids wanted to talk about was kite flying.
Pratham has incredible people. Mr Wunga of Churachandpur in Manipur is one such remarkable person who I met while working on ASER. He runs a popular school in the state, but he became like a friend, always helping us and taking care of us. One evening he spoke to us about the dark difficult days of tribal strife in Manipur. He narrated the story of the time when his community church appealed to its members, who didn’t have kids, to adopt those orphaned in the violence. When Mr Wunga and his wife went to pick up the kid they had selected, the child, Robin, was holding his two young siblings tightly and Mr Wunga adopted all the three kids.
Equally amazing were the experiences of meeting the young volunteers who do the survey every year. Once, after a difficult training and logistics session with some college teachers, we had gone to a village with young students of Loretto college in Darjeeling for the demonstration. One group of the students had not reached back at the meeting point till late evening, Panicked we finally found them still surveying the hilly scattered village. On our way back through the hilly scary road this young girl, Lillete, told me “we had to go to the other side to cover every fifth house because I remembered you saying that the only way this data will be used if we honestly test the kids and maintain the random sampling of every five house. So we had go to the other side to maintain the sampling plan so these kids don’t miss out on any program that you may plan later. I could just marvel at the dedication of these youngsters.
ASER has allowed me to reflect on my work and ask questions – why is it that a not so fluent reader child clutches the test paper so tightly till he finishes? Is it because no one in our classrooms ever gives him the attention and asks him to read. How do I convince a dropped out adolescent child living in abject poverty to pick up a book again because in a few years his life can dramatically change? What can be the turning point moment in the lives of these young women and men when they think that all the tedious routine, hard work is worth fighting for? How do I tell a generous school teacher, skeptical of allowing us in school, that children’s learning is collected not to blame them for failures but to use them for real learning…
So enjoy the travels, make friends and get inspired. More importantly reflect on your own work because after many years these questions and experiences will motivate you to pick up a research article, study further , work in a school or just show off your bravado.
All the best.
Part of ASER Survey from 2005 to 2009 North East,Darjeeling and Uttar Pradesh And Programme - Uttar Pradesh