When the ordinary inspires

– Posted by Purnima Ramanujan (ASER Centre – New Delhi)
Participants at the district training in Nawada

My work at ASER Centre routinely takes me to places afar, especially the rural hinterland. So my colleagues and I are accustomed to periodically disappearing from the lives of our friends and family, often for months on end. We’re also accustomed to training audiences whose backgrounds are as diverse as the country we belong to. Not only is the audience before us diverse in terms of the socio-cultural milieu they belong to but also in terms of age and experience. 

The reason I bring up the ‘age’ card is because the apparent gaps in age and experience can lead to its own set of peculiar and hilarious experiences on the field. At best, an audience of older participants will look askance at the idea of being trained by men and women seemingly many years their junior. At worst, the participants will adopt a condescending attitude and become difficult to work with. While I’ve been fortunate to not have a terrible training story to tell, my recent experience in Bihar deserves to be heard. I was stationed in Nawada district as part of the ASER/Pratham team conducting the Bihar School Assessment. DIET students, along with Cluster and Block Resource Centre Coordinators (CRCCs and BRCCs), formed the group of participants who would be conducting this assessment in the district. While the DIET students were of college-going age, the BRCCs and CRCCs were primarily male in the age group of 35-55 years.
After introductions, I laid down the house rules. But this typically falls on deaf ears, and every time order was replaced by a cacophony of voices, I’d raise my hands in exasperation lamenting that I did not possess super powers to discern each individual voice. Other times I felt like a school teacher screaming down at a class of unruly children, and then sheepishly apologising for it. And I must admit that the results of my efforts were visible by the end of Day 2 (else I would’ve lost my voice with all of the shouting!). I noticed participants waiting for their colleagues to finish speaking, and not just wait, but raise their hands if they had something to say!
Anyway, over the four days of training, we did what we were supposed to: got to the trainings early to prepare for the day, ensure that everyone had eaten before we did, sit in smaller groups and conduct clarification rounds, and see everyone off at the end of the day with constant reminders to be on time the next day. We also had our share of fun with discussions that went beyond the immediate assessment. All this was routine and I wouldn’t for a moment have thought what we were doing was anything out of the ordinary. But (and there is always a but), in the words of Bertrand Russell “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” It wasn’t till the last day of training that I found out just how alien the whole experience had been for the participants.
Through the day, as I went back and forth between the office and the training hall, participants came up to me, thanking me for coming to their district and working with them on such an important project. My initial reaction was to ask them to not thank me since I was just doing my job.
At lunch, Vandana, a 1st year DIET student sat down with me and asked me my story. Her eyes widened with excitement and a bit of apprehension when I described the amount of travelling involved in my job. After exchanging numbers and telling her to call if ever she wanted to, she left saying that that she would remember me for being a fearless woman, for shouting down a room full of men and that she’d like to be like me. (Author’s note: Not sure if I’d like to be remembered like that but I suppose if it inspires someone then it’s for the best, right?).

Ranjan Kapoor (above); Vandana (below)

Ranjan Kapoor, a CRCC went a step further to elaborate. He commented on our team’s energy and enthusiasm, about how over the four days of training, we never sat down for more than a few minutes at a time; that we’d have a smile at the end of the day, that to see a young girl so far away from home and in complete control of and comfortable in her new surroundings was extremely inspiring. According to him, we had provided a measure of motivation that ideally needed to come from top-level officials but was either missing or only available in spurts.
At ASER and Pratham, we pride ourselves on having a solution-driven approach and keeping things simple. Getting disillusioned and frustrated at the state of affairs and the apathy of policy makers, teachers, the system or even parents is a professional hazard of working in the education/development sector. But we try and focus on the things that we can do and take each day as it comes.
What I’m trying to say is this: If by doing what we do, and doing it well, we can individually inspire others to do the same: to not get bogged down by the daily pressures and mundanity of life and work, keep the larger picture in sight, take each day as it comes and to put our best foot forward (with a smile if possible) – then I think we’ve covered half the distance to our goals. The rest, as they say, shall follow (albeit slowly).