A bonsai tree, short and stunted, maybe a copy of the original but is a mere dwarfed shadow of it nonetheless. Mohammad Yunus, once compared the bonsai plant to the untapped potential of the underprivileged that his Grameen Bank sought to tap into and promote. His imagery sent my mind whirling to the under- privileged children of the primary school classes I taught at.
These children possess the same potential as their high -income counterparts; they are the same seed with similar potential for growth, but for the soil: the soil makes all the difference. The bonsai child is at the outset forced into a restrictive pot of conformity and depravity, unfit for her dreams, limiting her growth. She initially draws desperately from the soil seeking the nourishment of encouragement and love to grow. She doesn’t give up. Blocked from the direct sunlight of opportunities she grows, dreaming of what lies beyond the shadows, hearing the taller trees around whisper of it in excitement. She wonders and with the sprinkling of hope she grows more. Slowly the years pass on, the soil soon has exhausted the supply of nourishing environment and now sterile it begins to hinder her progress. She looks around to notice how slow her pace is. Our little seed concludes she isn’t fit to be in this race. She is not capable. It’s her fault she can’t dream. Ridden with self —pity and guilt she settles to accept her state. Her hope withers away, “reality” strikes and in the draught of hope she stops growing. And she remains stunted, untapped, a shadow of who she may have been. Her fate had been determined the day she was planted in her pot.
Imagine a scenario where this child is transferred from her current conditions into an open field, one that is conducive to her learning. Imagine the joy she will get at finding the support and environment she craves for, the opportunities she now sees with clarity and slowly she begins to believe she can achieve. Her restrictions are removed and she flourishes, thriving in her renewed self —belief and hope! A teacher can play this transformative role, putting her on a different path, one she rightfully deserves.
This is where it all begins, in our classrooms- The corruption, bureaucracy, one —upmanship. Walk into any under resourced school and you’ll see the disparity playing out. Where one child is pitched against another, where she is constantly reminded of her background and inevitability of it, where she is kept unawares of the opportunities that await her, where her aspirations are rarely spoken about, where she spirals into oblivion, one of many, lost and unrealized. She then begins to act up, her frustrations coming through as disinterest, violence, abusive language, poor attendance and finally, dropping- out. She has given up. It is striking how similar these signs are across schools, across age groups as I have seen both as a teacher and as a mentor to teachers supporting these children. Its widespread nature is heart-rending and worrying! The future of our children and our nation is withering away within the peeling walls of our classrooms!
This is where it all could begin, in our classrooms. Responsible citizenship, creative solutions, integrity in character, hope in spirit, nation —building. A transformative teacher will imbibe these cultures in the soil of her open field; she would perform the painfully difficult task of making the children aware of their restrictive growth and supplant them into rightful soil. She would then expose them to undiluted light of opportunities, shower them with belief in their potential, pay attention to their interest, cultivate life-long values and equip them with skills to actualize their dreams. She would dream with them and make that little seedling enjoy its journey of growth, thirsting for more in order to better itself. The child will now have complete freedom to determine her fate!
If you want to uproot our society off its evils, walk into a classroom and start teaching. Make it a movement. Our inherent desire for change is evident in the mass support the Lokpal bill is generating. Make it tangible, concrete and lasting. TEACH!
Teaching has, unfortunately, become our bonsai profession, a last resort for those with failed opportunities. We are, at this juncture, caught in a vicious cycle of demand and supply. Pay packages are low, so supply of transformative teachers is low and given poor quality, pay is low. Break the cycle, Increase supply of high quality performers, create a trend and the aspiration will follow. Let us have a movement of high quality teachers flood the municipal schools. The job market will change. All it needs is initiative and passion. Let us make teaching Aspirational. We should be proud to have a member of our family teach and mould the lives of our children. Why should it be any different from serving in the army or saving lives as a doctor? It is as noble a profession.
We need to step forward and play an active role in helping our underprivileged children actualize their dreams. India’s future depends on it or we run the danger of becoming a Bonsai nation with a majority of tomorrow’s youth, the workforce and the manpower of our nation living an unrealized potential.
Madhumita Subramanian is a Program Manager at Teach For India, a national movement of young leaders to end educational inequity in India. She taught for 2-years, full-time at Pant Nagar Municipal School in Mumbai as a part of Teach For India’s first cohort of Fellows (2009-2011).