ByÂ Aman Venkateswaran:
There is no shortage of laws in our country to protect children; to make sure that they are included in society in a positive way. There is a law against child labour, against child beggary, and an act for free education. Yet, we only have to look around to see the conditions in which children live and how they are exploited.
There are many organisations that work with underprivileged children; towards their inclusion in society. Some support academics, others introduce arts and sports while others provide employment opportunities. They all have the same overall objective: to provide the input that will build the skills of disadvantaged children so they can lead better lives.
My work with a couple of such initiatives, working with street children or those in extremely impoverished situations, led me to think about such interventions. I have realised that there are no quick fixes to inclusion. It is not about a particular skill or education or counselling. It is about all of these. The more privileged amongst us are able to understand and use the mathematics, physics, history and other subjects that we learn only when we have a certain confidence and feel good about ourselves. For children, whose lives are so complex and difficult, the psychological-social link becomes even more important. Can teaching children only a skill or art or sport; or education in itself, shift their thinking patterns, and therefore their action? And I wonder if their thinking and actions cannot be influenced, how can a meaningful change in life happen with an academic lesson or skill? A sport or art is perhaps only a tool through which a connection can be made with another person, and broader lessons learnt. Can the sport or art be an end in itself?
I have been teaching music to some children who had formerly lived on the streets. I have also been involved in starting a cricket league with children who came from very poor homes. The music lessons and the cricket league went well. Most children enjoyed the music sessions which they learnt well; the cricket league was a big success. In fact, several children from the home where I taught music would gather when a ‘class’ was in session. The music classes created a happy environment. There was an assumption that these would be a useful introduction to their lives; provide an opportunity that otherwise they may not have. That assumption seemed certainly true; it introduced a new art, opportunity for entertainment, values of competition and discipline. But what I sadly found through some of my experience was that introducing an art or sport, though very valuable in itself, was not always changing deeper thought processes. If anything, it was my own thinking and perspective that changed much more as a result of these interactions.
I wondered if making a difference in someone’s life, working towards including them in society in a positive way, would need a deeper understanding of their life context than what we attempt to do. For example, enabling children who have lived on the streets, to learn and use a skill, probably first requires processing many of the influences from the life on streets that have become a part of them. After all, we ourselves learn better from teachers that we connect with, and less so from teachers that we do not connect with.
It needs something beyond the particular teaching agenda to understand who the person is, where they are coming from and why they think or act in a certain way. It needs an approach that first makes them feel better about themselves, before imparting knowledge or a skill. Could this really be done by breezing in and out of their lives?