It was the library period for class 5. The children were all lined up as the librarian distributed books from a pile. I happened to notice Santosh who kept sending others ahead and falling back in the line. When he got his book, he jumped up and cheered! Aah! He was waiting for the only colourful book in the pile of books and he got it! That’s when I realized the importance of attractive, colourful books for children – be it children from the cities or children from tribal hinterlands with whom I currently work. “Where are all the tinkle digests or Amar chitra katha books we read as children?” I thought.
Let me rewind a bit about how I got here.
It was just another evening. I was on the bus back home, dozing off, much like the other corporate job holders on my bus. It was the same grind every day. Wake up. Put on formals. Commute two hours. Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, e-mails. Commute again. Dinner. Sleep. Repeat.
My phone buzzed. It was my husband, Anand, talking about a fellowship programme he had just heard about. I had been looking for alternate options for a while. I was unhappy with this daily grind that gave me close to no satisfaction. After all, what difference was I making to anyone? With or without me, my company, a global MNC, would go on. I was just a brick in the wall. I wanted to do something that I liked doing. This option seemed interesting. More genuine than most other options I’d seen.
SBI Youth for India fellowship – a chance to work in a village, on a project of your choice for one year. It seemed exciting and I jumped right into it after a slight tug of war with my parents and in laws.
I now live in a village in Odisha, far away from the hustle and bustle of Bangalore, my home town. I work with tribal children at a residential school run by an NGO called Gram Vikas. The school has about 500 children who made me fall in love with them right from day one, always eager and quick to learn and in the process, unconsciously teaching the world how to love unconditionally.
Initially, I sang with them, danced and played games, simply to bond with them. Now, we continue to do the same – learn songs, watch videos, dance, play games, read stories, tell stories and in the process, learn English. Earlier, like many others, I was of the opinion that no language should be forced upon students. However, as I spent more time here, I realised the importance of being able to read, write and comprehend English comfortably. Most students know how to read and write in English, but they don’t understand a word of what they’re writing.
This is a problem, because it is rather unfortunate that almost all educational options post Class X, have English as the medium of instruction. Since the students don’t easily comprehend the language, they eventually fall through and give up studying further altogether. I was recently speaking to Siba, a boy who fared well in class X and he said ‘Didi, I want to do a diploma in engineering but would not be able to do so because my English is not good!’ I could not believe that a language could be barrier to their dreams!
To try and change that trend, I am currently helping students learn English. I’m also helping teachers teach English more effectively. It’s nice to see that they now enjoy learning the language they were once afraid of! The students have also shown me that this need not be a one-way route. They teach me Odia and I teach them English. They learn English and I show them a video in return!
Thanks to some generous donors, I was able to get some good story books for the school. I had left the box outside the office before I took it to the library. Before I knew it, half the school was crowded around the books. It was so good to see little kids pick up Panchatantra and Jataka tales by themselves and try to read them.
Apart from English, I am also helping students learn Maths better; with the use of Math manipulatives that help students learn elementary mathematical concepts better and discourages rote learning.
While working with these children, who are mostly first generation learners, my biggest realisation has been that children everywhere have the same potential; only the opportunities and platforms available to them are different. If these children can be given the right opportunity, they are pretty much invincible. This experience has given me a whole new perspective about many things in life and is also helping me shape what I want to do in future – I aspire to work in the field of education by helping strengthen government schools.
Sunayana is currently a fellow with the SBI Youth for India fellowship. She has completed her MBA (HR) from SIBM, Pune and BE from NIT Suratkal and has worked with the IT industry for about 5 years. You can read more about her journey here.