There’s something really special going on at Gram Vikas Residential School, Kankia. Schools usually are arenas of controlled chaos, sometimes not so controlled. This school, with over five hundred children of the ages six to fifteen, all of whom live on campus, is quietly doing something really spectacular. So wondrous, and yet so unobtrusive that it’s almost too easy to miss.
The school has students and teachers. All schools do, right? What’s so particularly grand about that? Here, though, the school has only students and teachers (and cooks, who keep us alive). That’s it. No administrative personnel, no non-teaching staff, no cleaners, no washermen or women, no gardeners, and no guards. Nobody to pick up garbage after you. Nobody to wash your clothes. Nobody to clean your rooms and bathrooms. Nobody to wash your plates after meals. No specialists to maintain finances. Nobody to dust the staircases.
But I’m wrong. When I say nobody, what I really mean is nobody else. All the activities of daily life – the essential and the peripheral, the mundane and the extraordinary – are being taken care of by the children themselves. The amount of self-discipline these kids display on a regular basis is staggering. They wake up by 5.30 am, willingly, mind you, and clean the campus. That’s right; all grounds, pathways, gardens, buildings, hostel rooms, bathrooms and the mess hall. Most of them are not even teenagers, and they do this with a cheerfulness that leaves me saturated with joy and envious at the same time. There’s grumbling, for sure, but it is good-natured and pretty much a right of all students who have ever lived on campus. These kids even fix broken motors and make it look so cool that every other kid wants to have a go!
Each meal is a microcosm of the self-reliance that is part of the school’s culture. Children begin by cleaning the mess hall. It’s quick and efficient, and the responsibility is rotated among the kids. Then they queue up, laughing and jostling each other, for food which is also being served by students. Having got their share, they sit down, without being prompted or heckled, in neat rows. They eat, without wasting a morsel of food, and then they clean their plates and leave. When all kids have eaten, another group of students cleans up the hall. And all this happens with minimal supervision.
Most meals, I forget to eat and just watch this extraordinary routine unfold. It’s a privilege to be living here.
The author is an SBI Youth for India Fellow, currently working with the NGO Gram Vikas in Odisha.