Who will teach the teachers to see the hunger for learning in these bright sparks?

“I am not sure, what is it that I want to do when I grow up… I don’t know… maybe I’ll get a job of some sort… or may be I will drive the camel cart, like my father… I am not sure at all, but I am not thinking about it…” As his voice died out, 10-year-old Ratan turned his spectacularly bright eyes to the ground. It hurt to hear the despair in his voice. I guess I’d be equally worried if he had said that he wanted to grow up and be an astronaut. But that would have been a worry mixed with hope rather than despair. Ratan lives in a small village called Sankhda, about 80 kilometers from the small touristy town of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. Here, people have lived for generations with very little water, surrounded as they are with sand dunes, and miles of barren land punctuated by occasional patches of fields irrigated by ground water.

Later, at night, I lay outside my tent staring at the stars for a long time. It was a spectacular sight. There is hardly any light pollution in this part of the world to ‘dim’ the brightness of the stars. The celestial bright sparks kept reminding me of all the bright sparks I had seen in the eyes of children earlier in the day. Sure, I saw many a dull eye too, but Ratan or Devi or Kavita … these were unusual bright sparks – perhaps more like the shooting stars that I invariably see when I spend time gazing at the starlit sky.

Kavita clearly stood out, not only because she had this glow on her face of an exceptionally bright person, a person full of positive energy, intelligence and enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, because she was perhaps the only child I had met that day who had clean hair. Her clothes were not expensive, but they were clean and I could not see any signs of wear and tear that were so visible everywhere. Clearly she was from a better off family – relatively speaking, of course. I wonder if she stands a better chance of getting to high school, or go to the city for college. Perhaps she will not get pulled out of school like Vidya (how ironic, given her name) to look after her new-born baby brother, because her mother had to tend the fields. Perhaps Vidya should simply be happy that she is alive – given the infant mortality rates for girl children in Rajasthan.

I am fairly certain that if you took a Ratan or a Kavita, shampoo-ed their hair and clothed them nicely and got them into a fancy public school in Delhi, a passer-by wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, provided they were not talked to in English. Like an average public-school child they are not particularly fond of their teachers and look forward to the recess and the lunch break, which they consider the most important part of the schooling process; perhaps the only thing that makes going to school worth the effort.

It doesn’t help that most government teachers are motivated more by the lure of the lucre than any zeal for knowledge or learning. Consider Sudhir, a Jaisalmer resident. He has an MA degree, notwithstanding the fact that he cannot write one straight sentence in any known language. He has been attempting to clear the teacher’s entrance exam every year for the last five years. He plaintively listed out his misfortunes. “I am a Brahmin you see, therefore I get left out, many of my friends from college, who are not even ‘very smart’, but because they are SC (Scheduled Caste) have managed to get in, and now have a cushy job. If you get good marks you can become First Grade teacher and get upto 15,000 Rupees. Best of all, there is not much work.”

No wonder, the students don’t actually learn much at school and have no qualms in openly stating that they don’t understand anything in class. Interestingly, the teachers too have given up on the children. Their standard comment for their students: “they are just are not interested in working hard.”

These ‘bright sparks’ don’t have what it takes? Then who does? Beats me. Sure they are disadvantaged – their parents are often not educated and do not realize the possibilities that a good education could open for a child. They do not have the money to buy good supplemental materials for their children. And, yes, often the children do not see the point of studying – they do not find it enjoyable, nor do they see any future up-side. Not without good reason: they have not seen anyone from their cultural surrounding go out and reap the benefits of a good education.

I sympathize with the people who take upon themselves the task to solve the rural primary education puzzle. On a bad day, I wonder if a few pieces of the puzzle are altogether missing and therefore unsolvable. But one thing appears to be clear – the current breed of teachers is neither willing to nor capable of fixing this. An intervention to change the ‘teacher’ is certainly a worthy cause, but appears to be a long term therapy for a patient in the ER. Perhaps the best bet is to appeal to the child’s inherent desire to learn, explore, discover… but who will do it if not the teacher? Who will make the difference that is desperately needed?

Photographs and text © Ajay Jaiman.

Article first published in Tehelka August 20, 2005

First published on August 8, 2005
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