The Fellowship of the Ring of Education

They looked weary. This expression was interspersed with a glow that only comes from genuine happiness. It was as if this happiness had become critical to their sense of identity itself.

Not many of us are fortunate enough to experience such emotions. But then again, not many of us make the efforts or the sacrifices that result in something like this. Probably, the glow that I could see so clearly was just an after-effect, so to speak. Probably, the glow that adorned their faces at the end of another tough — as — nails day in their avatar as Teach For India Fellows was the real thing. And what about the superhuman patience they seemed to command at will? What about their voices that had become hoarse for the foreseeable future just by trying to restore a semblance of order to the classrooms that had been allotted to them? What about their gumption to fight all our society’s wrongs at once when only armed with a chalk and a marker and a duster and a board and a few random books? Someday, a top notch psycho/socio/anthro — pologist will study these Fellows and make a discovery that clearly eluded me during the few hours I could spend observing them. Why anyone would put themselves through this ordeal defeats me. Yes, it can accelerate your career, speaking transactionally and yes, it can give you a sense of satisfaction that can’t be matched, speaking transformationally. But if those were the reasons, I don’t think I would have been able to witness the glorious glow on their faces.

At Teach For India’s annual event for their students called League of Learners 2016 held at VJTI in Matunga on 13 March, the kids I was fortunate enough to meet and interact with didn’t seem like ordinary kids. Sure, one common differentiator was that they came from municipal schools and low income schools — schools no Indian parent in his / her mind wants to send their kids to. Govandi, Deonar, Kurla, Dharavi, Malwani, Sion, Malad, Andheri, Mahim… for someone who has been in Mumbai for any length of time, the names of these suburbs evoke a certain kind of thought. It’s hard to put down this thought in words but one could get away by saying that these are the parts of the city that are teeming with the have nots, the underprivileged, the unprivileged, the strugglers, the hand-to-mouthers, the day dreamers, the every hopefuls, the ones who don’t give up. These kids weren’t having any of your stupid despondency at the general state of affairs. Their energy and their enthusiasm was probably better utilized for revving up a nuclear reaction. Their unadorned joy at what was essentially, a day out for them made you wonder if there’s anything at all in your life any more which could make you feel so. They were there to learn and win Mathletics — a team quiz on Mathematics problems and Spellbound — an individual spelling bee event. Every negative emotion, every distraction from the general sense of fun running wild among them was clearly unwelcome. No one told you so; you just knew.

You should have seen some of the Mathletics questions! I am no mug with numbers myself but there were those surreal moments when all the grown ups in the room were scratching their heads and fiddling with their pens to calculate some answer while the kids had pressed the buzzer and shouted the correct answer and hi-fived their team members and hugged anyone within arm’s length already! Most of these kids were not given to useless niceties like being measured in your celebrations and they were not given to wasteful bouts of disappointment when they didn’t answer something correctly or when they didn’t win the semifinals or the finals. There are budding monks and Zen masters who’d kill for a sense of equanimity like that.

They didn’t have any inclination to know their team scores after each round and the fact that the buzzer rounds had negative points didn’t bother them one bit. If they thought that they knew the answer, nothing could stop them from shouting it out loud. If they thought they wanted to just make a random attempt at a question without knowing the answer, if they thought that it’d be a cool idea to solve a question even though it wasn’t for their team, if they thought that they should not listen to their team mates once they were sure of the answer even after repeated exhortations that they should attempt only after protracted internal discussions within the team… you get the gist. There are stand up comedians who’d kill for a sense of confidence like that (and they actually came to find out — watch the video here).

They were all over the pictures that everyone was clicking with their mobile phones at the end of the event. It didn’t matter who out of them had won, they were all posing with the trophies and the medals. If they thought that their team mates had let them down, the world would know because they’d say it out in the open. If they thought another team had done well, the exact same thing would happen. Grown ups are able to be like that, only to some extent, only if they become famous enough to pen their autobiographies. Some fail even then.

I remember my thought progression about these kids as I was in the thick of things that day. These kids are — Rahul Dravid incarnate → Virender Sehwag reborn → Mahendra Singh Dhoni clones. And now, after some reflection, I don’t think it’d be any exaggeration to say that these kids, as of today, are probably the best of what each of these men were.

For the end, imagine once again, the life of someone who is asked to deal with such bundles of energy and such boisterousness on a day — to — day basis. The sceptics say that youth is wasted on the young. That simply isn’t true for these Fellows. There are lesson plans, tests, evaluations, personal attention, remedial classes, difficult chapters, uninformed periods of absence, unplanned bouts of sickness, random festivals and so on and so forth. And the Fellows keep at it. The act of teaching kids doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I think I might have discovered the reason for it. It isn’t possible to imagine or empathize with what a Fellow goes through. And for that itself, these tireless individuals who are making a difference deserve our deepest respects. May the glow get brighter and bigger and better!