"Sathya k" liye.

It all started on a Monday evening; it had been raining all day, very typical of Bangalore weather in September. It was my first day at Mygola and I was deep in guilt for saying no to a teaching fellowship in Ladakh. Wrapping up some work hastily, I came down to the portico to find my uber. That was the first time I saw her, a dark timid girl, seemingly engrossed in her homework, oblivious to the noise and the gloomy weather. I just stood still and observed her from the porch, hesitant to make a conversation. But then I saw what she was reading and couldn’t resist. She was reading one of my favourite science chapters from grade 5. I asked her a few questions, subconsciously in Hindi. She just stared at my face impassively. Feeling silly, I thought “how would she know Hindi, I must ask her in English!” And I did so, only to discover that she still didn’t react to anything I said. Then I asked her name reluctantly, reasoning that she must be shy. Sathya K, she promptly answered. I grinned and asked her to come to my desk on the second floor around 5, if she needed any help with her studies.

Next day, in the myriad of responsibilities, I forgot the offer I had made and didn’t really prepare for the class. But there she was, sharp at 5pm, trying to explain the guard that she’s come for me. She had brought all her textbooks and we skimmed through them together, one subject at a time. As we moved along, I kept asking her questions but soon I realised that she didn’t understand much of what was being taught to her. What amazed me the most was the fact that her handwriting was lucid, chapters all complete and notebooks full of positive remarks. It took me some time to fathom that this girl was a master of writing and had a knack of copying from the board without understanding a word. When I asked her to say the alphabets, she didn’t know what it meant. I was stunned to find that she not only lacked the ability to solve complex problems but also was uncomfortable with the basic principles of subjects. I felt helpless and requested her to go home and come again the next day.

What followed was a sleepless night filled with anguish, wonder, disgust, empathy, and hope, all at once. Sathya was studying in a very reputed school in Bangalore despite her parents working as low-income servants in the office premise. It didn’t take me long to discern that she must be admitted as a part of a govt scheme supporting poor parents.The thought of irresponsible teachers and their hopeless attitude towards poor students infuriated me. Shouldn’t schools ensure that learning happens irrespective of student's background? It’s not rare to find such cases in India but we often ignore them or bury our guilt by indulging in some charitable work. But not this time. I had to do something about it. How could I face her everyday, smile at her, knowing where she’ll be and what she’ll do in a few years? I definitely did not want her to end up doing a menial job under someone. And this motivation was enough to get me started.

The first few steps should have been easy, right? I mean how difficult could it be to teach alphabets to a ten year old. I had prior experience in teaching English to students whose first language wasn’t English and I thought I’d be able to replicate the same teaching methods. But as it turns out, she wasn’t even familiar with the sound of the alphabets. I asked a colleague to explain it to her in her native language but she wasn’t familiar with that either. Man, was I angry. Despite my various attempts, I couldn’t get her to learn the alphabets. The day went by without much progress.

We tried again for the next few days. I made her write the alphabets until she internalised them. We went through numerous alphabet picture books till she could associate each alphabet with a word. I wanted her to picture a word every time she thought of an alphabet. One of my colleagues helped me translate words in her first language so that she could relate to things in her everyday life. In a month or so she could read and write alphabets and say their corresponding sounds.

Sathya learning alphabets

One day she brought along a friend called Chithra, the daughter of an ironwallah who lived nearby. Chithra, although from Kannada medium school, was very bright and grounded in her basics. She was able to teach Sathya in a manner I never could. This reinforced the importance of peer-to-peer learning modules and the need to understand concepts in one’s mother tongue.

The next few lessons focused on combining sounds. First came short two and three letter one-syllable words. I made her practice words that have a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern, such as CAT or DOG. Slowly, we moved to learning sight words and other rhyming words. Seeing her slow progress often made me hopeless and wanting to give up, but that just worsened the guilt. And the guilt drove me crazy! It made me work harder until the day she could finally read words.

Sathya learning words

The most difficult part was sourcing the study material. I spent long hours searching for printable kindergarten worksheets and study lessons. There just weren’t enough resources to rely on. A lot of times I had to prepare the questions on my own.

There were also days when I had to send her back. She’d be at the door, books piled in her hand, waiting for me to teach the day’s lesson, and I’d ask her to come the next day. I always had some urgent work to deliver or some gathering to attend which were omissible. I felt horrible, every single time. This often led to her being uninterested and irregular.

As a design thinker, I thought of approaching this problem in a human centric manner. It could be lack of intrinsic motivation that kept her from doing the homework and completing the assignments in time. So I tied her performance with incentives. I bought her some nice stationary to add colour to the notebooks. I took her to McDonalds when she learned the alphabets, she tasted her first burger ever and the look on her face stole my heart. I visited her one-room home in the basement and observed that she studies on the floor causing her back to hunch at all times so I bought her a study table the next day. I bought her a watch the day she learnt numbers and addition. I realised that doing these little things kept her motivated at all times.

Teaching has taught me that children aren’t afraid or ashamed of making mistakes. I am humbled by their faith in teachers. It has taught me immense patience. I realised I had an opportunity to touch her life and to possibly improve it.

It all started with guilt and ended with hope. Guilt of having said no before. Hope of creating an impact. I want her to read, so that she knows her rights. I want her to count, so that no one can ever take advantage of her. I want her to have a future, one where she makes informed decisions in her life. I want to conquer this system of privilege, where not everyone has equal opportunities.