On The Subject of Education

Milana Venegoni - India


December 16, 2019

    So much has happened in such a short amount of time that I haven’t had time to document anything beyond a few quick snapshots on my phone and memories etched into my brain. 

     It’s now December and I’ve been in-country for three months. I’ve had one learning seminar, a handful of regional reconnects, and countless rickshaw drives. I’ve spent holidays here, made friends, made mistakes, overcome obstacles and seemingly lost any semblance of a daily routine. I do one scheduled activity a day and the rest spontaneously happens. The days seem to blur together here in a blend of color and chaos that I cannot begin to describe. One has to experience it for yourself. To accurately talk about living in India is difficult. I’ve adjusted so much to the culture in the past few months that I am now used to the seemingly endless paradox that is mainland India. 

     Let’s talk about the most important thing in my life right now: Education:

     I started working for Teach for India two weeks after the plane touched down in Mumbai. Usually Global Citizen Year stations two fellows in one school, but thanks to delayed visas my GCY partner, Brianna, would not arrive for another month. I was placed as a teaching assistant under a teacher named Rohini, who I had the pleasure of meeting less than 12 hours before I was scheduled to start working at the school. She informed me that I would be working as a TA under her for a class of about 80 6th standard students (6th grade for the Americans out there), and I would be teaching English, History, Civics, and Geography. Occasionally I could hop around the school and work with another TFI instructor for the day. Seemed nice, simple, done. 

I arrived at my assigned school around 8:10 in the morning, after attempting to find the place for a solid 30 minutes and got confused when I found the location, but I didn’t see a school. Instead I saw what would be considered back in the USA, a condemned building. 

     We had been given grim statistics the day before. More than 90% of people in India did not complete a 12 grade education. Around 80% of that 90% leave at around 6th to 8th standard to pursue vocational work because their families cannot afford to pay for school. The government of India only guarantees public schooling until 7th standard. After that, high schools and beyond are completely privatized. Public schools do not exist past elementary/middle school. Since education is highly profitable and privatized in India, there is not much, if any, funding going into public schools due to both “mismanagement” of funds and a lack of wanting to invest in children who are labeled as “just going to drop out anyway”. 

    None of those statistics and researched facts prepared me for being in that environment. 

Now three months into working at a government school, I am inclined to say that the kids I am teaching here in my rundown class are some of the sharpest kids I’ve ever met in terms of intellectual ability. They’re quick, they’re bright, they are hilarious, and they would be offered scholarships to attend private schools in the United States. They are capable and have an enormous capacity for learning. 

    As wonderful as they are, I was dismayed to learn that they can’t read or speak fluently in their mother tongue; that they have issues with basic mathematics, and they score 2 correct out of 40 on their tests. 

    I asked Rohini about the class during my first meeting with her and she mentioned that the students I was teaching had been without a teacher for 3 years. No substitute, no other teacher coming in and maintaining the class. They were just on their own to study for three school years. 

    Just yesterday, December 11th 2019, I did something with Rohini called a community visit. We went into an area where a couple of our students live to visit their home, talk to their family about the child’s situation in school and life outside of the school, eat some poha, and leave. I have very strong conflicting feelings about visiting a poor area. At war with each other were my vehement distast of the concept of slum tours, versus the idea that I needed to make this visit in order to expand my knowledge of my community’s circumstances, high and low. I ended up writing in my notebook until school had let out, finally finding the root of my problem through my many ramblings. 

    In order to avoid dehumanizing my students and the community I was preparing to walk into, I would need to remove my bias and gain an objective opinion. I needed to make sure that my experience growing up would not negatively influence my view regarding how my students were living. However, removing bias from this experience in order to make it purely objective would be treating it like a research topic and the people as subjects and not human beings. The best thing I could do in this situation would be to think positive, lead with an open mind, and completely change my thoughts and bias surrounding the concept of poverty in India. Forty-five minutes later and my psyche completely dismantled, I was ready to walk to the first house.

    The first house I visited was what people from the western community would point out as a “slum house”:  a metal shack, no door, and not two feet away from the entrance of the house, a construction site. This is where one of my favorite students had lived for almost his whole life.       

     Sitting down, we were not offered anything to eat or to drink, a once in a lifetime experience in India, seeing as the second we had guests in our household my host family would rush to feed them something. My suspicions of this boy’s home life was confirmed once we talked to his aunt. He had always looked a little too small, too skinny at school and now I knew the reason behind it when Rohini asked him if his parents knew that he didn’t eat lunch. The aunt, the only adult of my students family present, commented that he didn’t eat breakfast or dinner either because they couldn’t afford it. The kid, who’s name I refuse to disclose, looked uncomfortable the entire time we were there, even though his excitement was contagious not 20 minutes before we were set to leave for his home.

    The second home I went to was an apartment, nicely kept but sparse. The child at that home is also a boy, but much more rambunctious than the first student. Let’s call him Jerry. Jerry had had a tendency in school to get into trouble. Despite that he still had excellent grades and a positive attitude. His two much older brothers hovered around Rohini and I until they decided to join in on the conversation we were having with Jerry’s mother. The two brothers, both going to college, which I can only assume is why the parents couldn’t pay tuition for a private school for Jerry, both revealed to us that Jerry’s track record for causing trouble at school carried over to his community: he was an 11 year old menace on the streets of Warje. Apparently, Jerry had a gang of 15-20 year olds that he would “hang out with”, buying cigarettes and alcohol for them. According to the brothers, Jerry was also dad’s favorite, and dad allowed him to run wild and play PUBG (a battle royale video game), on his phone for hours on end. 

    Leaving the community to which I had just bared witness, the mixed emotions I had were bombarding me so heavily that I didn’t have time to properly process any of them until long after I arrived home. 

     I still can’t fully express my thoughts and feelings regarding the impact of these two visits. I need time to unpack it fully and settle with it. Until then, my answer remains that I do not wish to present any further information beyond the present commentary. 

    All in all, the experience I had yesterday wasn’t uncommon according to Rohini, and while I am hopeful that I can perform more community visits while in India, it is disheartening to realize that I have children with so much potential, stuck in place for wildly different reasons. 

    If you are considering becoming a future fellow and you are reading this blog, please understand this: India is a wonderful and fascinating country. The lights at night shimmer, and the chaos of the streets is so vibrant and alive as to be amazing. India is in and of itself a paradox: with the negatives there are positives, and India has a magical way of balancing itself out.

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(The Entrance to My School on a Monday Morning) 

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(A Garden) 

Milana Venegoni