It was Lao Tzu, who said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Somebody else said that the journey is the destination. But these were not the thoughts when I set out for Nashik, on our way to conduct tests in a couple of Ashram schools on the outskirts of Nashik. At that moment, travelling to Nashik, by train, it was just the destination that bore large on my mindscape. Had heard about the schools from my colleague, Martin, who was handling the LeapForWord-Tata Trusts Ashram School project. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. So here I was, or actually, here we were, my two colleagues and I, set out from Mumbai by the Gitanjali Express.
That day, we were to conduct tests in two out of the 11 schools that we were given by Tata Trusts to cover as part of our English Literacy Program. There were many things for us to validate – from the teachers’ teaching effectiveness to how to pace out the course in the remaining time-frame available to us, to how did the kids fare. But actually we learnt more than that. Isn’t that how it always is…
It was also to know what were the conditions our colleagues worked in while on field, what were the challenges faced, but as I just said, many a times one ends up learning all that and then some more…
After quickly fortifying ourselves with some nourishing, tasty home-made food made by a colleague’s mom, we set off to our first destination, Mundhegaon, a village in Igatpuri taluka. The weather was cool and the roads were good, making the 30+ kms ride look effortless… well, at least from the pillion seat it looked so. Am sure my colleagues driving their respective two-wheeler, echoed this pillion rider’s sentiment.
The teachers and the children at Mundhegaon were waiting for us, Martin having intimated them beforehand. And the first glimpse of an Ashram school left me feeling good, even though the surrounding was sparse in terms of infrastructure viewed from the eyes of a city-dweller. Open spaces, big, airy classrooms and two children sharing a desk seemed a good place to begin with. Entering the classrooms only increased that good feeling… colourful charts, artworks done by children and a chorus of welcoming kids, all added to the welcoming feel that we got from the place.
Expectant faces, some looking forward to taking the tests, others with somber faces as if some bad news was a certainty. Teachers in their eagerness to see their wards perform well, were inadvertently helping them by giving the answers. Such over-zealousness we (including the children) could surely have done without.
We divided ourselves in pairs and covered the two classrooms in good time. Work done, we set to leave for our next and last stop but no visit is complete without a customary photo opportunity. And when the subjects are children, there’s little need for prodding… so we had very complying subjects, assembled in no time, faces breaking into happy smiles, teeth gleaming even in the hot sun. This is one of the unspoken joys of our work… engaging with children – who are unaffected and innocence personified. Speaking with them, learning of their dreams, gave us an added impetus to our work, making it more meaningful than it already was.
Quite near to Mundhegaon was our next stop, Shenwad… another Ashram residential school. School changed, location changed, teachers changed but what remained a constant were the enthusiastic children who greeted us and posed for us on their school steps and elsewhere. This school had colourful classrooms, basic math concepts painted on floors – multiplication tables, geometric shapes and even grammar concepts. Watching this almost made me make me want to sit for an actual classroom.
Here too the kids were somewhat anxious sitting for the test… not knowing what to expect next. On our part we tried to make the kids as comfortable as possible while they were writing their answers. It almost seemed that it was they who were the outsiders today and not us. What struck us was their no-complaints, no-fuss attitude. A few of them shared erasers with their peers ungrudging, while others comfortably wrote their answers with pencils of minuscule sizes never seen before.
Soon tests were completed at Shenwad too, the photos and selfies too… it was time to go. Somehow all of a sudden it felt too soon. Wanted to interact for some more time with the students and their teachers. Wanted to know what their dreams were, what the struggles and motivation of their teachers was… maybe the next time around. Right now was the time to return to Mumbai with the papers and see in what further ways we could assist the teachers in enabling their students become English literate.