It was a hot day, with the tin roof adding to the heat inside. The children in the class were eagerly reciting a poem when the tinkling of a bell drew my eyes to the window.
It was a buffalo, followed by its minder, a girl of the same age as the ones heartily singing for my benefit. Some of the students waved out to her as she paused for a moment near the door.
She should have been in the class too; just that she had to swap her books for the buffalo … one of those days.
I was a guest, a rare visitor from another world, far away. A world many of them can’t see, not even on television, because you need electricity for TV. They assumed I was there to “judge” them and they were determined to put in their best, complete with safety pins to hold up torn skirts and trousers.
Plastic chairs walked in on human legs, as small boys staggered under the weight of the chairs for the visitors. Two girls, who seemed to have forgotten to smile, worked the hand pump to draw water for tea. They entered the headmaster’s room with trepidation, carrying cups filled to the chipped brim.
The teachers told me they were happy to have one boy back in class. He had gone missing for months, accompanying his parents as they travelled, yet again, to another district for sugarcane cutting. He was smart; at least on the days he was present.
It was chaotic to have two classes sharing the same room. But that was progress after years of learning in a teacher’s home, jostling for space with goats and cows.
The teachers did not complain about having to walk 2 to 5 kilometers every day as they divided time between schools. Jobs are not easy to come by, especially when you are handicapped by education.
The students did not complain about the irony of learning good deeds and good words when a drunken father beat them up at home and the mother thought nothing of unleashing a curse every time she called out to them to handle another chore.
As I walked out, carrying the precious coconuts and shawls they had gifted, I cringed at the memory of the pride I had felt just the previous day. A corporate king had praised my presentation that painted a rosy picture of the services he was rendering to society.
I had just woken up to the real world and smelt honest earth. They had served me endless cups of sweet tea and tall glasses of sugarcane at every village. Yet, something sad and bitter lingered, somewhere deep within.
My friend, who has chosen social development as his career (his specialty: taking science to remote schools) is not surprised at what I had witnessed 10 years ago. He is not stationed at the village that I had visited but assures me things have changed.
“Parents now realize the value of education. They make it a point to ensure that the children go to school.”
We have the virus to thank for it, he says. All those days the children were forced to stay at home, parents learnt the important role of teachers in education. “They were just not able to cope, even those who had a mobile phone. They realized that only education could give the children a future. And they cannot educate. They needed teachers as much as the children.”
For my friend and his team, it was a challenge to bring the teachers up to speed in the ways of the virtual. “They were fantastic. So much so that the first group we trained became role models for the government.”
Then there was the challenge of educating those children whose reality stood no chance of catching up with the virtual. “We prepared special books for them with plenty of pictures. One day, when they all go back to their real classrooms, we want all of them to be at the same learning level.”
Now that the children are back in the classroom, the teachers are facing a different challenge. “The children are distracted. It is a task to make them sit in one place and pay attention.” Even for the best teacher, it is difficult to match the addictive entertainment value of a smartphone.
My friend cautions me that this is a work in progress. And he does not yet have the all-important data.
Nevertheless, he is optimistic. There is at least one sugar mill that now ensures that the children of the laborers working in the sugarcane fields can continue their education uninterrupted.
The buffalo has not gone away. Hopefully, its virtual avatar now shares the class with the girl, instead of leading her away at the end of a rope.