Who was I to insist that any parent send their young child hours away, to schools without proper infrastructure, often to be raised by someone else (when boarding was necessary due to limited options)? Who was I to tell a parent or child that education can only be obtained away from the “backwards” (not my term) ways of their community? Who was I to impose a set of decisions, made by people who had never even heard of these tandas, without raising questions about the conditions they were being asked to endure? Who was I to shrug my shoulders as if this entire generation of children is worthy of nothing more than experimentation while the those higher up stumble along seeking “progress for future generations”.
I knew I wasn’t against education itself- certainly not!- but something about what we were supposed to be advocating didn’t feel right. Not under these circumstances. These kids were here, now, and they weren’t being served.
We pass the first tanda on our way back and are offered some homemade chapatti and sambar to fill our bellies. We graciously accept as a mother gathers her courage and quietly pulls my friend aside. After a brief conversation, my friend comes back, visibly upset and I ask her what happened. “Her husband left”, she tells me. “They have five daughters and he abandoned them and lives in the city. One of their daughters used to go to school in the city until the father remarried and decided he didn’t want to pay anymore. She can’t get any of them to school because she is struggling to make money to keep them alive. She doesn’t know what to do. She thinks sending them to school is the only way to make sure they are ok and she doesn’t know what to do.” I ask her what she said. She sighs. “I told her to do her best to get them to school. What else is there to say?”
Something doesn’t feel right to either of us as we walk away. I wonder if we have just inadvertently solidified that mother’s fear that without going to school, nothing would be alright. Have we yanked away her last thread of hope? As I look back, she stands alone outside the barrier wall of her tanda. My stomach twists as I realize that her children will likely fall between the proverbial cracks while people like us take notes, analyze data, and sit in air conditioned conference rooms, discussing “our” success with all the other kids who are going to school. She, and her children, are numbers in the grand scheme of compulsory primary education- one more poor mother misunderstood as incapable of understanding the benefits of education. The thought sickens me.
We would spend weeks interviewing families, visiting schools, and taking notes. Child after child would tell us their dreams- their vibrancy fading in direct proportion to the age of the child. Parents would ask us “would you send your child under these conditions?” Officials would tell us that the “backwards” populations were uninterested, ignorant, and un-motivated. Why should they build more schools when people refused to attend the ones they had?
Self-fulflling prophecies swirled around us until every conversation started to sound the same. Poor students were consistently viewed as unintelligent and lazy when they showed up not fluent in a foreign language never taught to them. Officials bemoaned “wasting” money on people who were too “backwards” to agree to send their children miles on foot to attend schools that were literally falling apart and whose teachers did not show up. Teachers complained about the perceived lack of educational involvement from parents who did not speak the same language as the teacher, and used it as justification for why they were regularly absent or abusive to the students. It was exhausting and heartbreaking to begin to understand the true barriers these kids were facing in their pursuit of an education.
As my cynicism began to reach epic proportions, we visited a small, public, primary school in Kangti. We were welcomed by the headmaster who told us to visit any classroom we liked and ask any question that was on our minds. He refused to accompany us saying he did not wish to inadvertently stifle any teacher or student responses. My friend and I looked at each other in surprise and wondered, hopefully, if maybe this interview might be different.
The first class we visited was full of students at rapt attention. The teacher said we could ask anything we wanted. I don’t know what I was expecting to hear in response or what I hoped to learn in that moment but I wanted to have a dialogue about the elephant in the room. This seemed like the best opportunity. I took a worried breath and asked our translator to ask them about the disparity in resources for public and private students in India. Our translator hesitated and then asked.
The question hung in the air for a minute and I was suddenly very aware of just how hot this classroom was. In the very long moment that passed, I worried that the kids would not be comfortable answering this question. I assumed that the teacher would to try to employ diplomacy and soften any honest answers their young voices offered. I prepared myself to read between the lines.
Instead, the teacher broke out in a wide grin and told our translator to make sure he translated every word correctly and accurately. Then, one by one, students took their turns standing and presenting eloquent and impassioned replies about why they were receiving what they perceived to be the short end of the educational stick. They listed their rights as defined by the Indian Constitution, the new Right To Education Act, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Millennium Development Goals, and any number of philosophers. They drew thoughtful conclusions based on their experiences and their studies. They were more informed than many of the adults we had spoken to. One girl, at the end of her response, approached me and asked if she could ask me a question of her own. “Tell me something, why do all students in America have bathrooms and we can’t even get that here in my village school?” The simplicity of her question struck me and I told her honestly, “I have no idea. It’s not right, is it?” Her teacher whispered, “she is our little lawyer.”
I met her intense gaze and I realized, she didn’t need me. None of these kids did. Every single one of them had the ability to be “a little lawyer” and that ability had nothing to do with me. Her teacher had exposed her, and her classmates, to a true education. And again, it had nothing to do with me. Nor did it have to do with compulsory schooling laws. Not really. I was suddenly very aware of the fact that these adults would have come together to educate these students whether outside forces asked them to or not. Sharing knowledge was a part of their being. I stood there, torn between the obvious benefit of these kids being exposed to this school and these particular teachers and the knowledge that not every kid being forced to comply with the compulsory schooling laws was being served the same way.
I had always believed myself to be a person who viewed all humans as equal. But somehow, in my well intentioned path to adulthood, I had internalized the notion that some people needed saving. That those who believe they have “figured it out” have the right to impose their way of doing things on others as a means of “helping”. I had assumed, incorrectly, that good intentions were all that mattered in the grand scheme of things, and that the bumps we inadvertently cause along the way are of no real consequence.
Now I stood looking at this passionate young student, of a “lower” class, attending school in a forgotten rural area, in a developing nation and I realized that the laws on compulsory schooling, developed and imposed by outsiders, were not serving her in the least. These laws were not designed to foster a fire for learning and create an educated populace, they were created to put butts in classroom chairs and create the appearance of an educated nation. What was serving this student, in an obvious way, was the intentional culture created in her school by supportive and progressive adults- people who knew her, believed in her as an individual, and were a part of her community. The school had an attendance rate far above any other school we had visited. That wasn’t a coincidence.
In an awful twist of fate, the laws on schooling were about to rip this tight knit and effective group of teachers away from their students. Re-assignment based on education level was being forced on this and every other school in the area because people who had never even set foot in this village decided they knew “better”. As an added blow, government representatives had begun showing up and insisting the teachers abandon their inspiring, effective teaching methods because they weren’t in line with the government prescription of how poor students should be taught. Knowing this, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment of one of the teachers, “It’s discrimination. No one who is not poor goes to these schools. It is not a mistake that my students get less. Who will argue?”. He’s right. No one with any amount of privilege would agree to send their children to school under the conditions the children in these villages and tandas are expected to endure.
In taking it upon ourselves to school the world, those of us with perceived power have forgotten to acknowledge the individuality and ability of all people to adapt, organize, and self-educate without us. We are not saviors, we are control freaks. We have created a vision of our world that can only exist when everyone gets on board with our way of thinking and doing. We have created the ideal that all children must go to school, our form of school, if we are to save them from their poverty, their simple ways of living, and, in an uncomfortable reality, their families.
My thoughts on education have evolved over the years. So has my understanding of my role in the world. I still have opinions- plenty of them!- and, believe it or not, I strongly believe that education can be a powerful vehicle for change. I also happen to believe that children have rights as individuals that extend beyond the arms of their parents. I am an individual who sees the world through the only lenses I have- my own. But I have stopped allowing myself to believe that there is any one size fits all model for education- or anything else. I have come to realize that what sounds good and what actually is good are not always the same thing and you can never really know until you dig in and see or experience for yourself the reality of what you are advocating.
Working in collaboration with other people, all people, to create a world that we all wish to live looks much different (and is admittedly much more challenging) than simply pushing an entire school of thought- created in offices, not communities- onto people we don’t actually want to listen to. There is an undeniable interconnectedness to our world, especially in this age of technology. It would be ridiculous to suggest that educational access is a bad thing or that participating in the global economy is an inherently negative aim. Likewise it would be absurd to assume that everyone who advocates for universal education has nefarious purposes. But in order to truly support the creation of a positive and full educational experience for these students (one that may not include us) we need to take a hard look at ourselves and the system we are creating We need to define what true education looks like, stop pretending like attendance at school is important above all else, get real about the damage even well-intentioned projects can do, consider the real-life impact of compulsory anything, and seriously consider appropriate ares in which we can step back. These kids deserve better.
There are people far more entrenched in education and compulsory schooling laws than me so, tell me, can we change this? Because all I know is that what is currently happening, isn’t working.