Imphal, Assam, Tripura... distant places for us, but for Praveen, Shelton and Colin, these are areas they can plot on the map faster than you can locate your toothbrush. Their alacrity and speed is amazing. Observing a bunch of Class 4 students unleash their stock of geography trivia in a school for ‘poor’ kids — underprivileged is the politically correct term — was a lesson in enthusiasm and humility. To begin with, I figured that only the rich ‘feel’ the poor-rich divide. The kids in that school didn’t let any such distinction come in the way of their learning in any way.
When I started telling the kids about eclectic words like ‘aquiline’, Praveen cut me off — that’s of no use, I was crisply told. I appeased him by revealing Vedic Maths tricks which he lapped up all too soon. Their resolve to extract the best they can from the education on offer borders on the calculating, if not ruthless. I chided myself for thinking they weren’t as lucky as those in the ‘regular’ shift. Their knowledge, their books, and their conduct were as good, maybe even better, than ours had been at their age.
The kids were hardworking, bold and smart. When I saw the attendance register, I realised that here was diversity of religion and state of origin at its best. Bihar, Haryana, UP, from the East, and South India even. I talked to them about their homes far away. When the kids discovered Tamilian Raju amidst them, they didn’t begin to behave differently. Rather, they all wanted to impress him with how much they knew about his state — that it was right next to the Bay of Bengal, that the capital was Madras, that his mother tongue was Tamil — and Raju excitedly nodded, acknowledging their enthusiasm and trivia.
By enjoying each other’s differences, the kids only reinforced their secularism. Surely, this is the best part of their education? The interaction will hold them in good stead when they have to decide between their communities and their friends, when caught up in communal wars, as seem inevitable nowadays.
At school, they were rich in every sense of the word. Rich with knowledge, brimming with courtesy, smartly attired in their uniforms. The difference wasn’t between rich and poor kids — the distinction was between spoilt and humble kids. But I believe we can take a leaf out of their neat brown paper covered books. We must be humble, we must at least know what hunger is, we must stay foolish. And, never stop learning.
(Lavanya Jose is a Class XII student)