Back pages: Tales from the margins of Delhi's government schools

Aman Sethi
Mohit Suneja

The Class of 2018 began on April 1, 2017 to assess the state of public education in Delhi through the eyes of a cohort of Class 12 students at Sangam Vihar’s Government Senior Secondary School in C Block, also known as the Pahadi School, and the Shaheed Amir Chand School in Civil Lines, colloquially Ludlow Castle 2

Over nine months, HT reported on teacher shortages, inadequate school facilities, misfiring government schemes, and system’s unhealthy obsession with examinations.

Yet, our reporting also revealed telling moments of humanity, heroism, absurdity, and helplessness that never made it to the final stories.

As a new calendar year begins, and the Class of 2018 prepares for their pre-Board examinations, these anecdotes capture the daily rhythms and lived reality of the approximately 160,000 students and 70,000 teachers who attend class each day in the capital city.

The Tattoo Artist

“The problem began when he started drawing tattoos with his ball-point pen,” the woman said to her son’s teacher. “Before that, he was a good kid, sir.”

Her son was a foot taller than her; a good-looking boy sporting a fade haircut that had swept Sangam Vihar like a viral sensation, and a fitted school uniform tailored to hug his slender frame.

Once his artistic gifts were discovered, all the “goonda-type boys” became his friends, his mother continued, he stopped studying and failed Class 9.

Now, mother and son had come to the principal’s office on the ground floor of Sangam Vihar’s Pahadi School in a desperate bid to have him promoted to the next class.

“The problem is not me,” the woman said, “The problem is his father. He will not understand how drawing tattoos has ruined his son’s life. He will blame me instead.”

The teacher shook his head; his hands were tied. The boy would have to repeat Class 9.

“My son,” the teacher finally said, by way of consolation, “Just have faith. And stop making tattoos.”

The Court Case

Once a week, a teacher from the Pahadi School would gather a set of official documents into a folder and make his way to a sessions court in south Delhi to present the Pahadi School’s point of view in a matter most urgent.

“A former student went to get a passport,” explained Ashok Tyagi, then the principal of the school, “At the passport office it was found that his father’s name is printed incorrectly on his Class 12-mark sheet.”

The Central Board of Secondary Examinations has a procedure for errors like this one: “The Revised Rules of correction/change in name/Date of Birth of 2015” allow for corrections but only for a year after the mark sheet is issued. Thereafter, the student must approach the judiciary to remedy the misprinted mark sheet.

In this case, years passed before the student noticed the error.

In similar instances in the past, teachers later confided, they had heard of students changing their real names to suit the misprint, rather than endure the trauma of fighting the CBSE in court.

But here, the mistake lay in the student’s father’s name. It was unrealistic to expect his father to change his name, but the passport authorities would not be placated.

“The mark sheet reads ‘Sudeshwar’ where it should read ‘Sundeshwar’,” Tyagi said. “Every time there is a hearing, we send a teacher with all the necessary documents duly attested. We are supporting our child, but now it is up to the court.”

The Reprieve

Across the city from the Pahadi School, in Ludlow Castle School No 2, a father and son sobbed inconsolably in the principal’s office.

“What have you done my son, what have you done?” the father said, to his young son, who stared back with fearful eyes.

“He teases me. He writes things about me on the blackboard,” said a young girl in pigtails, who was accompanied by her mother.

“Enrol him in an all-boy’s school,” said the boy’s teacher. “Draft a transfer order. Boys like him are not fit to study in a co-ed school.”

“But he’s so young,” the boy’s father said, as he brought his hands together in supplication, “I’ll shout at him, I’ll explain to him. I’ll teach him.”

The teacher was unmoved.

“We live in difficult times, sir,” the teacher said. “Tomorrow, just imagine, he does something terrible. The police ask me, ‘When there was a complaint in Class 9 – what did you do?’ What will I say? What would you do if a boy had teased your daughter?”

The father stood up, he shivered with embarrassment and worry. Another teacher offered him a glass of water and led him away to another room to draft out the transfer letter.

“I hope you are satisfied now, madam,” said the teacher, turning to the mother of the girl who had complained. “I think he understood when I asked him what he would do if it was his daughter.”

The mother sat quietly for a few minutes, her face troubled.

“I have a request, sir,” she said, “Give the boy a final warning, transfer him to a different section and tell him not to speak to my daughter again.”

“Let the boy stay in school,” she concluded, “Give him another chance.”

Absenteeism

When the student finally came to class after 10 days of absence without explanation, the teacher at Sangam Vihar’s Pahadi School sent him to the principal’s office.

“There was a problem in the family, sir,” the boy said.

“What was it?”

“It was my sister, sir.”

“What happened?”

“She disappeared.”

“And now?”

“Now she’s back home sir. We found her.”

“How old is she?”

“She’s young, sir – my age.”

The principal signed off on note of absence and sent the boy back to class.

“Sometimes, I don’t know whether to believe my students,” he confided to a visitor. Sometimes, it was better to hope the student was lying: To believe him was to consider the terror of a young girl lost in an unforgiving city.

A teacher confused

In September, a teacher sent a WhatsApp message.

“Please read this passage which was given for note-making to Class 12 students today for their first-term exams. If you understand the first sentence, please explain it to me. Because even after having read it 5-6 times I can’t make any sense of it. My English is not up to this.”

The passage began with the following sentence:

“Every cloud has a silver lining for an optimistic eye, even if it does not have actually, since it aims at the sun shimmering behind that finds a chink in the clouds and rises on the horizon power of looking through the prism of positivity is quite similar to a door opening ever so slightly letting in the glimmer of light for the gloomy.”

And it continued in a similar vein for another page and a half.

“The paper was set, moderated and proofread at the level of the department by several people,” the message continued, “And then we wonder why the teaching and learning of English is a problem in our schools.”

The broken door

“We fixed it sir,” said the young boy. “It wasn’t broken, only the bolt had come out.”

A group of boys from Class 6 had been fighting in the bathroom, when someone kicked and – it seemed at the time – broke the door latch.

“I frightened them a bit,” the teacher said, “I said, do you know how much a new door costs? Rs 7,000. Who will pay for it? We’ll have to expel you now.”

The children started crying. The fight was forgotten as the boys considered the implications of this enormous sum of money. The monthly salary of many families in Sangam Vihar is Rs 7,000.

Half an hour later, they returned with news that they had fixed the door. The teacher was pleased.

“Obviously we were never going to expel them,” the teacher said, “But they have learnt to respect public property.”

The children were relieved.

Another day, another adventure, another disaster averted.

Hindu or Muslim?

“Are you Hindu or Muslim?” the young child said one morning as they sat outside a classroom.

Why did it matter?

“Everyone in class knows if they are Hindu or Muslim,” the child replied. “Everyone talks about it.”

It began when students were asked to choose Sanskrit, Urdu, or Punjabi as a third language. As if by default, the Hindu children chose Sanskrit, the Muslim children chose Urdu.

During language period, the two batches were taught in separate classrooms. Slowly, the two groups of children started sitting separately, and everyone knew each other’s religion.

The teachers were surprised when they heard this. “The children sit with whoever they want,” a teacher said. “Our school is focused on inclusive education.”

The school took great pains to ensure no student felt discriminated against, the teacher continued, but admitted to a case where class-sections were grouped by language — Hindi or Urdu — for the sake of administrative convenience; which meant they were inadvertently grouped by religion.

But school only had the students for six hours each day, the teacher said. The rest of their time was spent at homes and neighbourhoods; and young children are worryingly perceptive of differences.