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(representative image)

Opinion | A rural school under three trees and the teacher who truly cared

There exists living proof that anything can grow to great heights in any terrain if you care enough

The three trees towered over everything. There was nothing else of their great height in that rocky plain, making them visible from a few kilometres away as we approached the school. They stood in a straight line at the edge of the school grounds, about 60ft tall.

We sat in a room on the first floor, under the trees. In the two rooms of the ground floor, classes I to VIII were in progress. The only teacher for the eight classes, with 53 students, was sitting quietly in the room with us, in a corner. He had given them an assignment, which allowed him to participate briefly in our discussion.

Alumni of the school filled that small room. There were 17 of them. Three had taken a 10-hour overnight bus to reach the school. The others had travelled from an hour or two away on their bikes or public buses. Only two of them now lived in the village. As the introductions progressed, so did my bafflement. Why had all these young people turned up, travelling hours? It was just a usual school visit for me, one of many every month. It was supposed to be just a chat with the teacher and students and, if possible, with local community members. This was not a ceremony of any sort.

Their answer was simple. It had been years since someone interested in education from outside that area had visited their school. They wanted to ensure that the story of their school was told properly. They did not believe that the teacher, who had been their teacher too, would do that. So, they came to tell it themselves.

A long time ago, when they were little children, the school had another teacher. He was kind and caring. Their days in the school were full of joy and excitement. He would teach them well and bother about each child. Not just their learning, but also their health and families. One day, the teacher and the kids decided to plant three trees. They chose badam. They couldn’t recollect why, perhaps just because no one imagines badam trees in such hot, rocky and arid terrain. Life in the school went on, busy and fun. They tended to the trees, which turned from green to purplish to grey, as badam trees do. But, the next year, they encountered a storm.

Their teacher was transferred to another public (government) school and two others were brought in to replace him. One teacher was indifferent, the other was cruel. They have banished their memories of the details after that. In just a year, all but two of the 30 children left the school. Some enrolled in the public school in the nearby village. Many dropped out altogether.

They left the school, but they did not leave the trees. They tended to them, watering them, pruning them, protecting them and they grew.

The year passed and, in the summer, the two new teachers were transferred out. They were replaced by the quiet man sitting in the corner. He took charge of his two students and of the three trees. The two children talked about him every day in the village. The children who tended to the trees saw that they were being cared for. Then he went out and spoke to those who would roam the fields all day, grazing the goats, or just drifting. The ones who had dropped out. He persuaded them to return to school.

One after another, all of them did. They were followed by those who had enrolled in other schools. Within a year, they were followed by children from nearby villages, having heard of the quiet man who could “teach everything to any child" and was so kind as only a child could be. When the cohort of the eldest children reached class V, the government expanded the school to a middle school so that the children stayed in the same school with the same teacher. There was no additional teacher appointed. The teacher started running the school all seven days of the week—having to teach all eight classes. In time, the eldest cohort graduated from class VIII and left to join the nearest high school. However, they did not really leave. They would all be back on Sundays and evenings and holidays, so that their teacher could teach them.

More than a decade has passed. The quiet man goes about his work every day, as he has done all these years. Life is much the same in that school.

However, life is not what it was for his students who had gathered there and not for the scores of others who were not there. Life for them now is what they could not have dared imagine in their small, poverty-stricken village. Two of those who took the 10-hour bus ride work for a leading global IT firm. The third is a doctor. The rest of the 17 were police inspectors, teachers, public servants, successful businesspeople, and even a rising politician.

“We have come here to tell you this story. He is the God we believe in. Only we can tell you that. So here we are." He was squirming in his chair and at the first pause in the conversation excused himself to go to the classes.

When we finished, he came to see us off at the car with a gentle radiant smile as though he was with his pups. “Don’t believe them, Sir," he said, “they exaggerate everything. They are just very good children."

Our car sped away, everything receded as we looked back, but the three trees did not. Anything can grow to a great height, in any terrain, if you care enough.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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