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Home >Opinion >Columns >Why even a once-in-a-century pandemic cannot stop teachers

There is a pond in a big village. It is neither big nor small. Just enough for it to be the centre of life. Lotus covers half of the water surface. A stone tile-clad platform hugs part of the northern edge. Rising 20 feet above the water, it is 150 feet long, and 30 feet wide. Six magnificent trees shade its full expanse. One can miss the temple at one end, since it is barely 3 feet high, with a similar length and width. No magnificent demonstration of their deities’ glory is required if the devotees are sure of their faith.

I sat on the parapet looking into the platform, as the rising sun cleared the October mist from the now golden pond. Twenty-three children and their two teachers were busy in four groups. The youngest lot from Class III and IV were trying to keep pace with the teacher, who would move every minute, creating arithmetic puzzles with pebbles or chalk on the stone. The second teacher was moving among the other groups. The one with the children from class VII and VIII required no attention. They were reading their diaries to each other. The patchy English grammar neither stalled the flow of their language, nor clouded their sentiments. The two groups with kids from classes V and VI wrote stories and then worked on some math problems. After a while, I left the pondside and went to one of the other five such classes-in-the-mohalla being run by the 13 teachers of that school since June.

During April and May, they visited the village every day, providing rations and other necessities to scores of families, not only to those of their students. Soon, it was clear that no one in the country had any idea when schools may be allowed to re-open. Meanwhile, the crisis in the village was stark, with its manifold ramifications. Many of the older children were starting to join the labour force, for example. Unwilling to watch helplessly as the lives of their students unravelled, they decided to do what they knew how to do.

Restarting the school without actually opening it was their solution. They divided themselves into pairs and started regular classes in six spots for children from the vicinity. Two hours for children from classes I and II, and two and half hours for those from III to VIII, six days a week. Children from within a neighbourhood were anyhow usually together, so there was no increase in the risk of covid infection. All the classes were held in the open, with everyone wearing masks. They have been at it without a break from the first week of June.

Why are you doing this? I asked. First, if we let education stop for months on end, not only are our students missing those months, but they will lose a lot more. Perhaps just drop out. Second, education is not only about math and language. We are responsible for the well-being of these children, today and tomorrow. And even more so in this hour of crisis. Third, this is the only way we know how to mobilize this community—to tackle the pandemic. We are a part of them, so we must do our best.

Over the past months, across this country, I have seen hundreds of such teachers, and have heard of thousands more. Silently doing what is desperately needed. Knowing online education is a chimera. Even for the most basic matters of learning, leave aside the other goals of education and of a school.

They have run such classes under trees, on mountain slopes, in dusty courtyards, in temples, and in mosques. Some states took progressive steps to systematically organize such neighbourhood classes. Karnataka was one of these states—with its Vidyagama programme—which was unfortunately aborted because of a misguided campaign opposing it. Teachers go on across the country—knowing that such real human engagement with their students is critical. For education, and also as an anchor, for lives roiled by forces unleashed by the pandemic.

Towards the end of the day, in that big village, we sat down with a few of the teachers, students and alumni of the school. They enacted the street plays on the pandemic that they have been conducting for the community. They described the rallies they organize, and other things they do, to mobilize the community to contain the pandemic.

After they were done, they wanted to ask me some questions. Still ponds have churned the quest for wisdom across cultures and time. Walden made Thoreau speak for nature. Yudhishtira chose Nakula to live, after answering the 125 questions of the Yaksha on the edge of those waters. Choosing our own Nakula is beyond most of us, though we must try. The least I could do was try to answer their Yaksha-like questions.

Why are human beings there? What should be the purpose of our lives? How do we ensure that we do not deviate from that purpose? What can give true happiness? Why is there so much strife in this world? What are virtues? Why?

Honesty works best, with children. They were satisfied when I said that these are questions that have been in search of answers for thousands of years. And that I can only share what I feel; they will have to discover their own answers. Unmissable is the role of teachers in what those children are becoming. No wonder even a once-in-a-century pandemic has not been able to stop them.

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

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