Usha Shukla, a young school teacher in Ahmedabad, stood stunned. In her 30s, she was already a principal, a position that pupils regard as next only to the Almighty.
Less than an hour earlier,she had slapped an 8th Standard girl soundly on the face for not doing home work in the mathematics in a proper notebook. Mota Ben, as lady principals are respectfully called in Gujarat , are often stricter than the male of the species.
The teacher had felt pleased with herself in punishing the erring student who had not uttered a single word in self-defence. Usha was petrified. There was something missing and she felt inadequate to pinpoint it.It made her task all the more tough.
The frail pupil was clad in simple clothes,probably bought from a second-hand clothes vendor on a city foothpath . Middle class young teachers like Usha often realise it belatedly that keeping quiet in such situations did not mean that the student had nothing to say. It could mean more often that the pupil was helpless.
Usha finished the class and made her way to principal’s office,feeling euphoric and believing she has instilled fear of God in pupils Yet,an explicable uneasiness underlined the experience.
As she settled in her swivel chair, the school throne of power, the erring girl asked from the door way meekly :”May I have a word with you, Motaben?”
Curtly,the teahcer replied: “ Yes, what is it ? What the tiny girl had to stay left Usha contrite with remorse.
God has forgotten to give many things to teachers, but He has supplied them in abundance with the ability to empathise with the pupil .
The girl began softly, meekly and yet with a dignity the Almight gave the down-trodden to survive in the cruel world. However bad tempered they are, eventually teachers are also children of the Muse of Knowledge. The dictator in the teacher gave way to Saraswati as words rolled out of the distraught pupil.
“Ben, I have not prepared notebook for home work in not only the mathematics but no subject at all. I got second-hand books from a friend,but I cannot get notebooks. My parents are labourers who go out in the morning for work. The kitchen has nothing to cook so we come to study without food.There will be no food in the night too if the parents did not get any work.”Till I get a scholarship, there is no way to obtain notebooks.I know this is bad.”
She said in even tone that exploded on Usha like at atomic device. ” You can beat me every day, in every period and I will neither cry in the class nor stop coming to school.”
Despite brave words,tear rolled down her emaciated cheeks.
Usha Shukla was devastated by the impact. “Oh, my God. How could I be such an idiot? What kind of a taecher am I ? Am I a teacher? What a shame that I did not know about her plight? “
Instead of slapping the young student,she should have slapped herself, Usha thought furiouslylf. Who would think of her as anything but a snob?
As she remonstrated with herself, the pricipalalmost choked on her tears.Then,she decided to act.
She later told a jury of eminent citizens,led by retired chief justice of Gujarat High Court, B J Diwan who adjudged her best suited for an excellence award by the Eklavya Foundation: ” I decided to educate myself.I was nothing but a romantic dreamer.My colleagues said that there were a number of children in our school itself in similar predicament.”
Usha told them:” Come what may, we will make a beginning. “ The girl who was a victim of Usha’s wrath, was provided with not only notebooks, but everything a pupil needed. Usha and her colleagues got extra lunch boxes from their homes which will be left in a room so that the needy could quietly go and eat,without anyone knowing and hurting their self-esteem.
For the middle class teachers this was not an easy effort. In the days of steady income and spiralling prices, it requires a Herculean effort to meet both the end meet.
If God had created everthing , He should also be accountable for everything. The Brave Motherly Hearts decided never to donate money hereafter to temples, mosques, gurudwaras,churches..every placewhere a cash box for His acolytes ‘ sustenace is found. Not happy with the way He performed his job, the teachers replaced Him with school children.In the entire existence there was nothing holier that children.
Sceptics may argue that despite such kodiyan(earthen lamps) burning themselves out the darkness in our education system continued.It was as if there was darkness at noon.But,there are some Good Samaritans contnue to furrow their lone plough, and support innovative Gurus. Every year since 1997, Eklavya gives several awards for excellence in education.For more two decades, teachers from Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar districts in Gujarat have been given these awards. Usha got it in 1998.
Said Sunil Handa,chairman of the trust,”we are trying to identify the finest,most hard-working and steadfast teachers who have made a significant diference in the lives of their pupils.” It was the jury’s job to find such teachers.
The battle-hardened jury was deeply moved by the extra- ordinariness of the ordinary, when Usha narrated the simple tale.She and her colleagues were without power ot means to bring about a massive change in India.However,they were honest teachers. Everything they attempted did not mean necessarily a success. They had not been able to prevent young girls dropping out when they reached marriageable age.The parents would not want their daughter to have a lot of education so that there would be out-qualidied their spouses.For years now, girls have been forging ahead while the boys fared poorly in ssc and other competitive exqminations.
Handa was aware that piecemeal efforts were not enough. " We need a large number of grassroot level teachers who make a difference. “
Since 1997, 13 annual awards have been given on September 5, Teachers Day. Every year award winning Gurus narrate their life story and experiences.Then,in 2009, a journalist,Neerja Choudhary, was the chief guest at the award ceremony. She heard a veteran teacher,Perin Lalkaka describe her life . The story-teller in the scribe sprang into action. In her speech, Neerja,suggested experiences of the award winners should be brought out in an anthology.
Handa and his colleagues took to the suggestion and a bilingual book, in Gujarati and English, Aviram Athak ( Joyful Path,Tireless Walk) comprising of life stories in 36 walks down the memory lane is the end-result. The 168-page volume ,priced at Rs.100 a copy. was released in 2010.Its charm lies in togetherness of daily-life experiences, tunring into an extra-ordinary boquet of tributes to the mission of teaching. Alone or together, they would not bag a Nobel prize for literature.
It will ,however, bring home what ordinary citizens can do if they are are committed to a cause.A concerned and impressed parent neatly summed up: “No literary masterpiece has changed the world. But education has and will do so forever. Needed are committed teachers and a sensitive society.” We need good primary and secondary teachers. A Nobel prize can wait. A Gujarati idom says it all neatly:” Tipe Tipe Sarovar Bharay.” What is a lake of water but joining together of a vast number of drops of water?