Ahh, How I am going to miss my interesting Lucknowi neighborhood; a microcosm of modern India. I lived in the richest part of Lucknow with some of the most splendid new houses I have seen in the country. Famous Bollywood Heroin Ashwarya Rai has a mansion just down the street, with every luxury imaginable. But in the vacant lots surrounding the bungles of Lucknow's wealthiest are amongst Lucknow's poorest. Recent village transplants squat in these lots until they are kicked out and bring with them the country: compounds with tied up water buffaloes next several rows of growing vegetables and sari clad women cooking on wood fire chulas.
A little further down my street is another displaced village family that had built a little stand to wash and iron neighbors clothes. Initially, I had brought my clothes to the washerman, but soon discovered how alcohol was a higher priority to him than washing clothes. I had given him my bedsheets, but didn't get them back for a week. I visited the stand to find his wife frantically ironing a giant stack of clothes, she told me that he had drank too much (ANJALI AND HER SIBLINGS) and had gotten sick, which was a common occurrence. She could not have been older than 24 (her husband was in his early thirties), but her eyes were worn and sad. As she tended to the clothes and household chores, and as her husband slept off his hangover, her children played on the streets. The kids were a fixture in the neighborhood: the younger siblings were perpetually naked, playing or drawing in the dirt plot in front of their house or by the nearby market. I often saw the oldest child, Anjali, who is about five, running errands in the market for her family and taking care of her siblings. With a overworked, stressed mother and an absent father, these children essentially raise themselves.
Although I still hate their father; it is inexcusable to spend a large chunk of the family income on alcohol when your children are emaciated and live in squalor; it would be difficult to not find compassion for the family. Seeing that I had accrued quite a bit of items in the six months, I ended up giving the wife all of my kitchen supplies and some extra notebooks I had to Anjali, whose eyes lit up. Her mother told me that she loved to draw and told me that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up.
A couple hours ago, just as I was to get in my taxi bound for the airport, I realized that I had many extra pens and that I should give them to Anjali. I ran over to her shanty and gave her the pens and my final farewell. As I was running back to the taxi, I heard a frantic, 'Sir, Sir, Sir!' I returned to the gate of the plot she lived at, she had run into their families room to grab something. With a tremendous grin on her face, she presented me with one of the notebooks that I had given her. On her own, she had spent the day practicing writing her name in English and writing numbers up to a hundred.
As I sat in the taxi taking one last pass through Lucknow, I couldn't help but welling up a bit. I have no idea what is in store for Anjali's future, just from our interactions and seeing her work and dedication as a five year old, it is clear that she is bright. But she has all of the cards stacked against her in terms of caste, gender, class, and family support.
In the past six months, I have been so fortunate to meet many more Anjalis through my work with rural government schools. Although these children are amongst the most marginalized in India, they are brimming with love and curiosity. In the last month, I have been going out to student's villages allowing the opportunity to talk to them out of the school's purview and meet with their parents. As I have gotten to know these lovelies, I have found that most young children worldwide, they are untethered with ambition. These children want to be doctors, teachers, engineers, lofty ambitions for children of mainly illiterate farmers. They see the role that education will play in shaping their future and study with impressive diligence. But will they aspire to the goals they have set and escape the grinding poverty that they were born into? From what I have seen in my time in Lucknow, I am not hopeful.
Teachers don't care. I spent many days in government schools where I haven't seen a single teacher actually teach. I've been in a school where the teacher spent the day teaching English to her three year old son from the same textbook of the third grade class she was concurrently neglecting. At another school, one that we considered to be one of the best in our study, I saw teacher tell students to go out to the fields and pick vegetables for them. When they returned, the three teachers spent the rest of the day chopping their families' evening meal and ignoring their students. As much as I enjoy three middle aged, upper class women talking about what they like to cook and complaining about their jobs, I soon grew restless and decided to teach the kids myself. The kids were AMAZING, they hung on my every word while I taught them how to read time in English as well as a Hindi film song. When I had to leave, a group of children grabbed me and pleaded that I stay for the rest of the day to teach them. Sadly, I had to leave, but these children thirsty to learn, blocked the path on my way out. Another day, I arrived to the school to find very few children, the teacher told me that the children were always tardy and didn't care for their studies. I went house to house in the village gathering the children that I could and ending up walking back to school with Pooja, a bright third grade student that I remembered from a class that I had taught. As we walked through wheat fields on the way to school I asked why she was an hour late for school. She quickly responded, 'What is the value? My teacher never teaches.' A third grader. I had nothing to say. She was right. The children are not the problem.
Most parents don't care. Most parents in lower classes see the short run gains of having their children work in the fields or shops and thus bypass the future economic opportunities. I've talked to them, they know that that government schools are bad, but they don't have the capital to send their children to private schools. This is obviously a larger socioeconomic problem; as much as I know that every child deserves a high quality education, who am I to tell a family of eight living on less than two dollars a day to send their kid to school? Food, shelter, and clothing obviously need to be in place for a child to make use of an education. The degree of poverty in some of the villages I have seen in UP is overwhelming. I could tell you about the families of six sharing a fly infested 80 square foot room or the distended bellies of children living on a daily diet of two chapatis and achaar. I could go on and on, but I've heard this before much like how terrible the schools are in India. I tisk-tisk and shake my head, as we all do, but when you see this poverty in person and how it cripples the childhoods of millions, it slaps the sleep out of your nights. These children are born into this life, just as we are, nobody has choice in the matter. But for these children, those from lower castes and classes, they are born unwanted by the society that receives them, they have no choice to be born into poverty. It is not their fault. The children are not the problem.
The government does not care. The Chief Minister of this state was born unwanted, untouchable, and after a career as a government elementary teacher was elected to take the helm of the most populated and one of the most destitute states in India. Every indication of hope that things might change right? I live next to a sprawling park, a sprawling 200 million dollar (DOLLAR) park. The park commemorates, much the many of its ilk that stain this city, the ascendancy of megalomaniacal Mayawati. But in the 14 year wake of victory, nothing has changed in the schools, nothing. If a Dalit, former teacher cannot empathize with her kin and make strides to ensure that all children have a chance to learn, I honestly don't know who will. Children have absolutely no power in this society and obviously no political voice. The children are not the problem.
Children are not the problem, the main problem is the adults surrounding them that continue to fail them.
I guess the more nuanced answer is the apathetic haze that sludges across the minds, practices, and institutions of this country. From the teacher that will take a month of medical leave to prepare her son for board examinations, thus bypassing her duties to her students. To the parents that don't organize and confront the terrible tax-draining teachers that do not care about their children. To the politician running on a ticket of education, then crumpling it promptly after elections and hope returns to haze. To the richer classes and castes that are constantly making sure that their children maintain their family's status and reap the benefits of modernizing India, but never looking below their balconies at the festering injustice. To the developed 'us', living in cultures that breed escapism and materialism that is not readily compassionate to the problems in the lower hemisphere let alone down the street. If there is a child anywhere in this world who is not receiving a quality education, that is not reaching their potential, that is being exploited, this is not their problem, it is an adult problem, it is all our problem and we all need to take ownership over it in some way.
I am heartened by the many whose paths I've crossed that have dedicated their lives to caring, but collectively we haven't reached a critical mass. In my adult life, I have seen or been part of dozens of innovative projects in India, well intended to make change towards a more equitable world. And sadly, I've seen very few that have been met with success. We can put computers in classrooms, we can give teachers trainings, we can set up micro-credit lending centers, we can do a lot of things. But if people only think of themselves and do not fundamentally believe in social equality, obviously these programs will have a minimal impact. Programs need to focus on changing attitudes before addressing the topical issues, but obviously this is a much tougher nut to crack.
I leave with a burdened heart, sagging on the thought that these amazing children will not fill my life with joy and inspiration every day. I leave shattered that I don't have the answers and didn't do more to fix the unjust society that they inherited. I know that they will alway play a role in my life and that I will continue to fight for them in any way I can. But obviously it is difficult to bear the thought that I won't be able play a larger role in their education and lives in the coming years. Uck, I miss them already.