Education, here and there.

There is a reason I don’t write on topics close to my heart, these days. Once I start, I don’t seem to stop. Or so says the husband, and can’t really blame him. I do tend to go on and on.

So I was talking about teachers and schools yesterday. I’ve been asked many a time about how the schools in India and abroad compare. I can’t talk about other places, the only place I have some experience in is the UK. So here is what I found. It might be limited to the circle I moved in, or even the city, probably. Education is one area where I do feel, quite definitely, that we are better off in the UK. Here is why.

1. Focus on Reading – In India, I found that the focus was far more on the writing than reading. Children in daughter’s class(Grade 1), were still struggling with reading. Apparently during the tests, the teachers would read out the questions so that the children knew what to write. In the UK, I found that the focus was mainly on the reading. They get library books, reading books, and there is a systematic program that measures what level each child is at, and the minimum levels for each year. So most children at the same age in the UK, would be reading at a far more comfortable level. And I think it makes sense. Unless the child can read, how can he/she understand? And despite the fact that so many children couldn’t read, there was no focus on that in the school in India. My friend was trying hard at home to teach her six year old to read, when really, this should have been the first target of a school.

2. Methodology of teaching – In most of the subjects, what I found was that the teachers of my daughter’s school in India still followed the old method of writing on the blackboard and getting the children to take it down. Here it is very different. It is a lot more interactive and children seem to remember their lessons better. I’ve had several instances of daughter coming home and telling in great detail of the things she learnt. Learning was/is fun for her.

3. Student teacher ratio. There is a government specified teacher-student ratio here that all schools have to follow. I wish it were there in India.

4. Different learner levels. I really like this concept in schools here. Children are grouped together based on their abilities and then pushed and encouraged in a way that suits their abilities. This is of course possible only because of small class sizes and teaching assistants to help.

5. Interactive learning. There is a lot of interaction between the children and the teachers. There is also a lot of opportunities for parents to see how classes are conducted and for us to understand how concepts are introduced to the children and for us to teach them at home.

6. Accessible Management. Daughter’s school in India had a very accessible management. And from what I heard that was not common. Here on the other hand, all the schools, that she has been to, have had really accessible management. In her old school, the head teacher would be dusting snow off children’s boots when it snowed. Her head teacher here, was acting as the lollipop man, because the lollipop lady was late. We can go and talk to them anytime. And they do seem to know most of students by name. Of course, the fact that the schools are smaller, must help.

7. Exams. There are no exams here. Daughter had exams on India and she did fine. I’m not sure yet of the merits and demerits of exams. I guess, you do need some form of progress tracker. Are the exams necessarily the right kind, I don’t really know. What do you guys think?

How do you feel about the education system in India?

I am taking part in The Write Tribe Festival of Words 1st – 7th September 2013. Hop over to see more Day 6 posts.

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How Important is Handwriting?

We always hear of children being praised for ‘good handwriting’. Although I’ve heard it more in India than here.

I’ve even heard people praising schools for developing children’s handwriting, sending children for handwriting and calligraphy classes. Our apartment’s email group has emails every few days about someone advertising hand writing lessons, there were even handwriting lessons during the summer hols.

I can’t help wonder why this focus on ‘beautiful handwriting’. While I’m all for clear legible writing, I’m not completely sure if it is necessary to send children to classes for it?

The other day Daughter got into the mode of writing beautifully. Now her normal writing is perfectly fine. You can easily read what she writes. Is it beautiful? I have no idea. I’m it sure I care either, as far as she can communicate effectively. As far as I’m concerned, what she writes is far more important. So as I was saying, she got into the mode of ‘I’m going to write beautifully’. She was so caught up on ‘writing beautifully’, that she ended up with a piece that was substandard, for her. She did not read/review what she wrote, and also made grammatical mistakes that she never does, just because, her whole focus was on making the writing look beautiful.

That to me, is a bigger crime than handwriting that doesn’t look ‘beautiful’. And anyway, does it matter at all? Have you at any point in life felt that you are getting a raw deal because your handwriting isn’t up to the mark? I haven’t. I haven’t even written much since my college days. I don’t know… I just don’t like this craziness about it.

While I can’t get the whole world to change, I just hope I can help daughter focus on what is truly important. That substance more than appearance is what will matter through life. Be that in your writing or anything else.

Edited to add: I published the post earlier, by mistake. It wasn’t complete, and realised only later that it had got published, and you guys have also commented on it. So sorry. My darn phone!

When Good Quality Education Remains a Pipedream

Amidst all sorts of dismal news, this story was such a heart warming read. Little Lakshmi, all of nine years, ran away from home in November, in an effort to study in an ‘English School’.

Luckily for her, it all ended well. She finally got admission in a reputed International School in Bangalore under the RTE act. Which is, of course, wonderful. Of course, she has to travel a long distance, and everything might not be all rosy, but she’s got a chance that she so desperately wanted. And hopefully, this chance will make a huge difference in her life. And seeing her grit, she probably will grab this chance and really soar high.

Having said that, I can’t help wonder if it would have been the case had this case not got media attention. Also, why is the RTE so dependent on private schools? I am all for private schools chipping in, but ‘chipping in’ must be what it is. I can’t help wonder why we can’t have good government schools, so that no child needs to run away, or travel ridiculous distances to reach school. If Lakshmi had a good government school near by, I am sure she wouldn’t have felt the need to run away to a ‘good’ school.

Also, Lakshmi is one among many who yearn for a better education. She was lucky, or more accurately, she tried really hard to change her luck, and succeeded. Many might not, many might not be in a position to, many might not even know that they have the right to something better. And even private schools will have only a certain amount of seats reserved for RTE students. This whole dependency on the private schools would disappear if the government schools are ramped up and made just as lucrative. It makes me wonder why the government seems to be least interested in doing things which will actually make a difference in the long term. That’s it, isn’t it? ‘Long Term’. Why would they be interested in long term benefits when all that matters to them is the shortest of short term ones – the next elections!

All I can really hope for is that good quality education becomes a reality for everyone, and nobody needs to resort to desperate measures to gain access to it.

The Right to Education

Some thing most of us take for granted, but is out of reach for so many of our fellow Indians.

Every since the Supreme Court ruling judgement upholding the applicability of the Right to Education Act (RTE) even to unaided schools, has come out, I have been reading up articles, opinions, blogs related to it. I have an added interest because we are moving back  to India this year, and I wanted to understand how it would affect us.

Let me clarify, that I have managed to secure admission in one school in Bangalore – not the school that I wanted – but the only school which had vacancies for Grade1, which indicates that most schools are completely full. I am happy to go with what we have got, with the hope that daughter will be fine, and where ever the school lacks, we will be able to pitch in and support her. My choices were further reduced because I did not want to opt for schools that ask for donations – as far as I could.

Now, going on to this RTE debate. I am not entirely sure where I sit on whether the 25% quota is a good thing or a bad thing. Clearly education is a fundamental right, and it is sad that so many of our children go without education. And something definitely needs to be done about it, I am just not completely sure if just reserving 25% seats in private schools is right or even enough.

In order to understand the statistics better, I was trying to look up information. According to Wikipedia(not always the most accurate, so if you have more reliable sources, please can you let me know? Would be really grateful), 80% of all schools in India are Government Schools. That makes the government the largest provider of education. But here is the interesting part, despite 80% of schools being government schools, 27% of the children in India, are being educated in private schools. Which begs the question, are the existing government schools being utilized to their full extent? Are they being monitored? Are there parameters set to figure out how the schools are performing.

My daughter goes to a state school in the UK here. We pay nothing for her education – not a penny. We could easily afford private education for her, but chose not to,mainly because good state schools are comparable to private education – at least in the primary years. Of course, all state schools might not be great, just as not all private schools are really good, but we’ve been fine, thankfully. Here, only about 7% of the children attend private schools. Since then, I have also heard of the ‘snob factor’ that is there in private schools, and it makes me happy that my daughter is not in an environment like that. I am happy for her to be in a more inclusive environment rather than a super-privileged environment. Of course, there have been times, when I wonder if I were too idealistic in my beliefs, but so far have been convinced that the school she is in, is great for her.

There are all sorts of state schools, and one thing I have noticed here is the accountability of the teachers, the staff. The fact that there are independent agencies like the Ofsted(click on the link, and you will be able to see how they work), which review and rate schools. Schools that are not performing to the expected standards are evaluated and the govt takes measures to ensure better performance. If I wanted to find out how the school works, I can find full reports with all the information I might need. Some schools still don’t perform as well as others due to other factors that affect it, but at least we don’t feel as cynical as we do about the Indian govt.

I would have been delighted if I could send my daughter to a state school in India as well, but clearly, that would be out of question for a variety of reasons.

If the real reason children do not have access to education is the lack of seats in government schools, then I would entirely agree that private schools need to do their share of giving back to the society. For some reason, it feels to me that the government is shirking its responsibility of providing education to every Indian. I would have been more impressed if it came up with a methodology to bring up the existing state schools to a level where every parent would be happy to send their child, rather than make it a refuge for parents who can’t afford better. After all, not all government schools are bad, why can’t we try to get all our schools to an acceptable level?  I do believe that some states have better govt schools than others. What stops us from replicating their success? Political will, I suppose. The RTE act itself has a lot of good guidelines in regulating the school conditions, but why have no measures been chalked out yet, that the government would undertake to ensure that schools run at the minimum acceptable standards.  If along with improvement schemes to the existing state schools, the government also included the 25% quota, I, as a parent, would have been very happy. In the current scheme of things, I can’t help feeling that this is more of a quick-fix measure, which might not really make a huge difference in the years to come. A law can only do so much. Law enforcement is as important as drafting a sensible law, in my opinion.

As for the  ‘class divide’ question which a lot of parents feel concerned about. I feel that the class divide needs to go. It might not go in a hurry, but things might change if our children grow up without the class divide in their minds(and if we try not to put these things into their minds). If they learn to accept that their friends come from different backgrounds, and just having more money or a more plush lifestyle does not make a better or worse person. I think it would do our children, a world of good, to be able to the person, rather than the packaging.

So what do you think about all this?

PS: I’ve mentioned again and again how wonderful daughter’s teachers are! And when I see adverts like this, I feel like teaching! Along with RTE, I wish we had a campaign to encourage people to go into teaching. After all, most of us will have at least one teacher, who left a lasting mark on our minds..

Edited to add: Check out this campaign by HT.
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dv7rPAa0gKqw&v=v7rPAa0gKqw&gl=GB

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Sheils recommended this book, and on reading about the book, I found it very interesting, and was delighted to get hold of it so quickly.

Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first time you are a stranger, the second time you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to to anything – even die.

In 1993, after a disastrous attempt to climb K2, Greg Mortenson ends up in an impoverished village in Pakistan. He is touched by the villagers kindness and shocked to realize how tough life there was. The children had no school. He was appalled to see eighty two children, kneeling on the frosty ground, working by themselves. They shared a teacher with a neighboring village, and he taught here three days a week. The rest of the days, the children would practice the lessons he left behind, in the open, in all the harsh climatic conditions.

Seeing this, Mortenson resolved and promised to build a school for the village. The book is his story of how his personal conviction and efforts resulted in schools in many of these marginalized villages. He started off with the promise to build one school, but ended up building fifty five schools. Understanding how educating girls can change the lives of the villagers, he tried to make it easier to educate the girls. He wins the locals’ confidence, becomes one of them, understands the difficulties they face, and does whatever he can to help them. The story of how one man can make a difference, if he really wants, no matter what obstacles he faces.

It is the story of one man’s determination, and grit to overcome it all, to make a difference. He has risked his life, gone into dangerous territory, gotten kidnapped.. All for the purpose – his purpose to get the people of Central Asia education, a means to better their lives. The story, of course, is not just about him. It is also about his family. His wife who understood and supported his passion. Who made do with the fact that her husband would be away for months together. In places where it would be impossible to even reach him by telephone. Not knowing when or if he would be back. And yet accepting it, because that was the man he was. It is a riveting read. Very inspiring, and very touching. I would certainly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I did read some allegations of fraud and people contending that this book is actually more fiction than fact. So I am not really sure what to make of it.. Even if it were inaccurate, it would still be a very interesting read, albeit a fictional one, rather than a non-fictional account.

Educating ourselves…

.. is such a huge part of being a parent. There are so many things that I have learnt in the last five years of being a mother. Usha’s post on Perspectives reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine.

She has a daughter a year younger than mine, and she goes to a private school. Before I go further, let me explain the schooling system here. Most children in the primary level go to state schools. Only around 8% or so go to private schools. There are several very good state schools, and if you are in a good state school, the education is quite good, and comparable to private schools.

So this friend of mine sends her child to a private school, and is not very impressed by ‘what they are teaching her’, in her words. Just to put things into perspective, she has been quite worried about her child’s education(or the lack of it) since the time the child was just 3. At that time she was concerned that her daughter did not know how to write. Here, they do not pressurize the children to write, they encourage, and the child picks up when they are ready for it. For some reason, she keeps comparing the education standards with that in India – whether it makes sense or not.

So coming back to her worries, she is worried because the school does not send back daily feedback – no homework, and nothing for the parent to work upon. So I explained to her that it is quite similar in Poohi’s school as well. They don’t really send back much work. They only ask us to spend around 10 minutes a day reading with a child. But that did not satisfy her – it is fine for Poohi’s school to send back no work, because it is a state school(free), but in a private school, where they are paying for an education, they should get the child to do more..

Now this is something I find difficult to get my head around. Paid or not, surely what matters is how well they ensure that the child picks up things. Given the fact that the education system is quite different from what we are used to, back in India, I think we really ought to approach it differently. We cannot after all expect the same sort of studying pattern, curriculum or teaching styles from two very different systems.

Every time I go to Poohi’s school, I can’t help be amazed at the amount of work the teachers put in. I really don’t find anything to complain about nor can I ask for anything more from them. The efforts that the teachers put in ensures that the children are motivated and excited by work. For instance, we got the overview of the curriculum for the next term, at the end of the last term. The children had been told of what they would learn too. One of the topics was ‘Dinosaurs’. Poohi came home excited, opened her book of dinosaurs( we just happened to have a book), and read through everything. Apparently,’When Mrs C asks the class, I can put my hand up!’ was the motivation behind it. She is so excited about learning, that she makes that extra effort without any prompting from anybody else. I can honestly say that this sort of excitement can only come from teachers who have made it all so exciting for them, that they look forward to learning more.

Yes, they might not send home books and books of homework, they might not force children to write or read, but they make it fun, they make it interesting, so much so that the children want to learn more. They are motivated, not pressurized. That is all I ask for! That happiness on daughter’s face when she learns, when she picks up new things, makes links of how dinosaurs dying out is similar to how people evolved from monkeys – what more can a parent ask for? We get to see the work that our children do at school during the Parent teachers evening, and it is amazing! They do a lot at school. They cover so much ground, that there is no real need to send home work. Children do get some work, but it is not a huge amount of stuff, and a lot of it involves a child using her creativity, thinking and understanding what needs to be done. When I see daughter working on her learning logs, I am amazed at how her mind works. It goes to show that young minds are so fresh, and innovative, that they can indeed come up with incredible stuff, if we let them be.

Usha also talks about the environment at home affecting the child. So many times when I hear mothers lamenting that their children show interest only in TV shows and would never pick up a book of their own, I can’t help asking how many times they pick up books instead of the TV remote? Not that being a reading parent guarantees a reading child, but being around books, does encourage a child to read(in my opinion). After all, we parents are the first role models that our children have. Taking a child to the library regularly for an outing will making him/her think of reading as a fun activity rather than a chore or a ‘homework’.

And yes, if you do have genuine grievances, talking to the teachers and understanding their point of view is far more useful isn’t it than worrying and complaining that the teachers are no good? And no matter what we think, children do pick up on what the parent thinks. If the parent is unhappy or dismissive of the teachers efforts, chances are that the child may not take the teacher seriously either..

Every time I hear a parent criticize teachers, I can’t help feel uneasy. While I am sure there are several uncommitted teachers, I am sure that there are plenty of wonderful teachers out there. At least I was lucky to have some great ones.. And Poohi has had wonderful teachers so far. As a parent, what I really want to do is be a team with my child’s teacher, to work along with them, to bring out the best in my child. Yes, there might be times when she might not have the best of teachers, but that is when I will need to step up and be there for her.. And hopefully, I will be able to give her what she needs to learn, to grow and to expand her horizons….

Edited to add: Do read Sheils post on how wonderfully creative learning can be! 

I count my blessings.. Post 17

..every time that I go to daughter’s school.

We had an open morning at school, where parents are invited to come in and observe how their children work at school. It is an amazing experience, and every time I go for an open morning, I come back impressed.

Impressed at the teachers’ patience, the gentle way in which they impart knowledge. I could see every child participating, every child was involved, at some level or the other.

What I really liked was the way the slightly fidgety , not exactly naughty, but more disinterested children were handled. There was a child who was more interested in doing whatever pleased her rather than participate in their group’s activity(the children are divided into groups, and each group was doing a separate activity).  The teacher who was handling the group, would gently bring the child’s attention back to the activity. Gently but firmly, not once losing her temper. I was amazed at her efforts.Eventually, the child started participating. Even when children give the wrong answers, they are just asked to try again and then congratulated when they do come up with the right answer. You could see how the positivity helped the children focus, and improve at what they were doing. By the end of that 15 minute activity, all the children were equally involved and focused. Each activity worked towards a  specific goal. Activities which looked like fun, actually taught them counting, handling money, adding, taking away…

I had written about how we learn better when we enjoy what we learn, sometime back. It just gets reinforced when I see the way daughter’s school works. The children genuinely bond with the teachers, they wait to go to school, last time one of the children hugged the teacher as soon as they got in the class. I was so touched. It just showed to me how much the teachers cared for the children.

Despite the gentle approach, not one child misbehaved. Most of the children were vying to answer questions, they knew the protocol they had to follow, and any time they digressed, all they needed was a gentle reminder from the teachers. Who says children won’t learn unless they are forced?

I might have said this before, but I want to put it on record again, I truly feel glad, that daughter is able to go to a school like this. Where she feels secure, happy and is learning so much.

What would happen if there was no moon? Post 10

Asked daughter, and had me stumped for a bit. All I could think of something related to tides, and tidal waves.

So I turned to my guardian angel – Google. Turns out lots of people have been googling it. So I am not the only one who forgot what she learnt at school.

Did you know, that the moon saves us from asteroids. So if the moon wasn’t there, we(as in earth) would be getting hit much more by asteroids. And that the earth would rotate faster around it’s axis, making our days about 6 hours long!  I can’t manage with 24 hour days, what would we do with 6 hour ones 🙂

Do you get as fascinated as I do, when you read about our universe. Especially how small we are in the larger scope of things?The wonders of the universe, how our ancestors had learnt the basics of physics by simply observing nature. They fascinate me. Have you watched Professor Brian Cox‘s documentaries on subjects like these? They are so spellbinding.

Watch this video of him explaining entropy amongst other things. I am sure most of us would have loved Physics as students, if our teachers explained it in this beautiful way.

He makes seemingly tough subjects, so easy to understand. Explains it in terms that anybody could understand. Even my 5 yr old watches in fascination when we watch his programmes. His passion for the subject comes through, in the way he talks.

Needless to say, I have taken to watching his programmes on you tube, whenever I get a chance. May be, one day, when daughter asks me a question like, ‘What would happen if there was no moon’, I wouldn’t need to ‘google’  it?

The thin line between pressurizing and motivating

Thanks Blogadda, for the spicy pick!

is what I tread very carefully..

And forever worry that I might be becoming too lax in the process. Especially after Amy Chua happened.

In September, when daughter had just started school, I had enrolled her in a few activities. Ballet class – because she wanted to, Bharatnatyam class – because I always wanted to, when I was little. I know I am living life through her. In my defense, I just wanted to see if she were interested. And Kumon. There were trial classes and I felt it made sense to check it out.

Ballet she loved, so we are still at it. Bharatanatyam – she refused to go after the first class, and I did not want to force her. She was after all just a four year old. So I left it at that. Kumon, she loved initially, but by the end of the second week, I think it got a bit too much for her, and she did not want to do it. And I left it at that.

To be honest, I was never sure if I did the right thing, in letting her get her way. After reading Amy Chua’s article, I couldn’t help wonder, should I have pushed harder? I still am not sure if I did the right thing. When initially she showed no interest in reading by herself, I kept wondering, if I was indeed letting her off too easily. When she started reading, I breathed easy. Yes, she started doing it at her pace, when she was ready for it.

Last week, I tried Bharatanatyam again. Why? Well, because she was really good(I was surprised at how graceful she was) at it when we went the first time – even though it was the first day. I suspect that the reason she balked was because she had just started full time school, and was exhausted. I have seen her energy increase as she settled into her routine. Now after 6 months of being in a routine, we tried again. This time, she had a class mate for company. And she loved it! She can’t stop talking about it. She showed me her moves, she danced for us when we got home – it was wonderful! I do hope her enthusiasm does not ebb down. I guess, I need to push and encourage her enough for her to continue. Will I stop again, if she asks.. I have no idea. I guess the way we react is based on a lot of factors. As parents, if we feel that the demand is unreasonable, we wouldn’t give in. Does it make us tough parents, not in my books. Then again, I might be a lazy or lax parent in some other parent’s book, for giving in the first time, and not pushing her to try harder. At that point, I was worried about putting her off it completely, if I pushed her too much. It is such a tough thing, getting that balance right.

I had plans to try Kumon again after 6 months, but I have shelved it for now. Why you ask? Well, at the moment, I don’t feel the need for it. Now, she is comfortable practising her handwriting at home. She loves maths. Her favourite game these days is for us to ask her maths questions. And before you call me a competitive parent or obsessed with studies parent – she initiated it. That is what she wants to do all day long, if she can get away with it. She does not consider it studying or ‘work’ – it is a game for her. So as far as she enjoys it, and gets to learn at the same time, why would I want her to go to a ‘class’, and feel that she ‘has to’ do something, when she does it all the time, on her own? If she gets her hands on a piece of paper, she makes up additions and writes down the answers – all by herself. And the thing is, I can’t claim any credit for parenting – this is her. She has picked up stuff from school, learnt a way of making it fun, and loves doing it over and over again. And as parent, what more can I ask for?

Can I push her more? I do – I push her limits slowly. I increase the number of stories that she reads, slowly. And as she progresses through the different levels, her reading books get slightly tougher. When she expresses an interest in the book, that I am reading, I encourage her to find words that she knows in it, and she loves it. I might not be pushing her as much as some others, because I want her to truly enjoy it rather than get pressured into doing it. She is enjoying the pace at which she is learning. It does not matter to me whether or not she becomes a professional dancer or the best student in class. What does matter is that she enjoys what she learns, that she gets stimulated as much as possible, and that she remains the confident, sunny child that she is. And makes the most of her life. While grades do matter, I have seen people with normal grades doing spectacularly well.

I will never know how things might have been different if I stuck to my guns and made her stay at all the activities, Who knows she might be reading much better now, or might have been dancing at higher levels.. Sure. Or maybe, she might have been hating it all. I guess I will never know. The one thing I know is that she is happy and content at the moment. At the moment, I do not regret what I did. And if tomorrow she wishes I had pushed her more, I guess I will have to accept it, knowing that I did the best I could, in the circumstances.

Every child is different, as is every parent.

To reach the sky…

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‘Go pick up Baby, Gudia’, yelled her Madam from the living room, where she had her friends over for tea.

Gudia, abandoned her tea-making, to pick up little Baby. Baby was only 4 months old, and Gudia had been delegated to look after her, from the time she was born. Looking after Baby was one of the chores that 12-year-old Gudia loved. It reminded her of her own sisters and brothers, she had helped her mother bring up. She wondered now, how they were managing. She knew that she really did not have to worry.  Sunita, her 10-year-old sister would have taken over from where she left, a year ago.

She remembered that day so vividly. Her madam and sir had come to their native place, a few months before Baby was born. They had their son Vivek, and madam had been pregnant with Baby. Their old maid had fallen ill, and this time madam wanted a young child because she did not want to be saddled with the worry of  a maid falling ill.  Her mother had been overjoyed at their offer. It was a big blessing for her. With six children to look after and bring up, one child being practically taken off her hands and getting paid for it, was more than she could ask for. Gudia’s school had been stopped long back when she was roped into help her mother look after the other children when her mother went to work as a domestic help for the well-off families in the village. What she earned was a pittance in comparison to what the Kumars were offering for Gudia. She could not believe her luck. The only condition that they had been that she had to maintain that she was 16 in case anybody asked her in the big city.

Life at the Kumar’s was quite pleasant for Gudia. She had a lot of work, but in comparison to the amount that she had to do back in her village, this was quite comfortable. Madam was good to her too. She did not hit her like she had heard some people did, from others in the village. She did get an earful, every so often, for eating too much, but Gudia had learnt to ignore it.

Things became more hectic after Baby’s birth for Gudia, but because she adored the little baby so much, she quickly got used to it. The couple’s son was the only thorn in her back. He took pleasure in taunting her and made fun of the fact that she knew no English. She has started learning the language at school when she was pulled out. Once Vivek saw her pouring over a book he had left around and started making fun of her. ‘What are you trying to do? Do you think someone like you will be able understand all these big words?’  That ensured that she never went close to his books again.

‘Gudia, why are you day dreaming?’ Her madam’s, harsh voice broke into her reverie.

‘Baby is asleep, and we are waiting for tea, and here you are sitting at day-dreaming! Do I have to remind you of everything?’

Mini, at Amita Kumar’s place for the first time, flinched. She worked in an NGO, and they had been campaigning for years to eradicate Child labour. Although Amita claimed that Gudia was almost 17, it was difficult to believe. Mini just could not help telling Amita in English, that she is after all just a child. Amita’s eyes flashed and showed Mini that she would not take kindly to any interference.

Mini’s husband reported to Amita’s husband at work and she had to be careful handling this. Her heart went out to the little girl who was handling responsibilities like a grown up. Even if she were 17, did it make it alright to shout at her? Besides, her instincts told her that she was definitely younger. She could not be more than 11. Amita claimed that she was even more scrawny earlier, and they had brought her here to help her mother who was finding it difficult to look after her children. Amita claimed that the girl had started looking healthy only after coming here.

After that get-together at Amita’s place, Mini tried to tiptoe around Amita’s ego to try to do her bit for Gudia. With Amita insisting that Gudia was 17, there was little she could do unless Gudia herself confided in her or came to her for help.

Mini had been wracking her brain to figure out a way, when fate provided a way out. Providence does work in mysterious ways. One day, Amita called her and asked for a favour. She had to go away for a few days and she had not been able to find somebody to take Gudia home. Could Mini please help keep her at her place until she got back? All her other friends had full-time domestic help, and did not want to upset the balance. Mini was overjoyed, here was the opportunity that she was waiting for.

Gudia came on the appointed day and was stunned when Mini instead of asking her to start work immediately started to ask her about her and her family. Gudia maintained that she was 17, and the story of how her mother had been delighted that Amita had helped them.  On talking to her she realised that the girl was interested in studying but had been pulled out of school. Mini’s do-good nature licked into full force and she decided to teach her in the time that she was at her place. Gudia sensed that Mini wanted to help her, but she could not understand why Mini wanted to help her at all. She actually considered herself lucky that Amita did not abuse her or treat her badly. She had heard stories of how some other girls had been treated. Amita’s household was heaven in comparison. The last thing that Gudia wanted was to upset her madam in any way.

That week, instead of doing all the household work, Gudia spent her time mastering the English alphabet and trying to read. She was delighted at the end of the week, that she could read sentences. Mini promised her that she would somehow continue teaching her. One day, Mini took Gudia to the NGO’s office. Mini realized that Gudia needed to see more of the world to understand that she deserved more. She saw how some of the girls rescued from working in homes were now being taken care of by the NGO. Seeing all the women at the NGO , filled her with wonder. Wonder at what she could have been if she had not been born where she had been. It also reminded her that if they got to know her real age, she would be plucked from there and her mother would ultimately suffer. Her monthly salary was a huge boon to her mother back in the village.

The time at Mini’s place flew by too quickly. Back at Amita’s place, Gudia’s life went back to normal. Household chores, ferrying Vivek back and forth from the school bus, looking after Baby. She still managed to get her hands on the daily newspaper and would practice her newly acquired reading skills. She kept this knowledge away from Amita. Something told her that Amita would not appreciate it.

Mini did not get a chance to coach her again. Her husband was offered a better job at another city and they were getting ready to move on. Just before she left, she did manage to smuggle a dictionary to Gudia. She had once showed Gudia how to use it and she hoped that she would remember.

Mini moved cities and got busy with life, but she always had that nagging feeling that she had not done enough. She wished that she had the courage to take Gudia to the NGO and get somebody else to talk to her.  She got busy with her life in the new city. She started working another NGO, but always felt a little guilty at the back of her mind. She could not help wishing that she had done more for Gudia. The week that she stayed with her, had made her very fond of the sincere, serious and responsible girl who was shouldering such responsibilities at an age when teenagers around her, are having the time of their lives.

Years later, she moved back into her hometown, and rejoined the old NGO. She was getting introduced to her colleagues when she met a young woman called Sujata who looked familiar but she was not able to place her. Sujata on the other hand was ecstatic, ‘Mini Madam,you must have forgotten me. I am Gudia , I used to work at Amita Madam’s place!’

Mini’s delight knew no bounds,  ‘I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you. I have been feeling so guilty for not doing enough for you when I left!’

Gudia said, ‘Guilty, for what? Whatever I am today, is because of you. You made me want to aspire for more. You made me realize that I can dream and that I can hope to be more than a maid!’

‘If you had not showed me tenderness and caring,or encouraged me to read, that ‘people like me’ did not necessarily have no brains, I would have accepted my fate and my children might have been doing the same that I was. I got the confidence to break the cycle, because of you.’

Gudia’s words were like a balm for Mini. She had not let the child down. Gudia explained how those days with Mini had shown her that she could do more if she wanted to. So she secretly started studying Vivek’s old books which Amita had thrown away. She would stash them away and try to read and understand what she could. She knew that she had little chance of getting an actual education, but she wanted to know as much as she could. Amita’s confidence in her grew as she realized that Gudia was hardworking, sincere and extremely honest. In a couple of years time, Gudia had become so dependable and trustworthy, that when she approached Amita with the plea that she be allowed to work in other homes, just to make a little more money, Amita had agreed. This extra money she got, was stashed away as her nest egg. At that point in time, she had no idea what she would do with it, but she knew that all the opportunities she never got, she had to ensure that younger siblings and her future children should get. As the nest egg grew, so did her confidence. She had also made sure that her younger siblings were going to school and getting an education back in her village. She was determined that they would have a different, better life.

One day, she gathered the confidence to go to the NGO that Mini had once taken her to.  By then she was no longer a child labourer. But she wanted to ask them if she could do odd jobs there.  The people at the NGO were delighted to help. They had been surprised at the way she carried herself, her self-confidence and how well she had self-educated herself.  Soon she was helping out with other children, some battered physically, some battered mentally. Today she had a job that she loved. She was still studying. The thirst for knowledge that Mini had unleashed, in her was never satisfied. She also reclaimed her ‘real name’. She had been known as Gudia for too long, a mere nickname which had taken over her personality. She wanted to be Sujata now. A new name for a new personality, a person in-charge of her own destiny.

Mini realised then that every little counts. It reinforced her faith in what she was doing.She was at peace that night after a very long time.

Gudia was now one of the most effective persons at the NGO. She was an inspiration for children like her who were being used as child labour. Gudia’s success showed them that they could dream and achieve. All they had to do was grab every opportunity and be strong and aspire for a better life.

To reach the sky, all you need is a helping hand.

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To read the entries of the rest of the team hop over to at Shilpa’sLazy Pineapple’sKshitij’sPujitha’sHitesh’s , Parth’s and Tavish’s.