My daily journey to school remains a vivid memory. The minibus turns off the main road onto a sandy track westwards into the desert. At first it winds between bushes and one or two big trees, and then it sets off across a featureless expanse. There is no marked road, and I wonder how the driver chooses one route rather than another through the tangle of tyre tracks in the sand. Soon a couple of electricity pylons appear on the horizon, and beyond them the little white houses of the village, the small square temple, and a slightly larger building painted pink (the colour of government buildings) which is the school. As the minibus draws near, the children run to meet us, barefoot, with bright eyes and smiling faces. Most of them wear school uniform – short navy skirts and white blouses for the girls and fawn shorts or trousers with sky blue shirts for the boys. Their clothes are rather worn and faded but they are always clean.
The school consisted of a single room for the thirty or so children and their teacher. Alex, Joya and I divided the children into three groups and sat with them in different corners of the room. Joya took the babies’ class, for five- to six-year-olds, but she always had a few younger children as well who had followed their older brothers and sisters and were allowed to stay. One of them was a toddler, not yet two years old, who was a bit of a nuisance as he ate the crayons and distracted the others. Alex had classes II and III, ranging in age from six to eight years old, and my nine- to eleven-year-olds were in classes IV and V. (It amused me to discover that the classes in Indian primary schools were identified by Roman numerals.)
The children sat on mats on the floor, and Alex and I each had a blackboard propped up against the wall behind us. Volunteers had painted the schoolroom white and decorated it in bright colours with the letters of the Roman alphabet, the numbers from one to twenty, and a picture of a tree with pink flowers. In an alcove next to my blackboard was a framed picture of Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge and the Arts, holding a book and a pen in two of her four hands, while with the other pair she played a musical instrument that looked like a very long-necked lute. She was seated on a lotus with a swan gliding beside her.
One of the Indian staff from the camp accompanied us to school as our ‘executive’, to help and translate if necessary. We were lucky to have Mr Narula, who was a retired schoolteacher and could tell us about the primary school curriculum and give excellent and authoritative help with planning and delivering lessons. After the first couple of weeks he was transferred to assist new volunteers at another school, but by this time we were more confident. He was replaced by Manoj, who was in his twenties like most of the executives, and later still by Ashvini.
The schoolteacher did not speak much English (through Mr Narula he explained that he had studied Sanskrit as his main subject at college). But he would come over and explain to the children when I failed to make myself understood. He had asked for volunteers and took an interest in what we were doing. Some volunteers at other schools complained that the teachers left the class when they arrived, and sat outside reading or chatting. Once a teacher has been appointed to a government school they have a job for life which is well-paid (by Indian standards), and some treat it as a sinecure.
On some days, when we arrived a little early, school prayers were still in progress, so we waited outside on the veranda. The children stood in two or three lines in front of the picture of Saraswati and chanted a long prayer to her, ending with ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti (Peace, peace, peace)’. They finished by singing the national anthem, and then they were ready to stand in a big circle to sing the ‘Good Morning Song’ (to the tune of ‘Frère Jacques’):
Say good morning, say good morning,
How are you, how are you?
Time to start the lesson, time to start the lesson,
Now now now, now now now.
When my class had come to sit cross-legged on the mat in front of me I would take the attendance register. As I called a name, that child would jump to his or her feet and say “Yes ma’am”. Then I would ask, “What day is it today?” and one or more of them would shout out the answer, some in English and some in Hindi.
Pratap, one of the older boys, loved to stand up and recite the days of the week in English, and then the others would take it in turns to do the same.
Their English was rudimentary but they enjoyed reading the words on the flash cards I held up. They recognised ‘sun’, ‘cat’, ‘dog’ and even ‘queen’, without seeing the picture on the other side of the card, and they eagerly identified shapes, birds or wild animals on the posters I brought from the stock of teaching aids in the recreation hall at camp. I taught them to identify the countries where animals on the posters lived – ‘tiger lives in India’, ‘cheetah lives in Africa’ (for some reason the cheetah was their favourite animal) – and showed them those places on the inflatable globe I had brought with me. As soon as they saw the globe they would point to the blue oceans and shout excitedly, “Pani, pani.” They had probably never seen a stretch of water larger than the small pond in Shiv which was the local water supply.
They were so keen to learn. Little Suresh, who was one of the less able, would look at me with big bright eyes wanting desperately to answer a question correctly. Sangita was the cleverest child in the school. She was always first to finish the writing I had given them, and did it very neatly, although it was not easy for them to write well leaning over their papers on the floor. Pratap and Rakesh were also very bright, especially at Maths. Most of them added numbers by drawing a set of vertical dashes to represent each number and counting the total number of dashes. Others counted on their fingers – not in the way I expected, but by counting each knuckle. So with three knuckles on each finger and two on each thumb they could reach a total of twenty-eight rather than the ten we reach by counting fingers and thumbs. They learnt Maths through Hindi with their teacher, but it was essential for them to learn to do it in English as well. My class could all count in English up to a hundred, but found it difficult to hear the difference between numbers such as thirty and thirteen.
These children spoke a dialect of Rajasthani as their mother tongue. Rajasthani, and the languages of most of the northern and central states, are Indo-European, like Hindi. But languages in the south are completely different. There is at least one local language in every state in India. Hindi, which is derived from the ancient Sanskrit, is the offcial language of central government, according to the constitution, though only a very small minority speak Hindi as their first language. English is also an offcial language and is used in the Supreme and High Courts of law. In the north, the teaching in government schools is through Hindi. However, English provides access to well-paid jobs, and many private schools teach through English.
As soon as they start school here in the north of India, children learn both Hindi and English. That means learning two completely different alphabets, our Roman one and the Devanagari one in which Hindi is written, which has over forty letters. My class were proficient (as far as I could tell) at reading and writing Hindi. When I introduced a new English word I would tell them what it meant in Hindi, and Sangita or Pratap would come up and write the Hindi word on the board next to the English one.
Irish children have a comparatively easy time, learning only one new language when they start school and using only the Roman alphabet. Most never become bilingual in English and Irish, but these Indian children must be able to communicate in Hindi as well as their own local language. So they are at least bilingual, and those who attend private schools which teach through English will be trilingual.
There was a huge innocence about this teaching environment, so different from a school at home. Was this what the ancient hedge schools in Ireland were like? In spite of the lack of facilities and teaching aids, the children were being given a basic education, and they loved school. But how many of them would be able to continue beyond class V? The girls were destined to be housewives, and a good education was not a priority for them or their families. The men of the village were all carpenters, and their sons would be expected to follow them in the trade. While education up to the age of fourteen might be useful to them it would not be vital for their livelihoods. They would learn their craft from their fathers, or carpenters in another village.
During break the teacher coached the older boys in cricket. They were good at throwing overarm, and he was teaching them to bowl properly. We always brought the cricket bat and ball from the camp, and also skipping ropes and marbles for the children to play with. After break we played games and sang songs in English. All the children stood round in a big circle to sing, with appropriate hand motions, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, or ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. Then they would clamour for ‘Simon Says’. It took a while to get across the idea that if a command does not start with ‘Simon says’ then they should not obey it, and some never became very good at noticing the difference. They also liked to play a game in which they sat round in a circle with their hands out touching those of the child on either side. The children called out the days of the week in turn round the circle, tapping the hand of the next child as they spoke. When it reached ‘Sunday’ there was a scramble for the next child to escape being tapped. Successful evasion resulted in the child who had spoken being ‘out’. Otherwise the tapped child was out.
They were never jealous of the winner of any of these games, and all applauded at the end. Nor did they fight. They might push one another around a bit in play, but there never seemed to be a real display of anger or aggression. I believe it was the influence of their teacher, whom they called their guru. He was always gentle and kind, and he never slapped them.
After the songs and games I would hand out paper and crayons to my class. They always drew flowers and peacocks, stars and hearts, and would ask me to draw dogs, camels or elephants for them. Then it was time for the ‘Goodbye Song’, again to the tune of ‘Frère Jacques’:
Say goodbye now, say goodbye now,
Time to go, time to go,
See you in the morning, see you in the morning,
Bye bye bye, bye bye bye.
The minibus would arrive to take us back to camp, and the teacher would be left to give the children their lunch and take the whole school for lessons for the rest of the day.
Extracted from Sara McMurry’s thoughtful and fascinating book ‘Re-tyred’, her account of several teaching stints in rural India. Find out more here.