A class apart

April has always been the most loved – and most dreaded – month of the school year. It was the time of year when students across Hyderabad city would rejoice, screaming at the top of their lungs in buses and school buildings that they were finally free to forget a year of knowledge. However, the arrival of April did not necessarily mean that we were free to return to bask in our air-conditioned homes until the end of summer. In Hyderabad, we always had a kind of trial run for the next school year – from 15 days to a month where we got a taste of what our next school year would be like. Throughout April we had to study in the sweltering 90 degree heat of a Hyderabad summer. Although this fact generated moans of annoyance, we secretly enjoyed the accommodations our school arranged for us during this time. We were thrilled at the prospect of queuing at the lemonade stands our school had set up to relieve us of the summer heat and school trips to water parks where we would be soaked in cool water as the sun shines. burning gazed at us.

The summers of Hyderabad, however, did not always bring with them such joyful moments. A majority of the population – especially sects not as wealthy as us – have had to cope with the heat by fanning themselves with newspapers and being hospitalized or dying from sunstroke. They have faced extreme conditions in their homes, places of work or study, their movements and their daily activities. I had been led to witness this harsh reality at the public school belonging to and quite close to my own educational institution. Only a very small portion of the students studying at my school had ever attended the one floor – containing no more than five rooms – which they called a school. On this particular occasion, we were going there to teach the students first aid, despite the fact that we were not very educated about it initially.

While it may seem philanthropic on my school’s part to have funded a public school, it is essential to understand that there was a substantial reason behind this magnanimity. In India, the government mandates that private schools reserve 25% of their places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with lower or no fees. However, most private schools do not want these “unruly” children to sit with their “rich and sophisticated” students. So they find a workaround: they fund public schools and maintain class segregation. My private school was wealthy, and it was a well-known fact that they funded and owned a public school nearby. Maybe this goodwill tour was our school’s way to make amends for separating us from government school kids for so many years. Maybe our school thought that we were doing a great service to these children by giving them our presence, whether it was to teach them without really improving their knowledge of first aid or simply to spend our “precious” time with them. Whatever the reason, the students of the private school tacitly understood that this visit was made in the hope that the children of the public school would be immensely grateful for the alleged altruism of our school.

When I was 14, I had been in my school for nine years but never thought it was strange that we hadn’t set foot in public school. Nonetheless, we were delighted to be going to school as this visit meant that we didn’t have to attend any of our classes that day. We sat in our air-conditioned bus and drove to school through the narrow, cramped streets of Masjid Banda. We got off the bus at the school gate and were greeted by a large expanse of empty land. To our right were two classrooms filled with students who couldn’t be older than eight. In front of us were steps leading to an open hallway with the classes of the older students. My classmates and I were divided into two groups: one was to teach first aid to the public school students and the other was to interact and “play” with the students. I was in the latter group. For elementary school students, there were two classrooms with a small tiled space outside. However, there were three classes using this space, which meant that one of them had to sit outside and learn in the scorching sun while the other two took place. Standing in the uneven space filled with cement tiles, we could feel the piercing heat of the sun and the drops of sweat rolling down our backs. Most of us were desperate to take our shoes off because we just couldn’t stand the cruel weather around us.

We talked, laughed and played with the students, almost all covered in sweat. Finally, we were saved by the bell when our teachers entered, announcing that it was time for lunch. Everyone in the school lined up with their plates, waiting in line to be served by the singular cook who was hunched over two large steel utensils containing the day’s lunch – rice and sambar. When most of the students were already halfway through their meal, one of the younger girls sat next to me in silence, staring at her plate. After chatting with her in Telugu for a little while, I learned that her food was too hot for her to eat with her hands – a common practice in India – so she waited for it to cool. I offered to mix her with sambar and rice and even had the pleasure of feeding this adorable girl with her lunch. After this rather comforting experience, we spoke with the director about the learning conditions of the students. He told my teachers that students were abused on a regular basis, a common practice in rural schools in India, and that the students were happy with the way their school was functioning. Later in the afternoon, we took photos with the students and left on the same bus that took us there.

Fairly simple story – we went, we saw, we spoke, we came back. I never really thought of the experience as something worthy of significance until my freshman year of college. We were given the prompt “think back to a learning experience through meeting with an educational institution”. At first I struggled to find something to write on as my education was mostly protected. There weren’t many learning experiences to choose from, especially not something with implications that affected my learning in a larger context. However, I found this particular story quite special. Not so much because of the events of actual experience, but rather how we reacted to them later.

Returning to our school after a long bus ride, we were able to shed our sweat and breathe freely in our dry, air-conditioned classroom. During a discussion moderated by the teacher, we highlighted how pitiful these children were and their apparent lack of resources. What we did not recognize was that these students were perfectly satisfied with the conditions in which they found themselves. While the public school did not have half the facilities our school had, our school used content perceived by students as an excuse to justify neglect and inaction. Everyone in our school knew that our administration set aside thousands of rupees for annual renovations. New recreational buildings are being erected regularly despite the fact that we already have sufficient facilities. An entire summer was spent cementing our school ground as the previously sandy ground was not practical for sport. They invested in paint jobs every year. The school has organized lavish events for any occasion or festival and field trips to some of Hyderabad’s most beautiful sites.

The link between money and access to educational resources runs incredibly deep in today’s society. People comfortably defend this connection with the excuse “if you work hard enough you will earn money and live a comfortable life”. Most parents of children in public schools strove to give their children a basic education. Meanwhile, my school keeps students separated because they want to please rich parents who frown on integration, who think public school students “would be intimidated by rich kids.” If the amount you got paid was proportional to how hard you worked, why do people who work twice as hard as our parents find it impossible to earn half of what you have? It is because we come from the money. Capitalism facilitates the accumulation of wealth and maintains our economic status quo without also redistributing resources to the poor. It is a system that actively elevates the already privileged sects of society and treads on the less fortunate sects.

I’m not going to pretend I know anything about what it’s like to live the life of a poor person. I do know, however, that the media gives the upper classes a fairly inaccurate portrayal of this life. They highlight the “rags to riches” stories of people who come and end up owning massive fortunes through their own “hard work”. We never see the other side of poverty, the one where people are starving, tired and struggling to get out of it. The side where they don’t get famous because of a twist of fate. These stories are too depressing to be broadcast in the media, despite the fact that they are the defining ones of the majority.

Reflecting on the experience, I realize that this kind of thinking begins in school. Our teachers told us to have mercy on these children, when they never even considered challenging the system that made them less fortunate than us in the first place; and so, we never thought about it.

Every April there will likely be a new group of ninth grade students teaching public school students things they know nothing about. Each April, these students will return to their school and receive a course on compassion. They will forget about the public school students and enjoy a summer that brings them joy and warmth, not sickness and despair. While I had initially internalized this disparity as ‘the way things are’, I have come to learn that it is only the way things are because we let it happen and we have the power. to change that. I hope it’s not every April that a student like me sits quietly in acceptance when he might challenge a system that is so seemingly flawed.

MiC contributor Meera M. Kumar can be contacted at [email protected]

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