By Maggie Brown (@MagsOnWags)
The eager anticipation began to rise rapidly among our group of foreign travelers as the rickety school bus climbed through the bumpy dirt roads smushed between rows of cracked concrete storefronts, woven straw homes, and mounds of piling trash. From the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicles, our eyes gazed out into the surrounding world, picking up glances of manual laborers hard at work, women lugging large water basins overhead, and children scrambling through the streets en route to school. Everywhere we looked, the physical structure of homes crumbled, flies swarmed, and the eyes of people store solemnly back in our direction, as if crying for aid. With so much to observe in the blocks leading to the primary school, our minds were left wandering as to what joys and sorrows sat behind the metal school gate that separated the heartbreak of the Chennai city slums from the hope and promise of a quality education.
The school in which our arrival was expected behind the gate altered greatly from the luxurious American International School marked by prestige and extreme wealth that we have grown accustomed to visiting in Chennai. Instead, today’s visits brought us to the land of a public government school, a place generally reserved for girls and extremely low income families, where class sizes can stretch into the triple digits and resources are extremely scarce. Within this local government school, our group was arranged to meet with a unique section of India’s education system called Teach for India, a fellowship that places accomplished college graduates into the reigns of urban education across the globe, for the pure benefit of children’s access to proper education through tenth grade.
After a brisk walk through a dark, open air hallway marked by the stench of raw sewage and filth, our group arrived into a second standard classroom taught by a Teach for India fellow that had only been on the job for a single month. Abandoning the comfort of the corporate world to explore the world of teaching for the first time, Yashas was responsible for shaping the minds of thirty-eight children around age eight, for over six hours of the day. Upon our immediate entrance onto school grounds, Yashas greeted us with a warm smile and open arms, willingly taking time out of his hectic schedule to welcome our group into his class, which he has appropriately named, “United Universe”. Following a brief introduction, he lead us directly into his world as a Teach for India fellow, diving right into his stance on education, and showing us the beaming faces of the lives that he works so diligently to change each and everyday.
Immediately upon walking into Yashas’ classroom, the faces of his thrifty-eight students went from being engrained in school work, to giggling in joy and smiling in uncontrollable excitement. Instantaneously, their liveliness lightened the classroom, and a wave of happiness crashed through the room, ringing through everyone’s souls, and warming the heart beyond belief. As Yashas softly spoke commands the students listened and obeyed with ease, singing and dancing when told, and sitting quietly when the time for games commenced. The students graciously welcomed us into their space, scooting over on their straw mats to make room for us, showing us their drawings, and allowing us to play puzzles and games with them, all while keeping a smile that stretched from ear to ear across their face.
What especially amazed me about the atmosphere of the Teach for India classroom was Yashas’ hard work and dedication to formulating an environment that makes his students want to stay in school, and have fun while simultaneously learning. Despite having a month of experience, Yashas was extremely passionate about motivating his students towards education, and lighting a fire within them that makes them want to learn about the world around them and how to live in it. He explained his efforts to raise funds for the class, the books he has gotten them, and the games that he uses to keep them interested. He discussed the emphasis on having fun, being excited for school, and gaining support from the community.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the morning was when Yashas told us how his heart sometimes broke when looking into his students eyes, knowing their stomachs are empty, their homes are flooded with raw sewage, and their parents live on less than $2 US per day. He admitted it could be hard to come to work each day with a lump of sorrow in his throat, yet how rewarding it was to change lives, even if in a minimal way. He also discussed his willingness to hold class on Saturday, to keep kids in the classroom for another day out of the week, and out of the neighborhoods that can so easily break them down.
As incredible as Yashas was, it is quite possible that his students were far more incredible. Despite their thin and fragile bodies, empty stomachs, and dirt-caked skin, the students were overjoyed to be in school, learning new things, and bringing hope into their young lives. For the entirety of our visit they could not stop smiling, and their eyes could not stop lighting with joy. To think that they have no shoes, have not eaten since the previous night, and walked through the hot Indian sun just to get here was utterly incredible, an idea that as travelers we can hardly comprehend.
To put the experience in the Teach for India classroom into words is essentially impossible, as there are no words that can describe the feeling of utter amazement. What Yashas is doing for these kids is beyond belief, and I know that their futures are far brighter because of his will to promote learning. For now they are simply learning addition and subtraction, but before long, they could be India’s next generation of leaders, all thanks to the diligent efforts of their jumpstart in the Teach for India program