Girl 1: Sadhana (6-7 years of age)
Father-carpenter. Mother- works as a household maid. Originally from UP. Settled in Chennai. Both brothers study in English medium schools. Father drinks up his earnings and a good share of the mother's money. The rest hardly suffices for brothers' education and two meals a day. Domestic violence is a daily affair.
Girl 2: Keerthana (5 to 6 years of age)
father-passed away. Mother- works as a household maid. 1 brother, 1 co-brother (born of the second wife of father- this fact Keerthana is unaware of), both brothers studying in English medium schools, financial status of the family is too poor to support Keerthna's education.
Girl 3: Kalaiselvi (10-11 years of age)
differently abled by birth. Father- works at a flower shop, mother-works as a household maid. 2 brothers. One working for daily wages. Much of the meager earnings are spent for Kalai's treatment. Not much is then left for her education.
Girl 4: Sridevi (11-12 years of age)
father-passed away. Mother-out of work. one sister-discontinued studies after the 8th std and works currently. Tsunami victim.
Girl 5: Jansi (10-11 years of age)
father-works at a cycle repair shop; chain smoker. Mother-works as a household maid. No steady income for the father. Domestic violence is a routine affair. Brother in the 6th standard. Meager wages for the mother.
And there are so many more similar cases. These girls were among the few who I met at the Olcott Memorial High School. This is a free school for the poor; free in every sense of the word-right from breakfast, lunch and pure drinking water to books, uniforms and bags to a free learning environment. So efficient and loved is the school that it was termed ‘a school for the poor that the rich may envy’ by goodnewsindia.com.
I had recently been to the school where I spent an afternoon with some of the girls. It was such a wonderful experience! They were all too enthusiastic to talk to me; to tell me how important the school had become for them, that if it were possible they would continue to study there for the rest of their lives. If it weren't for the school, these girls would've had to probably lead uneducated childhood lives doing household work or grow up, oblivious to the existence of alcohol/drug abuse treatments and get married off to a drunkard, who would then treat them like dirt. Thanks to this school however, now, Sadhana wants to be a doctor, Keerthana- a police woman, Sridevi- a collector and Kalaiselvi, a software engineer. Education, I believe, can turn the world around.
Apart from other things that the children thought were unique to their school, there was one person whom the children held in high esteem and who, they believe, and now, so do I, is the heart and soul of the place- the headmistress of the school, Mrs.Lakshmi Suryanarayanan. Truly speaking, there are very few people like her in this world. Let me tell you why I say this, for instance, take this one case. She gave up her job in a school in Mumbai to become headmistress of Olcott School, 10 years back. She was paid Rs.25000 then. Now she is paid Rs.5000.
I have never, in my entire life, ever, seen so much dedication and love for one’s job. She was a lovely woman, quite unlike the headmistresses I’ve seen in the past, who were either too stern or too busy to meet. A charming woman, her grey hair tied in a bun, she had an aura of sophistication with an unmistakable air of affability about her. Even while I was in her office, I saw a few children who came to her with problems such as no school bag or a bullying brother. I was amazed at how she tended to all of them with such love and patience in her voice, like a mother and her child. Mind you, I’m talking not of a class teacher; but the head of the entire school!
Excited that I had gone to the school to learn about the school and meet the children, she gave me a detailed account of all the schools’ accomplishments and how far the school has come since its start in 1894. She is also a chief trainer with the Asha Foundation. A woman who has truly laid down her life for the service of the poor and needy, this terrific woman doesn’t even consider her life a sacrifice. She modestly claims that her service is no sacrifice for she has been provided with a beautiful house within the campus of the school and above all, she believes that the love of her children and the staff means much more to her than money and material wealth. There was not even a glint of artificiality in her tone when she said so. After tea at her place, she showed me, with such childlike eagerness, all the educational artifacts like puzzles, story tags, etc that ex students of her school had made for use in the school. It was endearing to see her devotion to the cause. And needless to say, very inspirational too.
This post probably does not tell you much. Honestly, I can’t tell you how happy I was to spend time with those tiny tots who have probably gone through a lot more than most of us in life. We, the lucky ones, sitting in our air conditioned offices/homes, commuting by cars, owning cell phones and laptops are unaware of the hardships faced by these tender aged blossoms. I don’t know how to put to words, the zeal and commitment that flickered in the eyes of the headmistress. I really can’t find the right way to tell you how beautiful a feeling it was to be thanked by those girls for having visited them and shared with them an anecdote and toffee or two. Perhaps, if you got the chance to do so too, you’d know too!
photo courtesy : olcott-school-chennai.org, goodnewsindia.com