The Slum School- In Conversation with Sarita Vaidya

Sewabharathi (सेवा भारती) is a non-governmental organization in India. It works among the economically weaker sections and the tribal and indigenous communities in India. It runs thousands of service projects across India in the field of education, health care, rural development and rehabilitation of differently abled and special needs children. The organization runs a small office in the Mandi town of Himachal Pradesh. Long ago I got to know about a lady running a single-room school in the slums of the town. An hour long conversation that happened between us became an unforgettable memory of my life. A 49 year old lady teaching in the slums with a single aim to make a change in their lives is surely an eye opener. She expects that times will change because she has seen things changing in her life. She hopes that someday the educated youth of this country will consider education as a career option because if anything needs to be improved in our country then it is the educational system, which is not possible without the participation of young blood and that too out of choice.

When did you start with this center?

We started off with the center on 28 December 2006. I was going through a very rough phase and I could not see any light in my life. As they say good and bad are complementary to each other, it was my turn to see the better side of life. I met Mr. Sansar Chand, who was the then Head of Sewa Bharthi Mandi. It was from him I got to know about the task of teaching in the slums and I instantaneously said yes. As I was going back from the office I was wondering about what I had said in the office. The notoriety of those slums had reached my ears and now I was worried because teaching kids was one thing and dealing with their parents, who were drunk and abusive most of the times was another thing altogether.

The Slum School

You consciously chose these slums as your workplace. How was life different here? What were the difficulties you faced and how did you tackle problems?

Without the support of my family and Mr. Sansar Chand I could not have reached anywhere with this program. I was scared to death and I was wondering how will I make them understand, convincing them was totally out of the picture. I told myself that my primary task is to teach kids and why would anyone mind that? Some generous parents decided to send their kids and that’s when the project started. I was dealing with a very small group and at times it embarrassed me to look at those questioning eyes of the slum dwellers. Mr. Sansar Chand used to visit the center every other day and he motivated me to keep working. Initially it was two or three kids and that was all. Whenever I used to talk sense to their drunk parents they would start fighting with each other and sometimes with me as well. In the middle of the class, parents would come and take their kids away and I had to start everything from scratch. I have lost count how many times that happened.

Dealing with the parents was very difficult but handling those kids was the real challenge. They used to bring their family problems to the classroom and their parents would follow them to the classroom. At times I used to feel that I am a policewoman solving their proprietorial and personal issues. They used to brew alcohol at home and as you know it, poverty and alcohol is the deadliest combination, a guaranteed way to invite trouble in life. Kids used to bring their mothers to the classroom if they had any problem with other students, mothers will start fighting and fathers would join in followed by the kids themselves. It was a chaotic situation for me and everyday I had to face the same challenge of putting some sense into their heads.

All these problems are more than enough to scare a normal human being. How did you manage to continue?

I was worried about myself but more than that I was worried about the future of kids. I decided to stay back and give my 100%. I adopted the method of storytelling. Ironically matured adults do not understand things easily whereas kids do, so I decided to tell my students about the aftermaths of  consuming alcohol. I told them stories and urged them to talk to their parents about not drinking. It was a difficult and unconventional approach but it worked for me. Kids would go home and tell their parents about what they had learned in the class. Every time they saw their parents drinking in front of them, they would question it and raise their voices against it. Gradually womenfolk also realized that fighting is no solution and they also joined hands with their kids in fighting against the evil of  drinking. Now that the problem of drinking was disappearing, I could focus on teaching and by then I had started feeling confident too.

Kids started liking me and I thought of educating their parents as well. My classroom was probably one of its kind because kids and parents were taking the same lessons in the same class. However, that idea did not go well with the parents and not many parents enrolled for the class.

Their teachers in school got to know about me and they requested me to help them to make their parents understand the importance of staying clean. I took up the challenge and started the cleanliness drive in the slums. I made it mandatory for them to wear clean clothes in my classroom. Money is not an issue for these people, they earn enough, they have well-built houses, mobile phones, TVs, and many other things that are not so important in life. Gradually that changed too and now my students are as clean as any other public-private school student.

What and how do you teach them?

It is more like a tuition class for them, students belonging to different age groups come and sit together. We study Hindi, English, Mathematics, and Science. Currently I have 26 students and they all learn with the help of each other. We also study Moral Education and I tell them stories from the past and the present.  I take them around for sightseeing also so that my education does not restrict them to books only.  I feel that they should be taught computers but we have limited resources and I cannot teach them everything because I have my own limitations. We have a single classroom and we manage happily there. It would be great if we can afford another room and most importantly another teacher who can teach them computers and science subjects for higher classes. Earlier people from the town used to come here o teach but that didn’t last long because walking all the way from the town to this shady place is not everyone’s cup of tea yet I am hopeful because balancing of good with bad is the law of nature. We need to wait for the right time patiently.

How did your family react to your decision of working in the slums?

Ours is an understanding family, so I never had any problem. My husband, daughter, and son always appreciated the idea of working with the underprivileged and they always motivated me to go ahead. Whenever I would get late for home, my husband would take care of the household chores.

How has this project helped you to grow as a person?

When I started teaching there I used to feel scared  of the surroundings but now the times have changed. When I see my students behaving nicely in schools, their parents motivating them to work hard in studies, and their mothers working for the betterment of their community, I proudly tell people that they are my students, all of them, mothers, fathers, and kids. The few hundred meters which were frightening initially have now become a part of my existence. They have started voting in the elections as well which the younger and educated generation finds a boring thing to do. They have made me realize the value of hardships in life.

I expect more people to step up and take education as their career. We all complaint about the education system claiming to know its problems. If we keep mum and do not show the path then things will remain the same forever. If one has faced the problem and knows the right way to fix it, then the best way is to step up and provide a solution.

Sarita Vaidya and Kids

She has made an impact on her own, alone. She has been working for the last six years and the size of her classroom is growing big with every passing year. The ladies in the slum now run sewing centers from home, men have stopped brewing alcohol, and kids want to become doctors, engineers, and (surprisingly) poets too. Things can get better from here if only those who know solution(s) start contributing.

In case you are willing to contribute you can help or contact her at +919418829308

7 thoughts on “The Slum School- In Conversation with Sarita Vaidya”

  1. This is too good… Respected lady has really displayed her commitment, 6 years is huge time… lot’s of lives shall be thanking her knowingly or unknowingly.
    Here similar thinking organizations in the area(not sure if they exist) should get together and extend the light further.
    She has road-map and commitment, Sevabharati(in case capable) should provide the raised needs, a moderately paid teacher(should not expect volunteer, most educated ppl struggle for living) and room space, a computer.

    If you are able to eradicate alcohol and domestic quarrels you are god to the community!

    @tarun exactly which area in town is the school functioning. Thanks for sharing!!

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