Have you ever observed or interacted with children from low income families (and sometimes first generation literates) studying in private or government aided English medium schools, in their school or outside? Who are their friends? What is their medium (language) and topic of conversation? Do they commute by walk or bus or private transport? Does their body language display confidence and stability or insecurity and discrimination?
While tutoring and mentoring such children I have found that many of them feel diffident primarily because they can’t converse fluently in English and lack academic and career guidance at home. Further, their parents’ constant financial struggles and/or alcoholic, abusive or absent fathers greatly impact their performance and behaviour. Kavya, Manju and Chetan, class IX students in private English medium schools in R.T. Nagar are above average in academics who feel ‘left out’ by their school teachers especially during live demonstration and practical sessions. "Our Computer Science and Maths teachers explain everything rapidly in English which we are unable to follow easily. They encourage students who understand quickly. We find it difficult to clarify our doubts in or after class due to time and language constraints", was their reply when I asked them if they had tried sharing their problems with their school teachers.
Raji and Lakshmi who are class X children from the same school memorize ‘answers’ to specific questions in various subjects (except Mathematics) without understanding the basic concepts. Any departure from the predefined questions usually draws a blank from them. For most subjects they frequently request me: "Please teach us in Tamil or Kannada. Otherwise we cannot be certain if have grasped the idea correctly". Girls like Ayesha and Sultana who have quickly adapted to the transition from an Urdu medium government school to an English medium private one are an exception. And so are their parents (responsible autorickshaw drivers and household workers) who are very keen to educate their daughters to the extent possible despite their financial constraints.
And then there are Ramya and Radhika, daughters of a semi-literate and progressive laundry worker couple Eswari and Suresh who are doing their utmost to ensure a comfortable life and good education for their children within their limited means. Fortunately, the little girls have been top performers in their English medium private school in Frazer Town for the last four years. Further, Ramya’s teachers have identified her as one of the children who can assist slow learners in her class. But Eswari has requested Ramya’s teachers to rid her of this responsibility, fearing distractions and repercussions (like alienation by peers or objection from their parents).
Many such children (like Meena, Asha and Sridhar from Jaya Nagar) often befriend those from similar backgrounds at school or in their residential neighbourhood especially as they grow older. Teachers and/or parents rarely encourage them or children from other socio-economic groups to bridge this divide. In fact, when I asked Ramya if she enjoyed participating in their school’s Annual Day celebrations, she reluctantly revealed "Our teachers select only fair, cherubic kids for such activities irrespective of anyone’s abilities or interests." Nina, a precocious and capable class VII student of an English medium private school lives in Tilak Nagar with her unlettered yet strong-willed grandmother, a housemaid and a hardworking class XII educated young mother who is a clerk in a private firm. While discussing her interests once, she slowly said "My school mates chide me as my father deserted us. But I counter them by topping my class regularly".
Take the case of Mary, a housemaid in Pottery Town and Annamalai, her soft spoken fruit vending husband whose sales have reduced due to the recession and opening of private supermarkets. Their daughter Dipa is a keen and sharp class VI student of the Pottery Town Kannada medium government school while their sons Sunil and John study in an English medium private school nearby. They seem to prefer to spend more on their sons’ education although it’s quite expensive for them. "I found Dipa to be a good student when I volunteered in her school", I told Annamalai. "True, madam. But she was refused admission in a private school as she may be unable to adapt and perform well there after studying in a government school", he remarked.
Interestingly, some of these kids watch National Geographic, Animal Planet and other children’s channels on televsion. Also, they are aware of current events from vernacular newspapers and news channels although they rarely have access to non-academic books. However, their eagerness to continue learning and their parents’ determination to realize their own and their ward’s dreams despite all the odds is simply inspiring.
Note: Some person’s names have been changed to protect identity