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Friday, 19 August 2016

The Longest Word in the World.....

So what do you do with a group of primary schoolers - all boys - all studying in Urdu medium and everyone from an impoverished background in a hovel of a school in one of the narrowest and liveliest gullies in Kolkata?
The school is a KMC run institution where midday meals are a daily give-away. It is a two-storey building, barely 150 sq foot in floor area. 

 The walls are shabby, the windows - old oriental style painted a bright green and the desks and benches are scant. 
There was a view of the lavatory (without a door), over-used and screaming silently in its partial darkness on that rainy August day, "Clean me! Clean me up!" 

I was a bit clueless but not ill-at-ease to see this boisterous motley of boys ranging from 1st graders to 5th graders.It looked like their teacher-in-charge (or maybe the principal), and they themselves were prepared for a group of "elite" teachers coming in to teach them from time to time, and they quite knew that they would be given "work-sheets". All they wanted to do was complete their "colouring work" in a jiffy and get over with it. 

I have always found stories to be a wonderful way of captivating people of all ages I interact with. After all, who doesn't like stories? We all love stories in various forms and emotions. 
"Lets talk about a rainy day," I tweeted. "So what do you like to do on a rainy day?"
 The replies came in a chorus and often accompanied big smiles - "Play football and watch TV madam!"
"So can we draw a picture of a rainy day?"
"Yes Madam", one of the 20 odd boys agreed.
The rest wanted the worksheets to colour.

I hadn't really made an alternative Lesson Plan and so, this put me in some sudden awkwardness. To keep them engaged while I device a way out of it, I asked one of the boys to come and write HIPPOPOTAMUS on the black board. He came and spelled it perfectly, without a hesitation or doubt. No breaking of syllables, no rolling eyes and no muttering was needed.
 To further extinguish the "I-am-the-teacher-who-knows-all" perception forever, I volunteered, "So who is going to teach me how to write and pronounce rain in Urdu?"
I had three of them volunteer for that. One came up with the word "barsaat"; the second wrote it on the black board in Urdu script; the third one corrected the second one.

Not that I figured out a thing from it, but I proceeded to finish my duty within the assigned time of 40 minutes.
One of the 4th graders came forward and asked me, "Madam, what is the longest word in the world?"

 I am not a denizen of the world that most of my fellow-beings belong to, sadly so. I remain in my own world which consists of very few people of my kind and I remain comfortably ensconced there most of my time. Therefore, under-estimation of anybody is not remotely in my scheme of things. I decided that in order to quench their curiosity of the longest word in the world, I should first teach them the concept of the "Silent Letter" in English language. I therefore persisted, "How do you spell chalk?"

Madam, C-H-O-K-E. Madam, C-H-K-I. Madam, C-H-O-K.

I cannot judge them. They are Urdu-medium students.
I wrote on the black board. 
"Madam, CHA-L-K?" they chorused.
"Nope. CHALK. No "L".
"But why Madam?", they looked intrigued this time. Some of them giggled too.
"Well, true. So what is this "L" doing, sitting shamelessly in between and we do not even want to talk about him?', I asked. They were not quite ready with their wits this time.

"When your teacher walks into the class and all of you are making noise, what does he tell you?"
"He says SILENCE!!!," they yelled in unison.

"And what do you think is 'L' here then?
"Madam, SILENT!"

This is not the first time the intelligence of socially and economically challenged children amazed me. But what totally took me by surprise this time was what followed. I would like to describe this as particularly spectacular as I have to deal with my own 7 year-old on a day-to-day basis at home, teaching him, scaffolding him in his Math, English and EVS homework almost to the extent of spoon-feeding.


I wrote the above on the black board, not forgetting to break and mark the syllables by drawing "boats" beneath each. 
The boys not only pronounced the longest word in the world at one go, they even came up with semeles. 

"Volcano - means jwalamukhi, no Madam?"

 I said yes. But the longest word in the world does not mean volcano. It is the name of a small, puny kitaanu (in Hindi) which can only be seen with a microscope. 
"O, you mean GERM madam?," they grinned. "No problem, wash the germ with Dettol, ho gaya!" (done!) came some subsequent remarks from the back-benchers!

It is not possible to wash off a liver-fluke with Dettol, I know. But what got washed away that day was the perception that we give enough challenges to our own children. 
My class was followed by their lunch-time and what I saw of their midday meal was a high edged steel-plate each filled with podgy grains of rice, topped with one ladle full of golden-yellow potato curry. 

Growing in an insecure environment takes away too many things from a life and I am not going to sit here and write how ennobling the experience of "not-having" is. But what I have been repeatedly assured of in life through experiences such as these is that children carry an iron resilience within themselves which is not visible to us; Bigger the challenge, stronger they emerge and especially at a tender age. 
Perhaps its time to challenge ourselves and prepare some Lesson Plans that challenge our children who come to the more privileged schools. 

Let us bring out the best in them!