The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lessons in gain, weighed in pain

Parents pay through their noses to keep their kids in school, for them to score high marks and make it in life. But does all this teach them how to be happy'

in a kids’ Value Education book I saw this week, there was a page of statistics, about the percentage of children who are in schools, who drop in and then drop out of schools, who never got into schools in the first place, and the few who finally make it to the top. It is hard these days to keep your spirits up in the context of what our children are going through.

Fees. Ye gods. I live for the past six years in a small rented flat in central Calcutta but off the beaten track. When people phone that they want to come, it is difficult to explain to them how to turn left, right, inside-out, follow Orion’s Belt, and then make a wish. I like it – it’s quiet, self-contained, private. One of the two rooms is the SERVE office. As city-centre rents go, it’s ok. Next statement: apart from odd jobs giving talks and courses and such, my ‘day-job’ is as a consultant to an NGO.

Now then, three quarters of what they pay me goes on my rent. I have no complaints about either set-up, only to say this, that if I did happen to have a couple of kids in school or college, I would have to take them out now, with the recent escalation of fees. So, all you parents who are at your wits’ end meeting household expenses plus getting your children through the education mincer, you have my sympathies.

Sympathies, yes. But let me not pretend that therefore I go along with all the extra pressure that is now falling upon those kids. God knows I understand, when you feel pressured, the normal response is to ‘take it out’ on somebody else. Since the children are for the most part the direct source of the money-drain from your house, it is, yes, entirely understandable that your annoyance should be vented upon them, if upon anyone. And to judge by our tele-counselling experience, that is what is happening.

Parents are demanding louder and louder that their children study, attend their tuitions (and to heck with those who pretend it isn’t necessary), and bring home big marks. All very logical, very rational, and very dangerous. That is, among those of you are able to read this piece. There is a much bigger body of people out there whose children will probably never get as far as reading the first 10 letters of the English alphabet. Patriotic politicians will jump in and tell them that the home language is the best language to do your early study in — and that would be fine, if their listeners didn’t know that those same patriotic politicians have their kids in English-medium institutions.

There’s another lot out there telling us that the marginalised kid now has a great chance of catching up in a local centre financed wholly by some benevolent altruist. They’ll only have to come to that centre — usually the local sports club — and they’ll learn it all. It’s a smashing-looking plan, where the teacher, from the para itself, works with them through a five-hour day, and then works with the para folk to get them interested in their children’s progress. These young teachers are even trained to do all this. Brilliant'

I have to admit, I thought so — until I saw that the teachers were being paid less than the rickshawwallah, less than the thela-gari wallah, less than any government sweeper. Now I ask you, how are such teachers expected to keep up this eight-hour teaching day in extremely difficult conditions, when their counterparts in the government school are getting more than 10 times as much — and for a mere five-hour day'

Hands up all the parents who find this the ideal set-up for their children. Of course they’re merely the poor. They’re merely half the child population of our country, of our city. They’re merely dispensable, disposable, dismissable. After all, some of them actually steal food, and even pick pockets. How dreadful. Wouldn’t it be much more respectable to do things properly and have a good-sized scam' I mean, it isn’t as if they don’t have role models way up that holy mountain!

So then. You do have your difficulties. Big ones. You do feel fretful, angry even. Dear adults, go easy on your kids. By and large, they’ll do their best, they’re doing it. Yes, the thing is they have to do even better than that. I know. But life’s a long business, and perhaps has more important issues than marks, job, security.

Like happiness. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a smarty-pants word. You are quite right to say, Look, where is my kids’ chance of happiness if she/he gets low marks, bad college, no ‘sources’ out in the market-place' That’s a solid question, but still.

Two short stories. One is about a Delhi kid who followed his school friend a couple of years after they’d graduated out of a front-line school there. The first guy got a big job, and when the second came along, his old friend took him on board. This was New York. A few years later, the first guy returned to meet his teacher in Delhi, and the conversation inevitably turned to this friend. Bottomline: the friend was in the midst of divorce to his first wife, who was carrying his child, and was squiring around the current dazzler in upper-crust circles, while working his way up after his first million dollars. All true. Isn’t it great' Well, judge for yourself: every week he would come into this other chap’s office, close the door, sit, and cry and cry and cry. Then, back to the façade of the Made-It-Man. Marks' Market' Dream-success. But — and here’s the point: his value system was a lie. But it was probably what he picked up both in school and at home. Everyone meant well, but when it came to the real crunch…

There was my own ex-student who won accolades in post-graduate physics all over the country, culminating in a very big job. He phoned me, listed those impressive successes, and when I congratulated him he said, dismissively, “Oh brother, this isn’t why I called. I called to ask, is this all'”

Times are hard. It is difficult to keep your focus clear, your love for your children in place, and your recognition of basic realities properly balanced. It is difficult to realise that your anger with the education powers that be, is fairly founded, needs expression at least on behalf of other children at whatever ‘level’. Perhaps there is some consolation to be found in knowing that there are thousands more in exactly that position. Perhaps you’d like to write to them — or to this paper – or to us — about all this' Do so: you’ll feel better. So will we, hearing your support, as we struggle to bring about that elusive change for the better of our children.

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