Friends, this story belongs to the period when corona had stretched its arms wide across our country. The way this pandemic spread worldwide, it seemed as if this planet was welcoming it willingly. Gradually, it spread into the nook and corners of our villages as well.
On 21st March 2020, the lockdown was imposed in Uttar Pradesh. We were asked to beat our ‘taali aur thaali’ (claps and plates) to destroy this airborne virus. Our village elders used to believe that banging plates and beating claps deprives us of our livelihood. That is exactly what happened. Uncountable people lost their lives and numerous others their roji-roti (daily bread). Children too were not spared and their studies took a hard-hit.
In July-August that year, the government arranged for online classes. Many school teachers connected with their students through WhatsApp to complete their courses. But all this could not leverage the poor kids in other schools in any way. Many over there did not have any mobiles and the ones who did had keypad-based phones, which did not have any Internet. Further, whenever they had phones, they mostly played games on them. The children of landless labourers suffered the most this way. These kids spent most of their time shepherding goats, cows, and buffaloes or fished in the river nearby. Meanwhile, the affluent homes in cities provided their kids with online classes.
In my Rajvari village, there is a Savitri Bai Phule Educational Centre run by the Asha Trust, an NGO, which runs classes absolutely free of cost for underprivileged students. That’s how it occurred to me that the adults in our village should, as much as possible, spend at least 4-6 hours daily among our children. This will engage them in some learning activities and also keep us entertained alongside. Slowly and steadily, we felt the need for some resources to pursue these tasks. Some of my friends thus helped me to carry them out.
The Asha Trust distributed about 300 notebooks, 500 masks, and tasty biscuits to my little children. We shortlisted ten villages where I could hold my classes and toured 3-4 of them every day. We identified the places where children could assemble—under the tree or on a riverside. As all of this proceeded, my colleagues from a private school, though supportive, were a little doubtful. More than corona, which hadn’t attacked their village, they were weary of the government’s notice—'Do gaz ki doori, mask hai zaroori (Two feet distance and mask maintenance),’ which could shut down my classes even if corona wouldn’t.
Actually, such a government dictum is not implementable in our villages where most people live in small, congested houses and families include cows, goats, and hens. Upon children, this protocol is useless even more. Nonetheless, I cycled from village to village carrying my bag of books, masks, and sanitizers.
One day, I reached a place where some children were grazing goats. On spotting them, I landed up with them. One child scanned me and asked, “Kya bech rahe ho? (What are you selling?)’. Another one peeped into my bag that I had fixed onto my bicycle carrier. He felt the bag with both his hands and made out that there were some books inside. “Aap padhate ho? (Do you teach?),” he inquired.“Haan, hum padhate hain. Tum padhoge? (Yes, I teach. Will you learn?)”
And hence, my classes began under a tree close by. As I bicycled each day from village to village, many good Samaritans came my way. That’s how at 10am the next morning, my kids and I reassembled in Roshni’s mud hut. Likewise, in Sirayyiya village, we sat inside Sanjay bhai’s straw hut. Thus, I rode to six different villages to deliver my classes. Dayby-day this journey kickstarted—masks and sanitisers distributed, corona protocols explained, books opened, pages turned, destinies rewritten.
The classes soon became very popular and we never had to invite children for attendance. In Siraiyya itself, about 30-35 students sat with me daily. Through fun and play, I taught them logic, narrated inspiring stories of great people, showed pictures of flora and fauna, and explained other subjects. Equally soon, people also made fun of my initiatives.
Narsingh bhai, a village resident, snapped, “Kaho Master! Bakri charaane waalon ko DM bana doge ka? (Hey Master! Are you gonna convert goat shepherds into Distict Magistrates or what?)”
In Dhakwa village, Budhna kaki (aunt) was pissed, “Bachwa, kahe ko jaan de rahe ho? (Dude, why are you wasting your life over this?)”
In Kaithi village, I was dubbed as the jholawala master (Bag Master).
In Siraiyya village, Santoshi Dadi (granny) minding her pig with a stick warned, “Kaho Master? Tumhare aane se mahamari nahi hogi?… Bacha kar padhaiyega. (Hey, Master! You think the pandemic won’t hit us if you come over?... Keep safe as you preach).”
In the second wave of covid, our study enterprise ran slow. But, some days later, my kids and I were back inside the classroom.
This is how the story of education during COVID had been in the small, decrepit Rajvari Nayay Panchayat of Varanasi.