Wings to Fly
Dr. Lulabi Pattanayak
I hardly questioned the world around me, assumed everything to be in perfect equilibrium till I met the young girls in a government funded NGO near our house. I had heard that the NGO was doing great work. Out of curiosity wanted to interact with the young girls. I knew The Secretary personally, which made my job easier. But the first interaction with these girls put a big question mark on my assumptions! Most of the girls were engaged in Kantha stitching, a type of embroidery in Bengal. I assumed that since they were working, they must be literate. I asked one young girl, “What do you do in the evening? Do you watch TV or read books?” The young girl angrily replied, “We do not have TV. Most of us are illiterate, how can we read books?” I told them, “There are programmes for you, you can learn. Learning has no age.” She asked me, “Who wants us to learn, our family or your government? These programmes are nothing but sheer mockery. Who would teach us ‘You’? For a moment I was quiet, had no choice left but to say “Yes”. I told them, “I can teach you, but you have to decide what you want to learn.” To my utter surprise, all of them together said, “We want to learn English”. They did not know how to write the regional language-Bengali, yet wanted to learn English!! I did not know how to react, yet I promised to teach them from the very next day. The Secretary was unwilling. He tried to convince me that, these girls were worthless; I would only waste my time, if I get into this kind of venture! On our way to office, I was listening to his experiences with them, yet my heart could not completely ignore the eagerness to re-live life and twinkle in their eyes. I decided to listen to my heart, knowing not how I would sail through without basic amenities. But I declined to yield.
The first day is still fresh in my mind, the smile, the eagerness to learn, the despair all were reflecting in their faces. I was taken aback to learn that all these girls were staying in “Distress Home” because they were deserted by their family members. Who had no means of livelihood, no shelter, nothing to eat! To have two meals a day they were forced to do Kantha stitch for more than eight to ten hours every day. It only fetched them four hundred rupees per month. In the name of shelter, beds were crammed in one room, barely any space to cook. We were left with no space but the verandah to sit; that could not deter us from learning.
I did not know how to address, but before introduction part was over, we all were friends. Together we set our rules, decided our subjects that we would study. With my old note books and books on different subjects, we started. I collected a few books from my neighborhood. Lack of resources could never deter their interests. Happily they were learning English, Bengali, mathematics, Science in the same class. Now when I look back it reminds me of the famous Japanese story, “Totto-Chan”. Sitting on the floor, writing on the floor, we explored the world of known to unknown. From alphabets to word to sentences there was smooth transition. I could not feel for a moment that most of them were first generation learners. Of course, some were very good in studies, they excelled; some were slow learners, some had interest in science, some in mathematics, yet learning all in that small verandah was never an issue. It seems impossible today, not at that moment! After three to four months they showed such amazing progress that, they wanted to organize a cultural meet. They did everything from writing the invitation cards to, decorating the place, to organizing the programme. To my utter surprise, they wrote poetry, essays in Bengali, some tried in English. Some recited poetry, some performed dance, without taking anybody’s help. That evening they made everybody realize that they were not worthless girls, but potential human beings who deserve respect!
Within a week, The Secretary allotted a classroom with blackboard, books, pens, and notebooks for them. They rejoiced; they had everything they wanted. I was happy that I trusted them and was not carried away by Secretary’s words. I do not know how much they learnt due to my interventions, but I learnt every day. Being a student of Economics, I hardly had the opportunity to explore the world of education; these young girls made me realize that- learning is a joyous experience.
Our learning was no more restricted to classroom and notebooks. Few wanted to appear in the school examination so that they can procure a certificate for a better job. I facilitated, so that they can appear for the examination. Many left “Home” to pursue their studies; some opted for vocational training on leather work, some for food processing training. Gradually, the number of girls who were doing Kantha Stich started dropping. The administration was unhappy, but could not stop them. Seeing potential girls leaving, the NGO too provided them jobs. When girls were leaving “Home” where they stayed for years, I asked why they were leaving, what they said still echoes in my mind. They said, “We no more need this “Home”, we know what we want. You made us feel we deserve respect. Your simple ‘yes’ enabled us to read and write, it made us feel that education is the wind beneath our wings. Thank you for making us realize that.” I was spellbound! While traveling I met a few of them, their beaming smile tells everything. Looking at them, I felt good that, that day I listened to my heart. When I reflect, I feel they are my facilitators, who made me understand subtle nuances of education and empowerment.
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