April was always the most loved — and the most dreaded — month of the school year. It was the time of year that students all over the city of Hyderabad would be rejoicing, screaming at the top of their lungs out of buses and school buildings that they were finally free to forget a year’s worth of knowledge. However, the arrival of April didn’t necessarily mean we were free to go back and lounge in our air-conditioned homes until the summer ended. In Hyderabad, we always had a sort of trial run for the next year of school — anywhere from 15 days to a month where we got a taste of what our next school year would be like. Throughout the month of April, we had to study in the sweltering 90-degree heat of a Hyderabad summer. Although this fact generated groans of annoyance, we secretly enjoyed the accommodations our school arranged for us during this period of time. We were delighted at the prospect of lining up at the lemonade stands our school put together to relieve us of the summer heat and the field trips to water parks where we would be drenched in cool water as the scorching sun looked down on us.
Hyderabad’s summers did not, however, always bring with them such cheerful moments. A majority of the population — especially those sects not as wealthy as us — was left to deal with the heat by fanning themselves with newspapers and getting hospitalized or dying of sunstroke. They faced such extreme conditions in their homes, their place of work or study, their travels and their daily activities. I had been made to witness this harsh reality at the government school owned by and fairly close to my own educational institution. Only a very small portion of the students studying at my school had ever actually been to the single-story — containing no more than five rooms — they called a school. On this particular occasion, we were going there to teach the students about first aid, despite the fact that we weren’t greatly educated about it to begin with.
Although it may sound philanthropic on my school’s part to have financed a government school, it is essential to understand that there was a substantial reason behind this magnanimity. In India, the government mandates that private schools reserve 25% of their seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, taking lower or no fees. However, most private schools don’t want these “unruly” kids sitting with their “polished, rich” students. So they find a workaround: they finance government schools and maintain the segregation of the classes. My private school was wealthy, and it was a well-known fact that it financed and owned a government school close by. Perhaps this goodwill tour was our school’s way of making reparations for segregating us from the government school kids for so many years. Perhaps our school thought we were doing these kids a great service by bestowing them with our presence, whether it was to teach them without actually improving their knowledge of first aid or simply to spend our “valuable” time with them. Whatever the reason, it was an unspoken understanding amongst the students of the private school that this visit was made with the expectation that the government school kids would be immensely grateful for our school’s supposed selflessness.
When I was 14 years old, I had been in my school for nine years by then but never once thought it was odd that we hadn’t set foot in the government school. Nevertheless, we were excited to be going to the school because this visit meant we didn’t have to attend any of our classes that day. We were sitting in our air-conditioned bus and driving to the school in the narrow, cramped roads of Masjid Banda. We descended the bus at the gate of the school and were greeted by a large expanse of empty ground. To our right were two classrooms filled with students who couldn’t have been older than eight. Before us were steps leading up to an open hallway with the older students’ classes. My classmates and I were divided into two groups: one had to teach the government school students about first aid and the other went to interact and “play” with the students. I was in the latter group. For the elementary students, there were two classrooms with a small tiled space outside. However, there were three classes using that space, which meant that one of them would have to sit outside and learn under the hot, scorching sun while the other two took place. Standing in the uneven space filled with tiles made of cement, we could feel the sun’s piercing heat and the beads of sweat rolling down our backs. Most of us were desperate to take off our shoes because we simply couldn’t handle the cruel weather that surrounded us.
We talked and laughed and played with the students, nearly all of us fairly covered in sweat. Eventually, we were saved by the bell as our teachers came in, announcing that it was time for lunch. Everyone in the school lined up with their plates, waiting in line to be served by the singular cook who was hunched over two large steel utensils containing that day’s lunch — rice and sambar. While most students were already halfway through their meals, one of the younger girls sat next to me in silence, staring at her plate. After conversing with her in Telugu for a little while, I learned that her food was too hot for her to eat with her hands — a common practice in India — so she was waiting for it to cool down. I offered to mix her sambar and rice for her and even had the pleasure of feeding this adorable girl her lunch. After this rather heart-warming experience, we talked to the principal about the students’ learning conditions. He told my teachers that the students were regularly abused, a common practice in rural schools in India, and that the students were happy with the way their school operated. Later, in the afternoon, we took pictures with the students and left on the same bus that drove us there.
Fairly straightforward story — we went, we saw, we talked, we came back. I never really thought back to the experience as anything worthy of importance until my freshman year of college. We were handed the prompt “think back on an experience of learning through an encounter with an educational institution.” At first, I struggled with finding something to write about since my education was mostly sheltered. There weren’t a lot of learning experiences to choose from, especially not anything with implications that affected my learning in a broader context. I did, however, find this particular story rather peculiar. Not so much due to the events of the actual experience but rather how we reacted to it later.
Finally returning to our school after a long bus ride, we were able to shake off our sweat and breathe freely in our dry, air-conditioned classroom. During a discussion led by the teacher, we pointed out how pitiable those children were and their apparent lack of resources. What we failed to acknowledge was that these students were perfectly happy with the conditions they were in. While the government school didn’t have nearly half the facilities our school did, our school was using the students’ perceived content as an excuse to substantiate their neglect and inaction. Everyone from our school knew our administration set aside lakhs of rupees for annual renovations. New recreational buildings are erected regularly despite the fact that we already had sufficient facilities. An entire summer was dedicated to cementing our school ground because the previously sandy ground was inconvenient for sports. They invested in paint jobs every year. The school organized lavish events for any occasion or festival and field trips to some of Hyderabad’s finest sites.
The connection between money and access to educational resources runs unimaginably deep in today’s society. People comfortably defend this connection with the excuse “if you work hard enough, you’ll get money and live a comfortable life.” Most of the government school kids’ parents were stretching themselves thin to give their children a basic education. Meanwhile, my school keeps the students segregated because they want to please the rich parents who disapprove of integration, who think that the government school students “would be intimidated by the rich children.” If the amount you were paid was proportional to how hard you worked, why do the people working twice as hard our parents find it impossible to earn half as much? It’s because we come from money. Capitalism facilitates the accumulation of wealth and maintains our economic status quo without equally redistributing resources to the poor. It is a system that actively uplifts the already privileged sects of society and steps on those sects not as lucky.
I’m not going to pretend I know anything about what it’s like to live the life of a poor person. I do know, however, that the media gives the upper classes a rather inaccurate representation of this life. They highlight the “rags-to-riches” stories of people who come from and eventually come into possession of massive fortunes through their own “hard work.” We never see the other side of poverty, the side where people are starving, tired and struggling to get by. The side where they aren’t rising to fame because of a sudden turn of fate. Those stories are too depressing to put out in the media, despite the fact that they are the stories that define the majority.
Reflecting on the experience, I realize this kind of thinking does start in school. Our teachers told us to pity these kids, while they never even considered questioning the system that made them less fortunate than us in the first place; and thus, we never thought of it.
Every April that comes around, there will probably be a new group of ninth-graders going to teach government school students things they know nothing about. Every April these students will come back to their school and be lectured about compassion. They will forget about the government school students and enjoy a summer that brings them joy and warmth, not illness and despair. While I initially internalized this disparity as “the way things are,” I’ve come to learn that it is only the way things are because we let it and we have the power to change that. I hope that it isn’t every April that a student like me sits quietly in acceptance when they could question a system that is so apparently flawed.
MiC Contributor Meera M. Kumar can be contacted at email@example.com