Today I am going to tell you the story of a little school by a river. Thanks to my work, I get to travel a lot. I visit schools in different corners of the country – remote villages, small towns and also schools in big city slums. Spending time with children, talking to teachers is one of my favourite activities. Any school big or small has a unique identity and its own special flavor. What happens in the classroom, how children chat with each other, sharing, exchanging, playground interactions, environment in the community – all of these contribute to the school’s special character. Over the years, I have travelled a lot, spent time in many schools but a few schools have left a deep imprint in my memory. Today I want to tell you about one such school.
Even in a quick glance at the map, you will see West Bengal as a big triangle for the bottom half with a thinner, longer section for the top half of the state. Right in the middle is Malda. As soon as you step across the border in this district, you can be in Jharkhand, Bihar or Bangladesh. If you leave Sealdah station in Kolkata at night, you will reach Malda at dawn. At some point, while it is still the dark, the train passes through Farakka. When you hear the word “Malda”, instantly, mangoes dance before your eyes. And sure enough, as the train pulls into Malda station, the mango orchards, which you see everywhere, lie waiting in the soft early morning golden sunshine.
The school of my story is not very far from the district headquarters. You can get there in less than two hours. A good road goes almost all the way. For the final stretch, you have to walk down a narrow, often muddy and slippery path to reach the Mahananda river. There you will find a long wooden boat waiting to take you to the other side. Everyone travels on this boat. Some people carry bags, sacks and even boxes. Some cycle down to the river and then put their cycle on the boat. Others bring their goats and cattle to cross over. At school time, the boat is crowded with children in school uniforms carrying their school bags. We too reached the school this way.
Across the river, up the slope, through the mango grove, we get to the school compound. It is a small building, neatly painted in blue and white. As soon as you see it, you can feel that the building has been made and maintained with loving care and close attention. Walking from the school gate to the building, you can step on big blue and white squares on the ground. English and Bangla alphabets are painted in each square. Flowers and shrubs line the verandah. A peaceful, lovely environment.
But the school did not always look like this. Sixty years ago, the people of the panchayat established this school. Then it was a simple one room made of mud. The village people wanted their children to have the same educational opportunities like city children did. In 1986, flood in the Mahananda river washed away the school. Quickly, the villagers built the school again. Some years later, with a government grant, five permanent rooms were constructed. It was good to have a building that would last a long time but to make the rooms beautiful and attractive for children, the villagers worked closely with school teachers. Even after so many years, the school was shining as if it was built yesterday.
The children were like the building, or perhaps it is better to turn that around and say the building was like the children – happy and colourful. When children and teachers like being with each other, teaching and learning become effective and strong. If children like spending time in school, then students’ attendance is never a problem and teachers’ presence is assured. If parents are happy with what is going on in school, then their support and cooperation is guaranteed.
I loved the way the school welcomed their guests. A big pan leaf, a ripe mango and a handful of flowers were offered to me. Often when you go to a school, teachers smother you with formalities. But here it was not at all like that. The head teacher urged me to go to each and every class and spend time with the children. Talking to children, big and small, it seemed to me that they were used to meeting visitors. They were keen to share their thoughts and happy to tell you their stories. They were also quick to demand that I do something with them. Most of the time, children chatted easily with me. Occasionally, their teacher would prompt some child to join the discussion. In fact, I learned about the school from these conversations.
From the children, I learned that everyone loved books and stories. We decided that together with their teachers, they must write a book. The stories, the writing, the illustrations – all would be done by people in the school.
December 6, 2021
A Hindi version of this piece was published in Dainik Bhaskar on Dec 1, 2021.