Karthick, 13, short and unusually lean, wants to be a singer. K Kavya, 14 and in Class 9, hopes to become a tehsildar. Anu Ezhumalai, a year senior, has no serious plans yet, but her mother, a farm labourer who cleans the village’s water tanks, wants her to become a teacher or a doctor.
For the three students of Veliagaram government high school, the road between their goals and their small village, located on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, is long. But one man was supposed to lead them there: their English teacher, G Bhagawan.
On Wednesday, Karthick, Kavya and Anu were among the students of the school who wailed, hugged and hung on to Bhagawan, refusing to let him leave, as news broke that the 28-year-old had been transferred to another school in Tiruttani, about 40 km away. As their parents approached the local MLA to stop the transfer, the visuals of the crying students and Bhagawan breaking down went viral. Singer A R Rahman tweeted on the matter, and was retweeted by thousands, while MDMK leader Vaiko reached out to Bhagawan “to console and wish him the best”.
Karthick and Kavya’s parents are illiterate. Calling Bhagawan, who joined the school four years ago, their “best teacher”, Karthick, a Class 8 student and the son of a mason, says, “He made English my favourite subject. He used to introduce new books to us. Everyone in the class passed English in Class 7.”
Kavya says Bhagawan was “a father figure, an elder brother”. “When I told him I want to become a tehsildar, he asked me to write this every day on a paper. He promised I will achieve it. He made us write a diary. English is very important, you know, for jobs and interviews, and he is the one who taught us English.” Interrupting Kavya, Anu says, “Why should they transfer Sir now? He has to be here forever.”
The transfer of Bhagawan and another English teacher came as part of a Tamil Nadu government redeployment plan to maintain a teacher-student ratio of 1:30 in schools. On Friday, the Veliagaram school with 265 students and 18 teachers (including the two transferred) is back to regular classes after lessons being disrupted for two days on account of the media glare.
A majority of the students at the school, that is up to Class 10, belong to the OBC Vanniyar community, but around 40 per cent are Dalits. The students who come by bus have to walk it from 3 km away. The nearest town is 40 km away. But for a rural government school, Veliagaram had an impressive pass percentage of 82 in the Class 10 SSLC exam last year. Inside the premises, overwhelmed by all that has happened, Bhagawan sits in silence, refusing to talk to anybody. A colleague says the 28-year-old is very emotional. “For the students, he was everything,” says the teacher, who is reluctant to identify himself after all the publicity the school attracted, like other colleagues.
Another teacher says, “Bhagawan is familiar to most parents too. Young and a bachelor, he could afford to spend a lot of time with students even after class hours.”
S Dhanraj, whose two children study at the school, in Classes 7 and 9, says his daughter hasn’t been coming to school since news of the transfer came. “She is asking me to get her admitted to the school where Bhagawan Sir is going to teach.” Dhanraj says, adding, “Bhagawan Sir knew all the parents. He would inform us personally if our child was unwell or needed help. I too studied at this school but I have never seen a teacher with so much support.”
In the past year, since Headmaster A Aravindan took over, the Veliagaram government high school has seen other changes as well. Students talk enthusiastically about recent trips to the Sriharikota rocket launch pad, 140 km away, the Vedathangal bird sanctuary, Mahabalipuram and Birla Planetarium in Chennai. It was the first trip for most students to Chennai. Last year, all the parents were treated to a mutton curry fest. “Aravindan Sir would bring artists from Chennai and we acted in plays,” says Selvi.
The Headmaster, who belongs to Chennai, sees “strengthening of the Parent Teacher Association” as his biggest achievement. “Most of the parents here are labourers, and can’t afford to take leave and come for PTA meetings.” So he decided to meet them at their village in the evenings, with Bhagawan often joining in.
The trust Aravindan has developed has also allowed him to raise taboo topics like child marriages, prevalent in the area and known to happen among the girl children of the school too. Last year, ahead of the SSLC exams, the Headmaster organised special coaching for students. “We organised it for 40 days, teachers stayed back, and we raised a small fund to provide snacks in the evening. Parents agreed to come and pick their children up at 8 pm.”
Despite all this, the student numbers have been falling, from 281 to 265 this year. “Even if they can’t afford the fees, parents are sending their children to private schools,” the teacher says. “This has led to the two transfers too.” Aravindan admits he was taken by surprise at the reaction to it. “Unlike in cities, students here are more emotional and affectionate. Not just over a teacher’s transfer, they cry even when a resource person teaching them drama or music leaves after a two-three-day programme. Bhagawan was undoubtedly the best, but this transfer is part of his career. His services are needed for students elsewhere. He has to go.”
A senior Education Department officer too indicates the decision is final, while accusing Bhagawan of playing with the emotions of students. “He should have left the school silently, like his transferred colleague (who left in the morning)… We have told him he has limitations as a public servant. We briefed him on the necessity of this transfer. It is his duty to do well at the new school as well.”