“Why should we learn Kannada? We are going back home in a month.”
In the eight years she has spent as a teacher for children of migrant labourers in Bengaluru, Pooja, 35, has heard many versions of this sullen question from children who have travelled with their parents to the metropolis from West Bengal or Odisha, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. “So I tell them: ‘Don’t learn too much. Only a few words. Say you go to a shop and the shopkeeper abuses you. Say, you get into a fight. Will you even know what to say?’” she says.
But even the journey to that conversation is a long one. “The first two-three months are the most difficult. The students refuse to come. Their parents leave for work at the crack of dawn, hand them a Rs 10 note and leave them to do as they please. We spend a lot of time in the initial days looking for the children, herding them from their homes to school,” says Pooja.
She is one of several teachers at the bridge schools run by Samriddhi Trust, an NGO that works to coax migrant children into the school system. It does so through intensive one-year bridge programmes for children between six and 14 years, many of whom have never been to school. Founder Mom Banerjee recalls that the focus on inter-state and intra-state migrants grew out of her realisation a decade ago that they quickly dropped out of the Kannada-medium government schools. “A few of us had pooled our efforts into admitting children in our neighbourhood to a government school, and then felt good about it. But then it turned out they were not going there. They could not understand anything,” she recalls. In some government schools in Bengaluru’s migrant hubs like Marathahalli, “close to 40 per cent” children are inter-state and intra-state migrants, she says.
The bridge schools aim to teach children, according to age and ability, simple lessons in English, Hindi, basic concepts of numeracy and geography, and arm them with functional Kannada needed for the transition to government schools. It’s here that teachers like Pooja come in. Her ally in teaching Kannada, ironically, is Hindi. “Most of the children do know Hindi, so I translate Kannada into Hindi. There are some who come straight from a remote village, and they know only Bangla. So, then I make them sit with the ones who know Hindi well, and ask them to explain things to their friends. It takes two-three months for them to understand,” says Pooja.
The most important part of pedagogy in these schools is care and trust. “The important thing is to connect with the children. Learning can come later. I don’t insist on talking in Kannada at all. We talk in any language in the class. I try to understand what their difficulties are. Some of them have to look after their siblings, especially the girls. Some earn precious extra money as ragpickers. Some want to study but their parents are not willing,” she says.
Not all teachers are capable of this kind of empathy. Banerjee points out that several qualified teachers shrink from dealing with children of poor families. “They flag issues of hygiene, of behaviour. It is a class barrier,” she says.
“I studied in a school just like this,” says Pooja, who has studied till Class X. Her parents were quarry workers living in a village in the forests near Bannerghatta, south Bengaluru. “There was a government school but it was too far. So, most of the children were uneducated. Then the Ramakrishna Mission opened a school. They sent a person to fetch the children every day. They would provide a meal. That’s how my brother and I got educated,” she says.
Unlike in mainstream schools, a bridge school teacher has to compulsorily take every child along. By the end of six months, Pooja’s students learn to speak small sentences in Kannada. A deal she struck with the kids has resulted in her picking up Bangla, too. “When I teach them how to say kuthkoli (‘sit’ in Kannada), they tell me bosho. And that’s how it goes,” she says.
This article originally appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Room For All’