The First International Literacy Day was celebrated back in 1967. The agenda was simple – to provide reading and writing skills among children and adults from all backgrounds – but tough to implement. While there have been efforts to promote literacy in many established institutions, there are some who have been working behind-the-scenes silently, yet consistently – to educate and inspire children – often at their own expense.
“When I first started, I just wanted to make these children literate. I never knew I would come such a long way”, says Ruckmani Gopal. For her, it all started back in 1998 when she moved to Gurgaon. At the head of a lane near her house were multiple construction sites. A teacher by profession, as she returned from school and crossed that lane daily on her way home, she encountered a world she couldn’t ignore. “I met people who had never been to school. Some not have birth certificates. And I met parents who did not know when their children were born. I couldn’t just look away”, Gopal tells indianexpress.com.
Some 20 years back, she opened her doors to the children from the construction sites and created a classroom for them. A venture that began with seven children now teaches 114 underprivileged kids. There have been days when she has had to hang a board from a tree and teach in nearby parks in cold Delhi winters and days when she had to use up all her savings just to provide the kids with clothes and books. “But people helped. I had to knock very hard on the doors of The Shri Ram School, who after a long decision-making process, finally inducted these kids into their school and hired teachers for their education. I have had my share of struggle, but when I see these kids landing good jobs, I feel rewarded”.
While Gopal is a skilled teacher and has never quite had to struggle with finding a balance between her work and her passion, Parul Chandra, an MBA working in Gurgaon, decided to join an NGO called Donate An Hour to donate a few hours in a week for the cause of education. “At times I get lazy and want to bunk the classes – it is easy to bunk because the work is voluntary – but I remind myself why I decided to do it in the first place and push myself”.
Parul believes teaching people who do not have the opportunity to get an education or study in a school, is the most satisfying use of her time and skill-set. “It isn’t only about teaching bookish subjects. Even though I am good at math and science, I teach them other things I’m fairly good at too – yoga, dance, crafts”.
For Parul, education is an important tool to address the class-divide in Indian society and she tries to spend every weekend teaching underprivileged kids – even after clocking in almost ten hours of work daily on weekdays.
Then there’s Assam’s former top cop, Mukesh Sahay who walked in to teach at a government school a day after he hung his boots. Even if theoretical physics is what he loves, he explains to indianexpress.com why he decided to teach. “A year back, the school had invited me to attend a programme as the chief guest. I learned that the school didn’t have a mathematics teacher. It never left my mind. I was a little nervous and wondered if I could ever teach students. So, after I retired, I told myself – even if I were a 0.1, a 0.1 is always greater than a zero. And I went ahead with it”.
The striking similarity between Chandra, Gopal and Sahay is that they are making the most of any spare time they have and putting their own education and privilege to good use. Fifty years on, as we celebrate the 52nd International Literacy Day, it’s heartening to see people extend their time and expertise to give back to the country’s children – without doing so for personal gain.