“If you could teach the world one thing – what would it be?”
17-year-old Sita sat in a plastic chair in the corridor of a village school, a space Yuwa borrows each evening for after-school classes. A visiting journalism student from Norway sat next to her, notebook in hand. Sita fidgeted. “One more time, please repeat?”
“Imagine you could teach the whole world one thing, one lesson, and everyone would listen to you. What would you teach?”
Sita’s teammates clustered around her on the concrete floor, waiting for her answer. Sita, unanimously the best English speaker in the group, has a way of speaking that demanded respect. Just beyond the makeshift classroom, a pack of small boys loitered in the schoolyard. Their eyes had a far-away look that gave away their high from carpenter’s glue.
“Education is more important than love,” Sita finally declared, as if this were the obvious answer.
The Norwegian student looked confused.
“I will teach everyone that education is the most important thing—more important than love. All these people think love is the only thing. Girls in my village think only about love, about marriage. And then, their life is over.
“I want to tell everyone this is wrong. Nothing is more important than education.”
A class in the dark
I’ve spent over two years living in Hutup Village in Jharkhand. I teach English classes for girls. I also build and manage the educational programs for Yuwa. Primarily, these programs consist of before- and after-school academic classes. These girls are the first women in their family to set their sights on higher education, despite the pressure in their communities to drop out of school and get married. Most of their mothers can’t sign their own names—instead they sign with a thumbprint.
Every morning at 4:45, around thirty-five girls show up at the Yuwa House. It’s pitch black and cold. They come wrapped up in blankets and huddle around a fire they start with newspapers and hay for 15 minutes until classes start. The power is always out at that hour (spotty village electricity), so classes are taught by candlelight.
The girls choose to start Yuwa classes early because they need time to walk home, wash last night’s dinner dishes, sweep the floor, make tea, eat breakfast, and then walk to school. They don’t have free time during the day, so they make time for themselves before dawn. About once a week, I ask (hopefully) if they’d like to change the class time to 6:00 am, when the sun rises.
They smile. No. 5:00 is okay.
Memorize, cheat, repeat
At Yuwa, we tell the girls that they can achieve something by working hard in their schools. With Yuwa’s affirmation, they build up dreams. They believe that with hard work and education, they can become police officers, pilots, bankers, nurses, and lawyers. They believe they can construct a life different from the one their mothers have been forced to make.
But I know the state of schools here. Jharkhand has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country. Classrooms are packed—sometimes over a hundred students to one teacher. In rural areas, more students fail their 10th grade exams than pass. I’ve met countless eighteen-year olds who, despite attending school, can’t read a Hindi book or multiply a number. Students are beaten for petty missteps: a girl walking in the hallway with her hands at her sides instead of clasped humbly behind her back, speaking with a male student, wearing traditional mehndi on her hands.
The mantra at Jharkhand schools could be: memorize, cheat, repeat. Material is meant to be accepted and memorized, not understood or questioned. Students cheat because they know no other way to pass exams. Teachers pass their students on to the next grade, despite failing marks. By 10th grade (the last year of high school in Jharkhand), most students are incapable of gaining admission to any college. For fifteen-year-old girls, that means it’s time to get married.
Yuwa’s before- and after- school classes are not enough to make up for years of worthless education. I’m sick of telling girls that their studies can enable them to take control of their lives. For girls who spend the bulk of their day in poor, overcrowded schools, this is a lie.
So, we’ve decided to build a school.
Breaking the cycle
Last May, Yuwa organized its first summer school. Over thirty girls participated in the month-long program. For four hours everyday, small groups of students rotated to different stations for math, engineering, English, science, drawing, and computer classes. With support from eight enthusiastic, volunteer teachers from India and abroad, the Yuwa classes were intensive, fun, and hands-on.
When it was time for the girls to change to a different class, I would walk around from group to group to make sure they knew where to go next. When I would announce that their current class was finished, the girls would give a collective groan and beg for five more minutes. But when I told them which class they had next, they would cheer and dash on to their next teacher. They did this daily, regardless of which class they were coming from or going to.
This is not normal behaviour for kids. I don’t know if I’d even believe that story if I hadn’t seen it. But it’s indicative of the Yuwa girls’ contagious enthusiasm to learn. Another example? The girls’ before- and after- summer school math assessment tests improved by an average of 111%, from about 30% to more than 80%.
The teachers at Yuwa have seen the girls’ potential to excel in academics. These girls are already acting as leaders in their families and communities. A school will create the space they crave to explore their abilities and challenge themselves.
A few months ago, I walked over to a girl named Sunita’s house to collect her mother’s thumbprint as a signature for a legal document. Savita is one of five sisters—which, in this place, is generally considered a curse upon the family. Her father is usually drunk and doesn’t work.
Sunita’s mother, however, has resolved not to get her daughters married until they have completed college. Despite being illiterate, she is funding their education herself. Seven days a week, she travels to and from the nearest city to carry bricks at a construction site for minimum wages. She comes home late and cooks dinner for her entire family. Her unwavering resolve is humbling.
While Sunita made tea for me, her mother and I sat on a cot and conversed by smiles and gestures. Because she never went to school, she only speaks Sadri, the local tribal language. After our tea, I pulled out the document and ink-pad to use for the thumbprint. Sunita’s face lit up, and she left the room. Her mother smiled and pushed the ink-pad away.
“What are you doing?” I called after her.
Sunita returned and handed her mother a pen. Still beaming, she explained,
“I taught my mom to write Hindi letters. She can sign her name.”
To donate to the Yuwa school, please click HERE. We plan to launch a primary school for approximately 50 girls on our existing campus in April 2015. By 2017, we plan to have purchased land in Jharkhand and started construction for a residential school.