They know more than me, they are smarter than me, and they taught me so many things. And what do we generally do? We quote them as an underprivileged group or minority group and we neglect them.
Summer has come and Mysore University, where I am pursuing my masters, closes for a month on account of summer holiday. Here I am, travelling to Kolkata to spend the holiday with my parents. This time it’s going to be slightly different; apart from spending time with my family, I will be teaching! Yes, for me teaching is as exciting as riding a roller coaster. A sociologist friend of mine Gayatri (Co-founder of Bagheera Project) from Bangalore is deeply involved with young boys and girls from an underprivileged community in a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata, she has invited me to teach from the computer center they operate from.
I had no idea about how to start my class. I was scared and worried I would be unable to fully convey the
many ideas I wanted to introduce to this small group of Dalit kids. As they live near a landfill, their lives are forever shaped by this heap of waste. Most of their families make a living from scavenging or odd jobs centered on recycling. Because of this, I thought covering toxic waste and its effect on the environment would be a relevant and beneficial topic.
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The class was set for 11 in the morning on Sunday, and would last one hour. The day was extremely hot and humid, understandably so being in the middle of the summer. I allowed the kids to have a free opening session and invariably they started talking about the summer. "It's so hot. We are sweating and we are dying because of this rising temperature". This seemed like the perfect transition into our session, so I began with a question, “What could be the reasons behind this rise in temperature?” Some said waste, some said plastic and some said "pradushan" (meaning pollution). Kids, no matter which background they come from, are really smart. I continued probing, “You guys are probably right but what is it precisely, any idea?”
The class fell silent. One girl murmured to her friend, it is warming, but she could not articulate the word. At the same time, others were jumbling with words like heat warming, water warming, air warming and one boy stated, and Earth warming. Bingo! You are almost there; we call it global warming which actually means that earth's temperature is increasing. It was an incredible moment for all the kids to learn a new word. But in my mind toxic waste, the topic I decided beforehand was revolving.
I asked what causes global warming. They were quite sure that it could be because of air, soil and water pollution. I smiled, knowing the path I needed to take to. Yes, pollution, but again my question was what causes pollution? They said garbage, cutting of trees, making buildings, more vehicles on the roads lead to more pollution and 'poison'! That's where I stopped, and dug deeper into the meaning of poison. The student responded stating, even plastic is poisonous, cutting trees are poisonous and so to the smoke from the vehicles are poisonous. In short, whatever is contributing to the pollution is poisonous. I was stunned. I asked the other kids to clap for him, because what he said was absolutely correct! Again I introduced a new term, toxic! The students responded with,”Ooh! Toxic, matlab zehrila” (Oh! Toxic means poisonous). Later on, we discussed about toxic waste in every field. It was followed by a question from a student, ‘’ do our bodies have toxic wastes?’’ And to my amazement, one girl said “are haan re! Tu toxic fekta hai paani mai, to machli wo khaati hai aur fir Tu machli khata hai, to gaya na toxic tere body me!” (You throw toxic products in the water and the fishes gulp it and you again eat the same fish. It means you have toxic product in your stomach!) The explanation was different but on the right direction. I said yes, you are correct, we do have a small amount of toxin in our body.
I asked, ‘’ how does it affect the environment?’’ The discussion was pretty vast. They started with the chemical fertilizers used in agricultural fields and how vegetables we eat contain toxin? Then, the discussion was extended to industrial waste affecting noise and air. Even our topic on water was stretched to our washing of clothes near the water bodies and how it affects skin and aquatic animals. After discussing all the points related to toxic waste, I wanted to ascertain how much they learned. To know that, I divided my class into 4 groups, 3 groups with 2 members in each group and one group with 3. I gave them topics and asked them how those affect the environment and potential remedies to the problem. It came out well!
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With this, my discussion came to an end, but not theirs. They were sad about the landfill near their houses, they expressed their sadness and so was I. But, I was happy to see them thinking and talking about it to each other. And it was great to see that understanding and learning, matters. They know more than me, they are smarter and they taught me so many things. And what do we generally do? We quote them as an underprivileged group or minority group and we neglect them. Many of us have no idea how it feels to wake up near a pile of garbage. I couldn’t withstand the smell but the kids were enjoying their life there with no complaints. It’s not only here in Kolkata but we can see same scenario in different states too!
As a youngster, if I can educate them about the things which are needed in daily life, absolutely the world is going to be a better place to live. My motive of the descriptive class was not that they should be acquainted with these sophisticated words like “pollutions” and “toxins” but to make them aware of how much vulnerable there is for our environment. So the next time they use, they know what effect it will have on the environment and at the same time they can impart their knowledge to others. I believe educating kids, educates the nation. So, I love educating rather than teaching. I expect all the youngsters out there, to take an initiative, to make an effort to educate every person and make the world a better place. Finally with this, I want to conclude, keep pursuing what motivates you and spread your love and creativity. Learning knows no class, caste, religion and race. Let us not read but "understand"!!