Stories they tell in class: Broken homes, lost jobs, troubled lives

Harish’s father is a day laborer who says he has to take his wife to a dargah once a month to cure her “mental illness”. When they are out, no one is there to make sure Harish goes to school. Siddharth’s father is an alcoholic and his mother, who recently lost her job as an anganwadi, says he often gets violent and beats her. Keerti’s father, a fruit seller, struggled during the pandemic to buy his three children a phone to help with their online lessons.

The vulnerabilities of these families frame the multiple stories that make Neha Sharma’s job – as the Delhi government’s Veer Savarkar Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya class 5A math teacher – one of the toughest as she attempts to bridge the learning gap after two years of an unprecedented pandemic-induced shutdown.

In fact, each of Neha’s 38 students, including 10-year-old Harish, Siddharth and Keerti, bring to the classroom a unique set of challenges cluttered with their personal stories.

Following Class 5A for five weeks – sitting in each of their 26 maths lessons – The Indian Express found that when children navigated lessons in the classroom, the challenges outside were just as daunting. Especially when the pandemic has been especially hard on children from the economically weaker sections and working-class families, the demographics that make up much of Class 5A.

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During a baseline assessment conducted in mid-March, days before schools reopened in Delhi on April 1, Neha had flagged some of the children as needing special attention. Harish had failed to do double-digit subtraction and identify single digits – he was a “beginner”. Siddharth had, with a bit of cajoling, identified two-digit numbers, but hadn’t managed to divide or subtract – he was behind a lot of children in class. Keerti, like most of the other students in her class, couldn’t do division with leftovers.

So on April 2, at the first Parent-Teacher Meeting (PTM) of the academic session, Neha is determined to meet their parents and talk about the “extra push” the kids will need to prepare them for Class 5. .

Holiday mein kahin mat jaana (Don’t go anywhere on vacation). There will be special classes,” Neha tells each of the parents during the PTM.

As schools reopened at full capacity on April 1, the Delhi government had decided that until mid-June, grades 3 to 9 would set aside the curriculum and focus on the basics of reading, writing and math.

Around noon, towards the end of the session, Siddharth’s mother arrives and sits down opposite Neha. Neha notices the anger scar on her left forearm, long healed but ridged with prominent stitches. “Siddharth’s father often gets drunk and beats me in front of the children. Our house is not a place where children can study,” the 41-year-old said. Neha asks if she can talk to Siddharth’s father, but her mother is afraid: he might end up hitting Siddharth if he finds out the boy is not doing well in school.

Neha tells The Indian Express, “It is very important for us to know the family environment of the children. It helps me to have an idea of ​​what I need to do to meet the specific needs of the child.

Throughout the PTM, Neha takes turns being teacher, counselor, friend – sometimes encouraging, other times gently scolding, laughing with some parents and listening intently to their personal stories.

She tells Vismaya’s mother that the child is pareshan (troubled); shares dietary advice with other parents – “try grating vegetables into cheela and paratha, make sambhar and mash vegetables in it” – and tells Dipesh’s older brother, who showed up with an aunt on behalf of his parents he is responsible for making sure his brother’s homework is done.

A few days later, at Siddharth’s house in a southeast Delhi neighborhood, his mother says the 10-year-old cries the days he can’t go to school. Earlier that week, she recalls, her husband had a drunken fit and she couldn’t send Siddharth to school on time. “So I made him miss school that day. He was very upset,” she says.

Her husband has not worked since Siddharth was a baby as she lost her job as an Anganwadi assistant after recent protests by Anganwadi workers in the capital. Their eldest daughter, 19, now works as an anganwadi helper for 5,610 rupees a month and is the only paid member of the family of six. Siddharth’s two other sisters – one in class 10 and another in class 7 – are in the same school as him.

For more than two years, the boy who “loves school” found himself confined to his difficult home.

“Studying at home has always been difficult,” says Siddharth’s sister, who is in class 10. Our father gets drunk, does maar-peet (fights). The three of us sit together in the evening and do our homework and study. It’s hard to concentrate…I know Siddharth doesn’t remember things because of all this.

During the pandemic, the three school children and their father shared a smartphone, but even the phone was not spared – Siddharth’s father broke it twice in his drunken fits of rage, his mother says.

“Siddharth often missed his worksheets and online class assignments during the pandemic because he couldn’t get the phone. I’m glad he’s back in school. He looks happier now. I want to find him a lesson but we don’t have the means at the moment,” says his mother.

In most cases, paid tuition has filled an important gap during the school closures during the pandemic. The Annual Education Survey (ASER) report for 2021 had found that students from poor families relied more on private tuition during the pandemic years than before – while 28.6% of school children attended private lessons in 2018, up to 32.5% in 2020 and 39.2% in 2021.

Yet in some ways this has only served to create another layer of inequality in classrooms like Neha’s. While many, like Siddharth’s mother, struggled to afford school fees, Janani’s parents, whom Neha counts as one of her “shining” students, pay Rs 900 a month for private tuition.

“Tuition madam paise toh zyaada leti hai (fees a lot). But we have to think about the future of our children, we want them to grow up to be something,” says Janani’s mother, a housewife who studied up to class 10.

The pandemic years have also served to highlight another established link: between parental education and children’s academic performance. For example, Salik, one of Neha’s students with a quick grasp of mathematical concepts, has been taught for the past two years by his accountant father, a B.Com. Graduated (with distinction).

On May 6, Neha finally meets Harish’s father for the first time – she has tried repeatedly to reach him on the phone and has messaged the driver of the van that drops the children off at school.

A day laborer, he says he had gone to Rajasthan – a monthly trip he takes with his wife to a dargah there to treat the “mental illness” that has plagued her for years.

Neha points out that in April, Harish was present in class for 13 days and absent for 10. His father replies that when he is not there, there is no one to ensure that he actually goes to school. school.

Restless and confused as he speaks – “dimaag theek se nahi chal raha because of all this tension” – he says he hasn’t had a job during the pandemic. “Those years completely destroyed me. There were times when there was no money to buy food. My father also contracted COVID,” he says.

He lost his phone during the pandemic and so Harish did not have access to worksheets and assignments that the school sent via WhatsApp.

Now at school, Harish is still unable to do things children usually learn in kindergarten. Even after five weeks of intense Neha remedial sessions, Harish still couldn’t identify the numbers 1-9.

“I know he’s the weakest student in the class. I want to pay a little more attention to his studies. I’m trying to enroll her in a course but they ask for a deposit. Let’s see,” he said.

Neha knows this only means she will have to try even harder.

“Children who struggle in class obviously don’t have the right home environment. So I will have to work on them a little more. I think Siddharth responds well to the extra attention, but I have to work harder with Vismaya and Harish,” says Neha.

(Children’s names have been changed to protect identities)

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