Two stars and a wish for the next gen

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think,” was something Margaret Mead said once. Who would ever imagine this would be put into action 114 years after she was born, by a small relatively undisclosed organisation called Utsarga, in a semi rural area in Kolkata a city in West Bengal . 26 years ago a bijou room was set up for the children of labourers in Kolkata it was , for children who did not have parents to help them with home work, children who barely had food to eat three times a day, children who wore muddy and tattered clothes to school, children with hard fought and hard earned opportunities - to put it simply - nothing like you and me. This charitable organisation was set up to help children before school hours from 8 o clock to 10 o clock in the morning with their homework. Before they left they were given a few snacks to last them through the day. The organisation that started off with just a couple of students have around 40 children ranging between the ages 4 and 18 today. There are several students who have spent 13 years with the organisation and have passed their exams with flying colours, despite having limited opportunities. They have braved their way through poverty to help themselves have a better future.

Handling kids of both 4 and 18 years must be a rather arduous job but the Utsarga staff think nothing of it, taking on a difficult tasks with responsibility. They spend time, explaining Math problems painstakingly to the kids, reading aloud English passages and make them repeat correct pronunciations.

I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the organisation this summer and I was nothing short of stunned when I saw the behaviour and attitude of the kids. They are well behaved, courteous, gracious and urbane in every way. I was greeted with a chorus of ‘Good Morning’ as soon as I stepped into the room. Initially I was a bit hesitant to visit Utsarga as I was certain I would be intruding their fixed schedule with my presence. However the children were more than happy to accommodate us. My sister sat down with a group of little boys who were doing math and I sat down with a group of incredibly charming and pretty girls to help them with English. I was put at ease immediately by their beguiling smiles. Nothing would have been better than to tell you that they could read their english text fluently but that would be untrue.

The children needed help with their pronunciation and their spellings in general. That is when I realised, that although Utsarga has been doing a splendid job for the last 26 years, there are things that can be improved. In a finite amount of time I understand that the children focus on their schoolwork. However I believe it is important for them to have fun and also explore concepts in more depth rather than just gain a basic knowledge. The priority should be to make the children learn and enjoy what they are doing and not just teach them what is required for school work. Schools will teach new things, which means the homework will be from a new topic each day, which in turn leads to the fact that the children just do the work they have for each specific day without really understand the practical implications much. As my parents say understand the how and why not just the what.

I realise that I am in no position to criticise the teaching methods of the school but I believe that an overall knowledge never yields too much. What the children really need are younger people who are capable of explaining their work to them and making sure they understand. The main thing the school lacks is honing the skill of each student. I dont blame them. In a huge city where 4 million people live in dire poverty the organisation has limited funds which prevent them from further succouring the children. There are just six teachers who teach science english and math to all the children. This would not be a problem if each child was given the attention they need, but the teachers tend to prioritise the older students who have more demanding school work. If I were to give two stars and a wish, I would say my first star goes to the gusto with which Utsarga provides for the children. The second star would be to the amazing children themselves . My wish would be to ask for more outside help. Get more people who are willing to volunteer to teach. For example I noticed a college across the road. If younger students are made to volunteer even an hour a week it could make a big difference.

There was this particular little girl called Roshni, I was impressed by her. She was not only charming and friendly but had plenty of leadership qualities and it was evident that everyone adored her. She was a great dancer and could sing just as well. This made me think about the fact that not everyone is born with great opportunities, however all of us deserve a chance. It is those chances and what we make of them that make us what we are and help us go forward in life. There are millons of other people like me, who have been given what they want without ever having to ask for it. On the other hand there are millions of others like Roshni who have had to work for what they get, whose parents have to work very hard to give their children a better and brighter future. Almost 300 million people live in poverty in my country alone. Utsarga tries to help 40 of those kids- a minute percentage.

Economists often think of progressive taxes as the way to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.Taxing people can only get us so far. It is only when people set aside their own selfish needs and try harder to make a place like Utsarga that we can say we are moving forward. Utsarga is truly unique, having limited funds and few teachers has not stopped it from growing or giving up. The organisation continues to mould and better these young people so that in the future they know what they have to do to prevent others from facing the hardships they faced. Who says you have to be rich to help the poor, who says you need to have plenty of funds to do service , all you need is one eager person, one pencil, one pen and and a vision to make a difference.


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