Of Little Women and Large Dreams

– Srijita Chakraborty

My first encounter with Khadijatul Kubra Girls’ Mission (KKGM) was in February 2019. KKGM is a girls’ school located in Bagnan, Howrah, a district in the southern part of West Bengal. Besides functioning as a regular school for Muslim girls, it is home to about 540 destitute girls from in and around Kolkata.

I was allotted a group of 17 girls of class 10 at this school – a spirited lot of 15 year old girls eager to go beyond their curriculum to sharpen their spoken English skills. I was to be their tutor. Yet I am a working professional residing in Gurgaon. How would this work?

Ann Foundation partners with KKGM, and many such schools across the country as well as abroad, to provide quality education to disadvantaged children. The foundation virtually connects volunteer tutors globally with these schools. Successful young professionals are increasingly becoming aware of the roles they can play to give back to society, but often struggle to act on this desire owing to time/geographical constraints. Ann Foundation effectively dismantles these roadblocks. It simply finds a keen volunteer, anywhere in the world, and virtually connects him/her to one of their partner schools.

As I logged into my first Skype class late one Saturday evening, I was greeted by a room full of bright-eyed young girls. They were shy at first, and I attempted to break the ice by introducing myself as warmly as possible, stating my name, my profession and my family. Some smiled and nodded, others stared on blankly. I felt unsure. I asked them to introduce themselves in a similar way. No one volunteered to go first, and I eventually began prodding them to speak up one by one. The girls spoke softly, hesitating at each word. A few drew their hijabs more closely and spoke quietly with their eyes lowered. I needed to try harder to get them out of their shells.

On Sunday, I introduced myself again, this time adding my hobby and my favorite colour to the equation. I noticed a distinct shift in their energy levels; a few girls even raised their hands, keen to tell me all about their hobbies. Some read books. A few sang, while others enjoyed dancing. One of them played football.

I spent the initial few classes trying to gauge their proficiency in English. We played games. I said a word. Then one of the girls used the last letter of my word to say a word of her own. Orange. Elephant. Travel. And so on. We did these with sentences too – each student adding a sentence of her own until we formed a full story. 

I gave them words and asked them to use them in sentences. I gave them pictures and asked to tell a story. I asked them to write letters to their friends. I prepared my lessons on PowerPoint and shared my screen on Skype to teach them different aspects of grammar – tenses, punctuation, articles and so on. Clearly, they knew all the chapters in theory, but struggled to use them in conversations, frequently slipping into the simple present tense.

“Why is Shamima absent today?”

“She go to her home.”

“She has gone home.”

We played more games. I divided them into groups and asked them to assume roles. They then conjured up a series of dialogues and played out situational conversations in class. We watched videos ranging from episodes of Sesame Street to audio recordings of popular English fairy tales to short clips of animated movies. We read together about powerful women in history and discussed their contributions.

I observed them opening up to me more and more. When we finished class a few minutes early, they still refused to log off the call before 8 pm, insisting that I converse with them instead. They were curious about my life – asking about my profession and educational background, my home and my family. Once they found out I was married, that became their latest obsession. What did my husband do? When did we get married? What was our wedding day like? They echoed the hopes and dreams of any other girl that age.

Once, my student messaged me on WhatsApp that she wouldn’t be able to attend class that week because she “go home to corrupt my father’s body.” I was terrified, assuming she meant cremate. I asked about her in class and got the usual response – “She go home as she is physically unfit.” Unsure of what to do, I replied to her a couple of days later asking about her health. She said she was fine and so was her father. 

Relieved, but utterly puzzled by the turn of events, I shared this conundrum with my mother. After much deliberation, my mother suggested that she probably meant correct. Her father was probably keeping unwell and she “had gone home to correct her father’s body” which would be a very accurate, literal translation of the bengali phrase “sarir thik kora”. My mother’s hypothesis was proven right when my student showed up to class the following week and clarified that she had gone home to take care of her father who had since recovered.

In a recent class, my students, tired of writing essays and picture compositions, suggested that we do only conversational classes because that was what they had trouble with. Seeing the truth in what they were saying, I have since moved onto just conversational exercises. In our first class since the feedback, I divided the class into groups of two and asked them to discuss a movie between themselves, and then take turns to narrate the story to the class. It was a huge success. In the following class, we repeated the exercise, this time with a story they had read (and not watched). To further bolster their enthusiasm, I introduced a grading system – after the exercise, each group gets a point between one and ten. I add up the points for each class and show them a colourful dashboard with their cumulative scores. They’ve since selected their team names. And mottos. The best performers in every class get a virtual star and a standing ovation.

I started off the teaching engagement wanting to do something meaningful with my free time. Looking back today, I find myself growing increasingly attached to these girls. They were quick to embrace me in a warm welcome and have since grown to be the single most important and rewarding aspect in my life.

I often ask them to talk about their ambitions, hoping to sneak a peek into their minds whilst also striving to keeping them focused on their education for the next few crucial years. Here are some excerpts from what they shared–

I want (to) be a doctor. It is my dream from childhood and I will (ful)fill my dream. I get (a) degree of doctor from foreign. I want to help poor man whom cannot show doctor (due) to crisis of money. And I build a hospital for poor people where every things will be get free.

… My ambition is a teacher… I want to share education (with) my next generation. Some teachers are very bad (and) they cheat many students. There have no honest teacher so I want to be a honest math teacher… And I want to be a teacher like you.

I want to be a lawyer because I want to stop crime. I want to protect for who does not do any crime. I want to (give) right judgment. Now our society is suffering from crime. (At) this time some girls do not roam anywhere at night. No girls are (able to) defend herself. I do not like. I am inspire of my parents. They always support me.

Rarely have I come across a whole bevy of girls so magnanimous, fighting all odds in their own personal lives to get where they are today and to continue growing to the new heights they hope to achieve, altruistically.

Since they found out that my hometown is in Kolkata, I’ve been repeatedly asked to visit them at their school. I will be visiting them this October, having put it off for far too long, and hope to share more stories of these little women.

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