Learning the Unlearned
By Darilyn Syiem
In the recent past there has been much talk about the lack of mindfulness and what a tragedy it is that we the Khasis who are known for ‘ka akor ka burom’ ( courtesy and respect) are now bereft of such values that were part and parcel of our ancestors lives. Is this a doomed situation or can we revive these mindful practices again? If we agree that we can, then the questions that pop up include, who will do this and how? Where will the financial support come from? When will one find the time to do this? These roadblocks that we ourselves create before we can even begin a task dilute the initial enthusiasm (if it was there). We abandon the idea and eventually forget all about it. Seriously though, is such an imperative doable? I say with confidence: Yes It Is. I share below my story with a village school and how together we made things happen.
In the last four years I have been fortunate to be associated with the Umroi Madan Upper Primary School, Ri Bhoi District as a social worker, philanthropist and retired teacher. Established in 2009, the school has both girls and boys from Nursery to Class 8 and the teachers are all wonderful ladies, which immediately created the bond between them and myself, considering my commitment to women’s development. Financially, the school manages with the tuition fees from students and with a little help from the government. In spite of their meager salary and challenging working conditions, they are dedicated and always cheerful. They did not mind putting in an extra hour every month to be involved in the monthly meetings I proposed to them. They also accepted my proposal to have an extra class for the two senior classes every last Friday of the month from March to November each year to impart learning that is not included in the school curriculum.
Since then, meets have happened as planned except for last year due to the pandemic. In December, all the students get a treat, such as pre-Christmas celebration, educational tours and the like. Learning resources, snacks as well as December treats are all donations from friends in Shillong and abroad. Soon after I connected with the Girls Empowerment Movement (GEM) in the United States in 2016 of which I am a supporter in spirit and we formed an Indian Chapter of GEM in the Umroi School. Until 2017, the meetings were only with the girls. But I noticed that the boys felt left out, and I realized that I may have been discriminating them. So, in 2018, I included the boys in all our meetings and called them BUP (Boys Up). The boys are taught to support and stand up for girls’ empowerment and the girls are taught to collaborate with the boys, thereby engendering gender equality.
Lessons/activities are all need based and in line with the issues and concerns that affect young minds nowadays. These include value education, courtesy and respect, kindness, love, gratitude, helpfulness, awareness on environment, health, pen-friendship, personal protection, art and craft, creative writing, communication, gender sensitization, walks and runs for a cause. During November we always undertake participatory evaluation through games and other fun exercises so that we get to know how the GEMS and BUPS feel; what they have learned and what else they want to do in future. These exercises have revealed that students in rural areas do have potential but lack opportunities and training to bring them out of their shells.
It is from the monthly empowerment programs that I observed the difficulties that the school silently faces. As in most village schools, a room is divided into two parts, to create two classrooms. The Umroi Madan Upper Primary School is no different. Classrooms are small and partially divided by thin partitions that do little to muffle the sound between classrooms. The students are crammed together in these box-like spaces, exposed to health and other social risks. The Headmistress herself operates from the teachers’ common room, which is a tiny cubicle. Despite these odds, these boys and girls seem to enjoy attending school and the teachers dedicate themselves to imparting the best education possible under the circumstances. There have been offers of learning aids like books for a library that is non-existent, water filters, white boards and some furniture. While these gestures were well intended, they are not practical because of lack of space. I have not been able to make the monthly meetings more interactive because the rooms are not big enough to allow for participatory exercises or screen visuals.
When I shared the space problem with the teachers and members of the School Managing Committee they were also concerned and suggested that building a multipurpose hall above the current school building would provide solutions to the current space problem. As a result, an agreement was reached to build this hall in the available area above the ground floor. The big question then was who would fund the construction estimated at Rs 800,000 in 2017. This was when the idea of crowd funding began taking shape and we decided to appeal to the GEM in the US. Our GEM sisters received our appeal with enthusiasm and in no time created through their website, a donation link for donors to contribute online. The response was amazing and soon I extended this appeal to my own family and friends from around the world and from this village itself. When the funds started to pile up, we began the construction work in January 2019; the Hall was completed in February 2020. Fortunately, due to the generosity of donors, we were also able to construct a mini library by the side of the hall.
The inauguration of this Multi Purpose Hall was finally held on 19 February 2021. The VIPS for this inaugural event were the students themselves. A GEM and a BUP cut the ribbon and unfolded the plaque and then read the Tenets (based on GEM principles) in English and in Khasi. We once again thank each institutional donor, business establishments and individuals, international and local, for caring and giving to enable these girls and boys of this school access opportunities usually available only to city schools but most of all to learn the unlearned. We also want to say ‘Thank You’ to the builders who worked meticulously and honestly thus helping us to operate almost within the estimated costs. Finally, as this school was set up by the villagers themselves, it is only right that they also get to use the hall for special events – hence the name multi-purpose hall.
My dream is to see that such learning is replicated in other schools too and that in a decade or so we will have young people who adhere to the following principles:
Your Instincts are Your Super Power; Trust Them
We are Pro Self, not Selfish
My Accomplishments Do Not Diminish You or Yours, So Proudly Boast
The Unkind Things People Say to You Are More About Them Than About You
We Do Not Attempt to Elevate Ourselves By Putting Others Down
We Practice Mindfulness/Meditation
We Use Technology to Enrich, Not Corrode Relationships and Health
We Invest in Serious Self-Care: Nutrition/Balance/Financial Health
“Stop Saying Sorry”
“My Body, My Boundaries”
We believe in Bravery, Not Perfection