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Grades and Gratitude

Aagya and Shivani on their way to school in a rickshaw. We pay school fees for both girls.

In less than a week the children will be able to put down away backpacks laden with tattered text books, the ends of well used pencils, and small bits of worn out erasers. Their uniforms will be washed and hung on a nail, or stuffed in a plastic bag, ready to be put on again in June when they return to classes.

At this point in the school year, which runs six days a week, from June to April, the kids are as exhausted by the long hot walk to school as they are by the threat of failure. With as many as seventy children per classroom, sitting four to a desk, the children’s ability to laser focus on lessons is remarkable, and helped along by a strict code of conduct in classes. Patient, or impatient, but always firm, teachers can avail themselves of several forms of punishment, usually meant to humiliate the student, or exhaust the miscreant. The punishments doled out are dependent on the teacher’s mood and the student’s infraction. It could be a slap on the top of the student’s head, to standing a child in the back of the class and insisting they keep their arms above their heads for a length of time. No one is special in a class in India where paying attention in class isn’t an option, and respect is given to teachers, to classmates, and to parents. Parents are also given a set of rules to follow. Uniforms must be clean and mended, lunches are to be one of two things only (dal and rice/chapati and rice), without exception. Water bottles must be full, and children must arrive on time or they stand outside the class for the duration of the day, if they aren’t lucky enough to be sent home. Excuses are for the weak and unprepared child or parent. Low-cost private schools lack libraries, working computers, and outside playgrounds, but they turn out bright students who love to learn.

Before the fees office gets busy, these two mothers pay their monthly school fees at Shivam Vidya Mandir School

Mumbai is a crowded, intense city. The children we pay fees for live in unhygienic, sunlight deprived slum areas full of noise at all hours, yet they manage to do their homework, learn three languages in school, and find small snippets of time to play with their friends. Two hour tuition classes before or after school keep the children focused on school and gives them a safe space to be when their parents are at work. The long day doesn’t end for most of the girls, who are required to help with cooking, cleaning, hand-washing clothing, and mothering their younger siblings.

A home visit for a new fees case. We paid both children's fees this year because of medical issues in the family.

This year we paid fees for sixty children at eight schools in the Sakinaka/Marol area of the city. Our list of children who need school fee assistance morphs and changes each year with the movement of families and the succession of children who’ve graduated. Some of the children, now in their teens, have completed their studies to the 10th standard and go on to college, or find work in factories and small industries near the community. Most of the new fees cases come to us as we fight our way to the front of the line to pay fees. Similar to trying to board a Mumbai local train at peak hours, competing with mothers crowding the fees office is not for the weak. Those who stand back, do so because they don’t have the funds, but they do have enough moxie to beg the school to allow their children continue their studies, with a promise of payment coming soon. We listen to the rapid, tearful Hindi, and try to understand every second word. For every mother who asks us for help, there are at least three who don’t require it, and more who require it but don’t ask. This is where we rely on Indu’s guidance. We jot down the mother’s number and ask Indu to call them. She inquires about their living conditions; how many people live in their home, who is working, where they work, are there medical issues for anyone in the home, how many children are in school, what they pay in rent, do they own their slum home, and what their wages are. When she hangs up, she looks at us and says yes, or no. Then we debate. If we think we need to investigate further before we make a decision, we set up a home visit to verify the information. At each home, a mat is laid out on the floor for us to sit on and chai is served while we gently probe for answers to a heap of questions. The children sit obediently near their parents (or grandparents in many cases) in the small single room homes, against walls of peeling paint. The creaky fans stir the air just enough to keep us cool. We listen while we look around the room at the few dusty photos of family members or gods and goddesses hung high on the wall, and we hear the tales of extended family problems, medical woes, and job losses. This year we had seventeen new cases where we paid full or partial fees depending on the situation.

Our tattered fees book on the counter at Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan fees office.

Each of these sixty children, regardless of their ability to achieve excellent grades, is deserving of an education. Some will go on to college to continue their studies because their parents are involved and understand the value of the chance at a formal education, and their children are keen learners. Other children will acquire only the basics of reading, writing, math, and science, which will be more than their parents achieved. Regardless of the level of education their child receives, every family living in a slum community reaps rewards when their children can read and write. Standing in a disheveled line to pay school fees in the heat of a Mumbai day, always wishing we’d brought a bottle of water with us, we get to see parents bring their children to school and turn them over to a teacher waiting to begin the class. That’s our reward.

Shailesh, Arpan, Atulesh and Vaishnavi on their way home from school with us after paying fees for Arpan and Ritesh (missing in pic)

This wouldn’t be possible without generous donations. Every time we pay a school fee, we’re reminded of, and humbled by, the generosity of strangers, family and friends who donate for this cause. Every time we tell a parent we can help them with school fees, they’re grateful and encouraged by the gift of education.

School Fees 2018-19 (full or partial fees paid)

Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan School - 36 students: 279,170 rupees (5,583.40)

Shivner Vidya Mandir - 2 students: 14,000 ($280)

Mapkhan School - 4 students: 15,400 ($308)

Marol Urdu School - 4 students: 2,800 ($56)

Savitribai Phule Girls College - 1 student: 10,000 ($200)

Shivam Vidya Mandir School - 6 students: 39,800 ($796)

Anjuman Shan E Islam School - 1 student: 4,500 ($90)

Samata Vidya Mandir School - 5 students: 22,700 ($454)

Tuition fees (different centres) - 3 students: 11,950 ($239)

Total fees paid for 60 children - 400,320 rupees ($8006.40)

(Based on sixty children the average fee per child for one year’s school fees: 6672 rupees ($133.44)

The fees differ from school to school. Every year the schools increase their fees by a little or a lot. For every child there is a decision to be made (based on information we get from the parents or the schools) about whether we pay full or partial fees.

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