From class VI, we encourage our students to read newspaper. It is actively driven by the school — we select a few news items from Times of India every day, students are supposed to read them back home. We discuss them in the class in the next day. It is perilous territory — newspapers are full of news items which children ideally should not see. But the world too is full of cruelty and violence — newspapers just reflect the state of the world. If we shield our children from everything — we have to ask them not to use internet, not to read books and confine them at home.
Today’s main news is about Aam Aadmi Party, which recently won elections. ‘Arvind Kejriwal sets up Junta Darbar’, it says. The chief minister of the newly elected party decided to meet common people regularly in front of his office.
‘Do you think he is doing the correct thing?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ most of them answer. Some, like Sreedutta and Vulture are silent. Sreedutta always waits for everybody else to offer their opinion. Vulture normally does not have any opinion.
But most of the class seem to approve of the chief minister’s decision to personally meet common people. The newspaper, too, is full of praise for such a novel and down-to-earth gesture.
‘Think about this school,’ I say. ‘Let’s say the school does not function well. The teachers are not teaching well. The teaching materials are full of mistakes. The transport does not run on time. The toilets are unclean. Who is at fault?’
‘You!’ everybody shouts this time, including Vulture and Sreedutta.
‘Not me, not me. I am not so incompetent. Let’s say there was another director running the school. He brought the school to such a condition. So now I, who was just a teacher before, have been promoted to the position of director — just like Kejriwal.
‘Right after the day I’m appointed, I announce, any parent who has a complaint about the school can come and meet me every day between 9 am to 12 noon. Your child did not understand multiplication table? You can tell me. The boys’ toilet stinks? Raise the issue with me. The school bus reached your stoppage twenty minutes late? Talk to me about it. Would that be the correct approach?’ I ask.
‘You will be wasting a lot of time talking to the parents, and will not be able to spend much time running the school,’ Aranya says.
‘Exactly. My job is to hire the correct people, to set up proper systems and processes. If I do my job well, there would not be so many complaints in the first place. I was working in the school before — so I know its problems. What’s the use of wasting time hearing about them? In Kejriwal’s situation too — he knows what the problems are. He should get down to solving them.’
‘Looks like a young girl came to him complaining that her boyfriend is refusing to marry her,’ Motu reads out from the newspaper.
This gets the class energized.
‘Menelaus could have gone to Kejriwal, complaining about Helen leaving him and going away with Paris,’ says Nonny, referring to the battle of Troy.
‘But Kejriwal is taking complaints only from common people, and Menelaus was a king,’ Fluffy, always with an eye for details, points out.
‘And Menelaus did not know the way to Delhi,’ says Goody-Goody, always eager to provide some help to her best friend Fluffy.
‘And he had a thousand ships, but Delhi had to be reached through land.’ Points out Motu, using his recently acquired Geography expertise.
‘Ok, enough, enough — you people specialise in talking nonsense,’ I try to stem the flow. ‘Digressing is not what we teach in this school.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ asks Bhau cheekily.
I give him a stern look and he promptly lowers at head, pretending to focus on the newspaper. ‘Kejriwal also promises to reduce electricity prices by half and give free water,’ he says seriously, pointing at the next news item to be discussed.
‘Yes — this is something various governments often promise and do — to give things away for free. Is that a good thing?’
‘No,’ Aranya says, ‘he will anyway collect the money from the people later on through taxes.’
‘Yes — it’s like giving with one hand and taking back with the other,’ I say. ‘Again, coming back to the school analogy, will it be good if next year I halve the school’s fees, or better still, make it free?’
‘No,’ this time many more students respond. ‘It would bring down the quality.’
‘Yes — if I have to run it at half the current fees, then either I have to pay teachers much less, which means I will get lower quality teachers, or I need to pack more students per classroom. Either way, the school’s quality will suffer.’
Everybody nods and understands. It’s easy to teach them this concept. It’s not so easy to teach the same thing to the parents, though. My mind races back to the last parent-teacher meeting — where we discussed the fee structure of the school.
‘Our school is the Bradman among schools,’ I thundered at the beginning of that meeting, using a cricket analogy.
In Test Cricket, I explain, there have been many great batsmen — our homegrown Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, past greats like Gary Sobers and Len Hutton and modern legends like Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis. They are among the top-10 batsmen of Test Cricket. Most of those top-10 batsmen averaged around 55–60 runs per innings.
But Bradman was unparalleled — he stood head and shoulders above the rest by scoring at a rate of around 100 per innings. He averaged an astounding 67% more than the other greats.
‘Levelfield too’, I assert, ‘scores much, much higher than the other top-ten schools in the ASSET test — making us the number one by a wide margin. Your child is studying in the best school in the whole country.’
I look at the faces in the audience. No shock, surprise or joy. Your claim is so far from the truth that it does not even merit disbelief, their expressions seem to say. Come on, we are talking about a school in Suri. Here, if we just achieve mediocrity, it would be considered good enough. Extraordinary things do not happen here.
‘No fee is high enough for the best school in the country,’ I plod on, ignoring their scepticism. ‘The best things cannot come cheap.’
A hand is raised from the audience. ‘Will the fees again be raised next year?’ he asks. Don’t waste our time beating about the bush — come to the point, his tone seems to suggest. Tell us how much we have to shell out of our pockets.
I feel exasperated — but I manage to keep my cool. Sidestepping the question, I respond, ‘An average parent spends about Rs1.5 lakhs on sending his child to IIT or other engineering coaching centres. He also spends around Rs 50,000 on his child’s MBA entrance coaching. But you are fortunate — your child will be able to take a shot at those exams without those extra coaching, and extra spending — because at Levelfield, we teach them in a way that equips them for those future challenges.’
The crowd looks bored. They are not interested in future savings, when money is taken out of their pockets now. I try another line of reasoning.
‘Imagine your child studying in another school in Suri. Even if she is intelligent, she would get no more than 80–85% in board exams. She would be good at rote-learning, but poor in problem-solving, so she will not get through competitive exams. She will not be able to speak English well, so will not be able to get a private sector job after her graduation. If she is lucky, she will finally land a government job, after years of sitting for various examinations — and will earn a mediocre salary — and will forever be confined to a life of mediocrity.
‘Now imagine the same child at Levelfield. Confident, English-speaking, in sync with the demands of the modern world — the whole world will be open to her. Which one of the futures do you want for your child?
‘No, we want you to maintain the quality, but please keep the costs reasonable,’ somebody from audience says.
Very sensible, right? The best of both worlds. Cheap and high-quality. My inspirational speech seemed to have no effect. No belief in the basic economic laws.
Disappointed, I mumble, ‘Yes, I will see what best can be done,’ and conclude the meeting.
I ask the class to do some basic internet search — find out three great quotes of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare and Rumi.
Rumi is a great poet from the middle-east, whose poems typically adorn the first pages of books of celebrated Asian writers like Khaled Hosseini. If you are not familiar with Rumi — do not feel bad — it seems Microsoft Word is not familiar as well.
Bhau raises his hand after a couple of minutes. ‘Sir, Microsoft Word gives a red underline to Rumi — indicating a spelling mistake. It claims that the correct spelling should be rum.’
Rumi is lucky. Everybody imagines being named after various types of liquor. ‘I wish my name were Vodka, instead of Bhau,’ Bhau says.
Nonny finds out a quote of Einstein which she wants to share with the class: ‘Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.’
The class is appreciative. Einstein was a cool dude, it seems. Nonny’s respect for science and scientists shoot up.
Soon they find Shakespeare to be a cool guy as well.
‘There’s many a man who has more hair than wit,’ Fluffy likes this one from Shakespeare.
‘I am not such a man,’ I say, regretting it immediately.
‘Is that due to the fact that you have more wit, or less hair?’ Bhau asks innocently.
I need to teach him to respect elders. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,’ I say, quoting Julias Caeser.
They find many more lovely lines of Shakespeare.
“The fault, dear Brutas, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Based on this yardstick, they agree most of their fathers are not wise.
At the end of the class, they are in love with Shakespeare. Can’t you teach us Shakespeare, they ask me.
‘Ok — I will teach you Hamlet, which is my favourite.’ I say. Ours will be the only class in the world where Hamlet will be taught to students of this age.