Alice Sharma and Dipnendu Choudhury spend a day observing what it’s like to study in a free open air school under a bridge.
Every two minutes, a metro rail whizzes past and the bridge rattles ever so slightly. Under it, there are rows of children sitting on a dusty carpet on the floor, their faces steady and eyes narrowed in determination, their voices booming, A for Apple, while they try not to get distracted by the visitors and the noise surrounding them. Balancing the noise and finding calm amongst it is something that, Free School Under the Bridge, as it is popularly called has managed to achieve.
Located under the Yamuna bank rail flyover, the school was founded in 2009 and has over 250 students from nearby slum areas. These are mostly children who want a way out from their current life and the school assists them in cementing their future. Some of them come here after their regular school hours to help understand their homework better while others are full time students who are too poor to afford formal education.
There is an ongoing tussle between the teachers, Rajesh Kumar Sharma and Laxmi Chandra, who both want to be known as the founders of the school. Despite the animosity over ownership, the two often work together and at first, the conditions for them were bleak, but steadily the open air school has developed a loyal fan following in its patrons who help keep it running. Regular press articles have further cemented its place. It has three rectangular patches of wall that are painted black and used as a blackboard. Anonymous donors from India and foreign countries contribute towards cardigans, books, shoes and stationary for the children and the metro officials have helped with the water supply.
Sharma, who runs a grocery store nearby is the actual brain behind the school. It was his perseverance that got the school up and running and Chandra joined him in 2011. The reason Sharma started this school was because not only did he want to help the poor, but he also had an unfinished dream. In 1989 he had to drop out of college in Aligarh because of the rapidly depleting financial state of his family, so he understands the struggle of some of these children and wants to help them. Chandra on the other hand is a graduate in science from Magadh University, Bihar. He was a tuition teacher in his home state and his parents are daily wage workers. He says the reason he is a part of this school is because he feels the children need his guidance and also because he saw many youngsters in Bihar turn to naxalism as they felt that was their only way at social reform, education is a better way to change the system, he says.
Sharma teaches English and Hindi while Chandra focuses on Maths and science. The school starts at 10 am every day and finished by 4 pm. It works in two shifts—the morning has boys and the evening has girls. Before the classes get over, the children are given biscuits as a treat.
When asked what the government should be doing, Chandra says that, “basic infrastructure and more qualified teachers are the necessity, so that children get quality education,” he also says that, “a lot of people from the media come and donate here, even the local authorities have come out in support, but nothing consequential has been done so far by the Delhi government.” Shyam Mohan, who is one of the teachers at the school says that, with time, things are falling into place and more students are joining, but the only problem seems to be consistency with some of the volunteers, “initially there were only 2-3 children, but within two days we had 30 kids. But in the teaching department, only the three of us have been consistent,” he says.
The school doesn’t have different classrooms, classes from 1st to 8th are conducted at the same spot. Children overhear the English lessons in their maths class, passing glances and paper planes to their friends in adjacent classes. The carefree and adventurous spirit of these children sometimes pose a problem for the teachers. “Some children who are promoted to 2nd class in the government schools are not even aware of the basics. I am here to make their base stronger so that they can be efficient.” says Kanchan, a teacher who is pursuing her dream of teaching, 25 years after her marriage. The school doesn’t follow a syllabus and promotes students according to their calibre. “We conduct small tests once a week and are in process of conducting proper examinations,” says Sonu, Chandra’s son who is pursuing BA from IGNOU and teaches maths.
After the boys shift is over, a boy named Ajay Kumar is seen cleaning the carpet with a broom. 10- year- old Ajay is the brightest student of the school according to Chandra. With eyes glued to the floor and hands firmly behind the back and downcast eyes, Kumar is the epitome of precociousness. “I want to be a policewala and save people,” he says. Kumar idolises Salman Khan in Dabangg and before its time for him to leave, he quickly runs over and asks if we will take him for a movie.
At 2 pm sharp, the girls start pouring in, they are apprehensive for the camera and shy away. From the start it is apparent that the girls are more disciplined and attentive of the lot. Amongst the chirpy and talkative crowd of girls, one is quietly scribbling down points from her history book. “there is no electricity at home since two days. I have to complete this before it gets dark,” she says. At the end of the day, there are similar preoccupations and apprehensions of learning everywhere. Only that some people get to do it with proper infrastructure, while some must make do with all that they have.