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A tragic tale of 'the have-nots' in our education system

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By Muhammad Aftab Alam

I was really excited about joining my new job at a college. I had many a sleepless night and numerous reveries in anticipation of it. I felt my blood-circulation pump throbbing at a greater count than routine; the inner matter of my skull burning like a furnace; my breathing balloons inflating and deflating in great urgency and in anticipation of the honor that was to be bestowed upon an ordinary country boy, who used to be a primary school teacher in a rural area. My pair of winking marbles had a shine foreseeing a much better future prospect in terms of improved financial benefits, better facilities at work place and, above all, an environment that is relatively more conducive to learning and teaching than I previously had at that far-off school where there was no electricity, no white boards, not even the black smooth surface to teach, no A.V. aids, and not enough teachers to engage all the classes at a time.

I had a pinch of feeling for the poor kids, who had been so nice to me, who even used to kiss my hands sometimes, who were never late from school and never wanted to go home even after the final bell (that proclaimed the end of their day at school). Most of them belonged to the bottom of what we name the lower middle class. Some of them even used to live in straw-built houses. Majority among them had no note books and not even lead pencils to write with; their eyes had a strange lining of hopelessness and an element of sadness that is a 'trade mark' of the have-nots in our society.

I was never a very generous person but a glimpse of that mysterious melancholy in those little eyes made me one. On the first day of every month, I used to buy the best-quality items of stationary for them and they always waited for that lucky day to come when their teacher had a bagful of such things that they badly needed to compete with their classmates whose parents easily afforded their education. It used to be a gift for them and a reward for those who did their homework neatly--all of them did. On receiving these things, they had the purest smile on their faces that I had neither seen before nor ever did I observe afterwards. Within a short span of time, they had shown a remarkable progress. And at the end of academic year, the girl who was most reluctant to speak, read and write, the poorest of all my students, got the first position. I felt that I was successful as a reflective practitioner. There was then a gathering around that girl who always used to sit alone in the remotest corner of the class. Everyone wanted to be her friend, though a few months earlier she was detested by all of them. So a zero turned into a hero, overnight. 

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It was indeed a hard question to answer when they asked me, "Sir, why are you leaving us alone; we would not be able to continue to pursue our education if you depart". I laughed a metallic laughter and returned, "Life goes on, people come and go and it does not make any difference". I said all this with a greedy smile of a utilitarian who always keeps his gains supreme. The greedy and selfish me in me was sure that it would not make any difference--but it really did and always does.

I left them, with tears rolling down their cheeks and their eyes chasing me, hoping against hope that I might return. My heart was sad for leaving the place where I served for a half and one year but my dreams about future made me happy the moment I betrayed those eyes chasing me like laser-guided missiles. I did not look back either on that day or ever afterwards, fearing that I might turn into a marble statue. I could not sleep that night: those eyes kept haunting me. 

The next morning, I went to join my new job with a heavy heart. It grew heavier when to my great astonishment, 'a huge pile of human flesh' and 'a spitting machine' sitting in front of me, whom they called, 'The Principal', refused to let me join saying that he feared I might spoil the environment of his college. I could not understand why he said so, but now I do indeed. He had to let me join, of course. I resumed my teaching but it was not 'the same here'; something was missing: perhaps that compassionate relationship was lost. Here, most of the kids were more facilitated than me; all had clean uniforms and looked more than satisfied. I was happy in a sense that I would not have to face those eyes that were 'hopelessness personified'. After a fortnight or so, students had their annual examination. During the invigilation, I observed a hint of pain on the face of a young boy. I asked him the reason but he returned with a confused blush on his innocent angelic face, "Everything is perfectly well, teacher!" I knew that all was not well; there was something terribly wrong. And my doubt turned out to be true after the result was announced, a few days later. A colleague and one of my best friends told me the most tragic tale of a discourse with that young boy. The tale he told made my hair stand erected. 

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It was the first day after the classes commenced. He also noted the same melancholic stain on that cute face. He asked that boy to see him after the class. In the recess, that little boy reported in the staff room with the dreadful look of desperation on his face. He took the boy out into another room, where they were by themselves. He patted the boy and assured him that if he told him the true cause of the sadness, his name would not be disclosed. The boy seemed to gather some courage and it looked as if the volcano of his patience was ready to erupt. It erupted and the boy weeping bitterly said, "Sir, every year I try my level best to get first position. I am all ears when I am being taught by my teachers. I leave no stone unturned in preparing for my exam. but for the last many a year I stand second to one boy who can afford to pay the tuition fee of the teacher, in charge of examination section. Now I have realized that I can never be able to reach the top. How can I compete with those boys who know the whole paper before the exam? Not only this, they get the same invisible helping hand even in the examination hall, and still if I am going ahead of them, the result is altered before being announced. In these unfair circumstances, how can I get the first position? This is the sole cause of the irritated disposition that I wear these days." 

My colleague was horror-struck when he narrated the tale of that boy with wet eyes. I felt that all the liquid circulating in my arteries and veins stood frozen. I felt I was responsible for all this; he also shared the same guilt. We decided to investigate the matter and discovered that each and every word of that young 'injured soul' was true to the core. The next step was to find a way to solve the riddle. We soon discovered the mysterious villainous hand, 'the foundation stone' of all this. It also dawned on us that it was not the case of extending the unfair helping hand to one student; their count was in dozens. We discussed with our seniors about our next step. They gave us a detailed account of the numerous hands in 'the axis of evil and the devilish network' that started from the bottom to reach the 'talkative spitting machine' at the top. We were advised to stay at an arm's length from that "hive of poisonous wasps". 

Still being young and daring, we made an attempt to go dangerously near to that network. We talked to one of the mysterious hands and told her about our determination to destroy the evil network. Surprisingly, the very next day, we had the back slash of our attempt. All the staff members were having a sentence or two as precious advice for 'our own benefit'. We realized the grave nature of the task and kept quiet for the next four and forty weeks until next annual exam approached. We made two papers; the one we submitted a week before was fictitious while the real one was submitted to the examination section just a day before the paper was to be held. Although we had to face severe criticism, yet 'one thing needful was done'.

We made sure to be physically present in the examination hall even when our day of invigilation was off. 'Another thing needful was done'. 

We were happy that we had managed to go near the roots of that satanic network. Attacking the dangerous hive without being bitten was an achievement in itself. We marked the answer scripts with utmost honesty and impartiality, handed over the result to the examination branch, bringing this fact into their notice that we had kept a copy of the award lists with us to ensure transparency in the compilation of result. We were satisfied that 'the final thing needful was done'. 

A week before the announcement of result, we heard some rumors that the final result was tempered and those dubious hands were at work again. We had a meeting with all our colleagues and with our combined efforts we succeeded in getting a copy of the final compiled result. On matching that with our copies of the award lists, a deadly silence prevailed. To our utter surprise, we found that with the exception of one or two poor boys, all those who had badly failed according to our copies of award lists, were shining like bright stars in those self-concocted lists. We were hardly able to get out of the spell of amazement when we observed a kind-looking feminine figure strolling towards us with a shameless cunning smile on her face. All my colleagues who had previously severely criticized her were now wearing a pleasant artificial smile on their lips with the only exception of me.

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Eyeing a stern face, the shameless cunning smile diminished a bit. The blood was running in my body like a bullet train. With dry colorless lips, parched tongue and eyes as red as a flame of fire, I kept vomiting the lava within me. As each harsh word came out of the bony teeth cage, the situation got worse. She never expected it from a harmless-looking creature like me. Casting a strange look at me, she explained, "These five students are the ones who pay me tuition fee, the other two students take private coaching from another teacher of our college, one is relative of the accountant", and the list went on.

I was least satisfied with her explanation; it rather added fuel to the fire. I passed an insulting remark and she jumped out of her seat angrily, returning in a solemn way that all the result would be corrected by the following day. She made the last desperate attempt to convince me by saying that the principal had already resolved to give admission to all applicants without an entry test in the next academic session, "why do not you let us promote our failures"? I returned, "Let that time come and we will resist such admissions", though in our hearts we all knew that 'the brainless reasoning animal' that happened to be the 'lord of the flies' in our college would never realize the disadvantage of allowing 'the sharks' to enter our fish farm'! She went away with the dejected look of a defeated commander. We were happy that we finally succeeded in negating the insult of the talent by favoritism.

On the day the final result was to be announced, my friend and colleague who was the torch bearer in our war against evil, took me to a nook of the college. Before he uttered a single word, I got what was proceeding: his eyes said it all. Avoiding the eye contact, he uttered a few phrases; partly advisory, partly threatening. I smelt 'the lord of the flies' in his conversation.

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Creative writer based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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A tragic tale of 'the have-nots' in our education system