It’s been close to one year since I started volunteering my time at the Nai Kiran Universal School in my neighborhood in Gurugram, NCR. Initially, my family could not understand why I had to go so often. They said give more time to family and your son. Sometimes they said I should concentrate more on my home. I am embarrassed to say that I did give in to pressure at times. And the kids kept waiting for me those days. Those were the worst days because I have become attached to some of the kids. Now finally people around me have accepted this as part of my life. My own son used to call it the Kachra school but now he is equally excited to sit and read books to and with the children.
First let me tell you a bit about myself. I like reading. I started reading when I was very young. I used to miss my parents like crazy as they were living in a different city and I could meet them only once a month. So I picked up reading to fill up the ache. Only it became so much more. It created a parallel universe for me to escape to. I am so thankful now for my school’s vast library collection.
And I believe that stories have the power to transform you. If you hear an inspiring story, don’t you feel motivated or if you hear a funny story, don’t you feel like doing something equally crazy? So I wanted to take the storybooks to children who did not ever get an opportunity to read anything apart from their course books. So that they could get motivated or happy, depending on what they read.
For the last few years I had been thinking of setting up a library + café and as an after-school study centre for some of the children in my area, specifically for this community-run school. I knew about this school for a very long time but I didn’t dare to step into it because I didn’t have the confidence to deal with so many children. Of course I was scared that I will make a fool of myself or that they would reject me. So last year when the Pratham Book Champions event came about, I did a few things. I registered myself in the initiative and I got the same story book for an entire class. So that we could all read together. Only, it didn’t work like that in the end. I read the story and the class listened.
I realized that they were enjoying and interested in storybooks and then they asked for more books to read in Hindi. But the teachers wanted me to help them improve their English. So I stuck a deal with the kids. Every week I could lend them an English and a Hindi book and they had to read both.
It was a lot of hard work for them to read two books every week but they would definitely try.
That went on for a few sessions and then one day I realized that they were getting stumped because they did not understand what they were reading. So I got dictionaries for all the students. It doesn’t matter that half of them lost it due to some mishap. I am happy that there are a few kids who still have it and use it regularly.
Since this summer I have expanded the library to four more classes. Every month I appoint a few children library managers for the different classes and make them do the lending. I take small gifts as rewards for children who can tell me the story correctly or answer my questions related to the stories. I am not certain if this is such a great idea but I try to do something different every few months to keep the children motivated. A few months back I gave them notebooks and colours to draw their favorite character or scene from the books they have read.
But I do have some sad stories too. Some kids go to their village and come back after 6 months. They look so lost. They are behind in studies and even their friends have moved on. A little girl I know who passed with 84% is now a maid servant in my society because her mother believes that she would elope if she continues to study. Another little girl once told me that she does not know her birthday because her mother told her that girls don’t celebrate their birthday. Another one who is obsessed about reading books told me that she does not want a birthday gift. “The books that you get are enough,” she told me.
Sometimes I wish I could drag some of my friends and family who can also help the children read better. The last time I did that I was lectured for running away from the house on weekends and not giving enough time to my own family. So now I don’t ask my friends to volunteer. And I don’t blame them also.
End of the day it should just boil down to this one question - Whatever makes you sleep better at night… I guess I sleep a little better, talking books with children.
[Pallavi Srivastava: Me? I was the perpetual back bencherin school, in gym and even in office now. I am the baker whose son hates bread. I am the librarian who carries all the books in 2 black bags every weekend to the school without a building. I am the girl who fell in love with the boy from the graveyard book last month. I am the entrepreneur who launched her business without a business plan.]