Karachi Scribbles V
I love the locations of our schools*.
We enter a labyrinth of narrow, dirt roads, over open sewers and past little kids grinning cheekily from street corners, poking at our dabba-van as it rattles within inches of them. Houses and shops crowd close, built almost into each other, side by side, sharing boundary walls and cups of tea over neighborhood gossip. The shops are numerous and tiny, almost identical, and I see them at every other turning, with their plastic jars of biscuits and candy and bored keepers, their customers usually under the age of 10, making well-balanced, slow decisions about spending a rupee or two.
Sleepy dogs and small children looking after even smaller children scatter the unpaved lanes, every now and then there is a long trail of garbage, plastic bags of blue, black and pink, peels of potatoes and squashed tetra packs.
It’s in these neighborhoods that I realize where the actual population of Karachi lies. If you think “Aaj Zamzama per bohat rush hai” you need to come into one of these areas at lunchtime and see where the 18 million + population actually resides. A whole different world exists outside of our neat streets with two-story houses in which six or seven members of a family live comfortably, the wide spaces, the lawns, the terraces, the roads large enough for people to park their extra cars on.
Imagine living six or seven people to a room, with tattered blankets for doors, no proper electricity, no sewage system, not even a water pipeline system that can provide you free, clean water to wash your face with in the mornings.
Anyways, so there we are, winding our way through the maze (how our drivers know the way without any street signs or numbers is incredible), past the tightly-fitted structures and burning trash, the barefoot toddlers and discarded vegetable carts, and suddenly, without warning, there appears a bright blue door set within a pale yellow boundary wall. The schools are always beautiful, off-white yellow or burnt-red in Karachi, the beautiful bright bricks in Punjab with brilliant green gardens bursting with kaleidoscopic flowers (as opposed to the dusty grounds in Sindh) and a clean grey stone with blue trim in Azad Kashmir.
Clean classrooms, colorful charts, neat paths and corridors – in the midst of all the nots, there is suddenly a place where there is. It’s a place of opportunity (not without its baggage and obstacles and restrained resources) where the kids are so cute you want to pull their cheeks in the middle of a lecture on nouns.
I love observing classes. It takes me back to how school life was, a time when seating arrangements mattered more than dying phone batteries, when there was always that one kid who lost his pencils by the second period and would be harassing you for yours, the smart girl who the teacher would always call on, the whispering and passing notes, the giggles over someone’s unfortunate hairstyle.
Kids in class I are tiny and their bags gigantic, covering 2/3rds of their small plasticky chairs as they perch precariously on the edge. They swivel their heads like owls and follow me as I make my way to the back of the class and sit on the same tiny chair, all of them invariably assume I am a teacher. Some gaze with wide-eyed bewilderment, others smile shyly, and one or two greet me.
The kids today were learning how to make sentences. There were essentially only two rules: start with a capital letter and put a full stop at the end. Pretty simple right? But they kept fumbling, forgetting to capitalize the first letter, or suddenly making the b in bat at the end of the sentence big, skipping the full stop in half of the sentences. The teacher was very patient, walking around, bending down to point out a mistake. Which reminds me, I also love the way kids use erasers. They erase furiously, making such a mess of their paper, sometimes ripping it and then looking up guiltily to see if anyone noticed.
They also steal each other’s stationery. “Miss, she’s not letting me use her pencil!” a boy whined. “It’s mine!” the girl with the bright eyes and bright green ribbons rightly responded. “But she has two!” the boy’s sense of justice needed a little straightening up but the teacher sided with him. “Shehzadi, do you have two pencils?”
“This one is mine.”
“Do you have another one?”
“It’s my brother’s,” Shehzadi tried one more time but the teacher told her to take that one out and use it.
The boy didn’t look up but his smile widened considerably.
The battle over lost pencils, erasers and shared rulers, the unquenchable desire to sharpen pencils (just so there was a chance to get up from the chair and walk across the class to the corner with the dust bin), and the kids with the coolest pencil boxes in class – stationery was so important in those days.
One of the boys sitting in front of me was an adorable perfectionist. He wrote really slowly, erasing a letter if he thought it was even slightly imperfect and writing it again. The writing was good enough to be framed or added into Microsoft Word as the Perfect Kid font. He meticulously capitalized all his t’s, regardless of their position in the sentence. I pointed out that he only had to write the first letter in capital and he should look over his work and find the ones that didn’t need to be big letters. That set off another round of rigorous rubbing.
The student workbooks mostly have line drawings, which just invite coloring. After every ten minutes a kid would speak up hopefully, “Miss, can we color in?” and the teacher would be dismissive, say ‘no’, no doubt thinking about the time left and the irrelevance of color to full stops and simply not realizing how much the children wanted it.
It made think of the Indus Valley (Karachi’s best art school) exhibition I went to this week and the mind-blowing talent that was set up symmetrically across the rooms. That work was worthy of at least one full blog post, but I bring it up because of how little we think of art in our schools, especially in the low-cost private schools and public schools.
Yes, grammar is important but sometimes we forget how little kids think differently from us. Sometimes we say ‘no’ without thinking about it, forgetting how that one syllable can bring down shutters and lock up a child’s imagination and creativity. Sometimes we need to remember how annoying it is when we hear the word ‘no’ in response to a request. Think twice about whether it really would hurt to say ‘yes’, maybe the two minutes of happiness a ‘yes’ would bring, and letting a kid change a black-and-white drawing into a messy colorful picture, is worth it.
*(I work for TCF, an education nonprofit with over 1,000 school units across the country).