When you enter the atrium of Sanskar School, in Anand Nagar, the light filtering down through three open stories strikes the tennis-court-sized school logo painted on the floor. I’m pretty sure that one worker’s job is to clean this floor continually, crossing back and forth hour after hour with a mop. When you walk into the government school in Tilak #4 of Jawahar Nagar, you pass by grunting pigs, rooting through the heaps of trash piled right outside.
Over the past few months, I’ve been teaching classes at both of these schools and have begun to understand the immense gap between what the government considers an education and what you can get if you can afford to pay for it. The differences go far deeper than the actual facilities at both of these schools, but they start there.
The government school is comprised of two concrete rooms, surrounded by a fence studded with broken glass on top. Sanskar School is comprised of two brick-and-glass buildings, roughly equal in quality to my high school in Upstate New York, with a separate cafeteria under construction that will connect the two. Some of my students have come to school driving their parents’ cars.
Students wear uniforms at both schools, but those at the private school have several sets each, including an outfit with special colors representing their Houses that they wear each Friday. When I enter the classroom there, there is always a tray neatly stocked with pieces of chalk. In Jawahar Nagar, I know to wear the old pieces of chalk down to a nub before going to the box to take another.
But over time, what becomes clear is that the substantial difference between these two schools lies in the investment made in the education of each child. At the government school, the amount of instruction is limited. The students are divided into two classes—one of eight, nine, and ten-year-olds, the other mostly 11-14 year-olds—but one of the teachers passed away this past fall. As a result, at any given time, one entire class is told to work on their own. Many times, I’ve arrived to find the gate locked and been told about an unannounced holiday.
Even more often, though, my students don’t show up when class is in session. For parents, the idea that education is the most important thing in their child’s life is missing. Who can blame them? Since summer came, there is one hour in the morning during which they can fetch water from the communal pump, and children are needed to help.
And regardless of their attendance, most of my students tell me that they’ll quit school after reaching eighth grade—they’ll need to start earning for their families, working at a tea stall or a construction site. Even if they decided to stay, there are few options for actually pursuing higher study, the teacher has told me. For the students at Sanskar School, education is a bridge to engineering, or law, or medicine. For even the brightest and most hardworking of my students in Jawahar Nagar, it’s hard to imagine education leading them anywhere beyond the edge of the slum.