A passion for learning results in a school for India's poorest children
Babar Ali, just a teenager himself, has started a free school in his parents' backyard for the poorest children in his village in India's West Bengal region.
West Bengal, India
In a poor village four hours drive north of Calcutta, India, a young boy named Babar Ali runs a school out of his parents' backyard. The school has almost no desks or chairs. A smattering of coconut and guava trees provides hardly any shade.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, every day, for a few hours in the late afternoon, this plot of hard, sunbaked earth fills with hundreds of children. Most of the students are barefoot, their shorts dirty, their dresses torn. Clustered by age, they sit cross-legged on plastic bags, gazing up at teachers who are often just teenagers themselves.
And then something incredible happens: They learn.
Babar, the school's 17-year-old headmaster, walks from class to class. He squats in the dirt next to 5-year-olds singing their ABCs and checks the work of eighth-graders immersed in Indian history. A slim boy in shorts and rubber sandals, Babar offers a stern look that seems more to befit someone four times his age.
Despite the many responsibilities that come with running a grade school, Babar says he feels burdened by only one: "If I don't do it," he asks in Bengali, "who will?"
The Ananda Siksha Niketan (Joy Education Home) School – as Babar Ali has christened it – fills a great need in Bhabta village. Despite the promise of free government education, the literacy rate in the district is about 66 percent as of the last census – and is even lower in poor villages like Bhabta. More than 78 percent of the students here in the state of West Bengal drop out by 10th grade.
While school is technically free, lower-caste Hindu and poor Muslim families are often unable to afford school supplies, uniforms, or transportation.
Many parents also feel there's no time for school – they depend on their children to work. Babar was 9 years old when he noticed other children grazing cows and cutting grass for livestock as he headed home from school. He invited them to sit with him under a banyan tree and began teaching them to read.
His few hours of instruction, he saw, presented a rare opportunity for his friends. Enrollment in his late-afternoon classes grew – first to a few dozen, then a few hundred.
"I want to build our nation," the young headmaster explains in careful English. "I do not fear to accomplish this work."
Inzamul Haq, 13, is a seventh-grader at the school. Starting from age 3, he has spent every morning herding cattle. Because the cows wander all over, his younger siblings help him. Together, the three children earn 44 cents a day.
Inzamul's father is sick, and his mother rolls cigarettes, called bidis, to support the family. In their little mud hut, there's no money for school.
But when Inzamul turned 5, Babar persuaded him to come study in the afternoons, after work. With an education, Inzamul hopes to start a business some day.
"I don't want to do bad jobs," he says. "Herding cattle is a bad job."
Walking around his yard, Babar spots a small girl who is engaged to be married. "Some of my students," he says, "are very, very poor."
Babar's own background is privileged only by contrast. His family home consists of an office and a single bedroom, which he shares with his parents and three younger siblings. The toilet is a hole in the ground. The kitchen is an outdoor cookstove made of baked mud.
Still, Babar's father – who sells jute fiber – has prioritized his son's education. Babar estimates that his family pays $125 a year to cover books, uniforms, transportation, and other costs at the best high school in the area. Last month, Babar completed 12th grade.