CHENNAI: The first thing that strikes one at the Olcott Memorial School, apart from the vast and mostly unbuilt campus, is the teacher-student relationship. The children joke around with the teachers, who know all the students, around 500, by name. “We love the school,” says Nivedha, a Class 11 student who was busy in the tailoring room.
“We are probably the only free, private and Tamil medium school for poor children. In fact, the authorities came to ask us to include children through RTE because we are a private school and could not fathom how everyone here is studying for free,” says the director, Lakshmi Suryanarananan.
The school was started by Colonel H S Olcott in 1894, who wanted to provide education to children whom nobody was prepared to teach because of their caste, who were considered untouchables. It is supported by the Theosophical society and runs on donations
The school itself is old but the activities are constantly updated, with computers, Math labs and new learning material. Uniforms, meals and books — all are provided to the children, and there are regular volunteers who come on alternate Saturdays to conduct classes including value edu, computer training and personality development.
The children, who mostly come from the nearby slums and fishing colonies, are first generation learners. Some want to become chartered accountants, some want bank jobs. But some are grounded with the problems they face. “I will do whatever my mother decides for me,” says one young girl.
The campus is a second home for the children, after school some run around playing and some are busy — tailoring, jewellery making, screen printing, tailoring. Some of them make use of their learning and even sell the glass paintings and jewellery that they make.
The students are encouraged to play many sports — the school even has a rugby team and the 10-year-olds were taken to Kolkata for a tournament. Frisbee, kabbadi and hockey too find a place here apart from the usual sports.
Many of the old students have come back as teachers — R Lalitha is one of them, she is now assistant headmistress. She also works as a counsellor, helping the children tackle their emotional problems and adolescence.
“We have grown up in the same background these children did so we relate to their problems, and they are also able to open up to us very easily,” Lalitha says.
The freedom and peace here make both teachers and children get attached to the school. “There is no corporal punishment, and the children can walk into the headmistress’s room whenever they want,” says Lakshmi. “The students often come back years later to meet us, and this keeps us motivated,” she adds.