ERODE: Still on a summer night when the crickets and the cicadas chirp ominously, you can hear the sawing grunt of a leopard. If you are lucky, you may get past a marauding elephant unscathed, and live to tell the tale. While the adventurous will trade anything for this slice of bravado, for Kesavan A (28) and Siva Sakthi S (30) this is what constituted a regular trek. They are the only two teachers at a school for tribal children in Vilankombai, nestled in the verdant lap of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Their task: instructing the children of 45-odd Orali tribal families, for whom the modern ways of life are a distant dream.
Vilankombai neither has good road connectivity nor a dedicated hospital. However, when the powers that be decided that education needed to percolate before modernity, a temporary school cropped up under the National Child Labour Project. Kesavan was the first teacher to reach the village seven years ago. “After completing my BEd, I was searching for a job when I learnt about this school. When I first reached here, I was shocked. The facilities were non-existent and the children illiterate. It was the sheer hopelessness of the situation that helped me make my mind up to stay.
During the initial months, I used to walk door to door and go on field visits with Service Unit for Development Activities in Rural (SUDAR) volunteers to convince children to attend the school. Gradually, people accepted me as their own. It was challenging to teach them to read and write Tamil as their mothertongue is Orali. To make learning interesting and easy, I adopted the Play-way methodology.”
“Once we were walking through the jungle and had crossed a gushing ravine, when we saw an elephant on the other side. Our hearts skipped a beat. We once saw a leopard.
It’s these breathtaking moments that made us realise what we were doing. And in hindsight, all risks seem worth it,” they say. These encounters are what prompted the teachers to establish their base in the hamlet. As their hometown is over 25 km from Vilankombai, they decided to cut down on the commute by lodging in the school building. They visit their families on weekends. Siva Sakthi joined the school three years ago. He was a teacher at a private school, mulling a switch back then.
“I was getting good offers. But then came the offer from Vilankombai. These children taught me that teaching is not a profession but a responsibility, which can bring about a positive change. I wish to continue my service here and see my children achieve greater heights,” he said. Boopathy, a class VIII student, says that had it not been for his teachers, he would still have been tilling land. “I was working with my parents on a sugarcane field. But Kesavan sir counselled and enrolled me to the school.
There are 25 children at our school, and I think I have been equipped to join a regular school from this academic year,” Boopathy adds. This is where the demand for a regular school rises. “Many students drop out of the regular schools in towns due to cultural shock and travel inconvenience. We hope the government will establish a regular institution in this hamlet so that the children need not go far away,” the teachers say. At Rs 7,000 a month, the pay seems neither enticing nor promising. So why stay put in a remote hamlet? “Yes, we do not earn enough to support our families.
But knowing that we have played a big part in moulding the first generation learners from this hamlet is enough recompense. Our parents back home are very supportive, and that is what keeps us ticking,” they say. So how was the teaching-learning experience during the lockdown? Well, for two teachers who are not bothered by low pay or lack of modern facilities, calling on children at their homes to ensure uninterrupted learning does not seem a far-fetched idea. And that is exactly what they did. “We educated the families about hand hygiene and social distancing measures,” they add for good measure.