Monday, November 12, 2007

A hand to Providence

Just before the release of his last film, Chak de India, in which he acted as a hockey coach, Shah Rukh Khan gave an interview to Gulf News. He was asked if he had looked to any real-life coach for inspiration.

Shah Rukh told them: “When I was studying at St Columba’s, I had a teacher, Brother Eric D'Souza, who used to teach us soccer, hockey, cricket and various subjects apart from sport. He would be more an ideal teacher than a coach and has been instrumental in turning me into the person that I am.”

This teacher now lives and teaches in Shillong, Meghalaya. He spends much of his time trying to turn children too poor to afford an education into productive members of society. To this end, he has started a school named ‘Providence’. Children who gain admission here are given a free education, and the books and stationery they need for their studies. Only children whose parents have a monthly income of less than Rs 800 a month are allowed.

There are 200 such children in the school now. They range in age from four to 15. Br D’Souza says in most cases their parents bring them to him after hearing about the school from someone they know. The school itself runs in a few previously unused rooms on the campus of the relatively posh St Edmunds School. Everything in Providence is an unsolicited donation from someone. The whole of Providence runs on help from providence.

When it started in 2000, Providence was a route to get kids into age-appropriate classes in other schools, says Br D’Souza. Only, that didn’t work. “What’s the point of getting them into age-appropriate classes elsewhere? So they go there and drop out because they can’t pay their fees?” he says. Then the idea of training the children so they could get a certificate from the National Institute of Open Schooling emerged. Along with this, Br D’Souza also decided to impart trade skills to the children. It would give them a better chance in life, he says.

There’s a vegetable patch just outside the classrooms that the children tend to. They learn how to grow food, and cook it. They make paper, candles and confectionaries by hand, for sale. Some of them do a beautician’s course at the school itself. Others tinker around in a garage that Br D’Souza is still trying to set up.

“We are finally going to evaluate whether the Class 10 exam is necessary for them,” he says. “We are not sure if society requires a Class 10 academic certificate.” So what, instead of a certificate, does he want to give the children?

“We want them to have literacy, numeracy, financial literacy, and communication and media skills. For example, I want the student from the confectionary to be able to make the confections, keep the accounts, communicate with potential customers in the local languages and English, and carry on the trade. I want them to be able to have the good time that many people in India are now having.”

Br D’Souza’s inspiration for this radical departure from the regular academic path comes from an unlikely source: the Brazilian Left-wing writer Paulo Freire. “Have you read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’? he asks me. “I don’t want to train the oppressed so they can rise ten levels and become the oppressors.” That is why he is placing a greater emphasis on self-employment, he says.

He has an even greater criticism of the formal school system. Students of the formal school system are losing their connection with life, he says. “I believe there is a universal language of nature which we have fallen out of touch with.”

The school draws heavily upon volunteer efforts. Many young people give their time to teach there. Br D’Souza says this is important too. “It gives the goodness of youth a chance.” Jodie, a 20-something girl from Ireland, has been teaching there for two years – without pay.

So what is your wish list for the school, I ask. “That the kids get the start in life we worked for,” he says. “That they never oppress anybody.” And there is a third: “That other schools elsewhere provide similar opportunities to those in need.”

For long, Brother D’Souza spurned media interviews. He was my class teacher in school, but he wouldn’t let me do a story on his work, or take a photograph of him. This time, he agreed, because he’s had his fifth heart attack.

He wants the work to go on, with or without him. And oh, he also wishes one of his best students – a certain Shah Rukh Khan – would start to help the poor and downtrodden. “I don’t hear of him doing that,” he says.