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Five classrooms you never knew about (that will teach you more than any other classroom you have been in!)

At crowded parties when people find out I work with NGOs, I am often told, “Aww that’s so nice! I want to work with an NGO too! Can you give me a job?” To this I always ask them what they do. Some common answers are, “I work in a bank,”, “I work in an investment company,” “I am a coder.”

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And I say, “Aww that’s so nice! I want to work in a bank too!” or “I want to code too! Can you give me a job?” And they laugh awkwardly, because they can’t tell if I am joking or not.

The thing is, just like I can’t work in a bank or be a coder without the appropriate education, you can’t work in the non-profit, or as I prefer calling it, the for-purpose sector, without the appropriate education. The exciting part about being educated to join the for-purpose sector, though, is that the education is not in a stifling classroom, and it will definitely not come out through the mouth of a boring, monotonously droning professor.

Here are the five places I went to over five months that taught me more than 18 years of institutionalized education.

1. Muniyappa’s home

It is easy to find Classroom 1. Just an hour’s drive outside of any city of your choice, in any direction you please, will take you there.

Five classrooms that will teach you more than any other classroom

Muniyappa is a small holder farmer, like 80% of India’s farmers, with less than 1 acre of land, and perhaps a cow or a few chickens. He grows seasonal vegetables, as his landholding is too small to grow staples like rice, sugarcane or corn. The more fertilizer and pesticide he sprays on his land to increase productivity, the less his land produces, and he has to buy more and more fertilizer and pesticide every year. I understood why he was in debt and got only deeper into it every year. I helped him and his children pick cauliflowers from his land. I ate ragi mudde three times a day with his family, and burnt my hands rolling the hot millet balls his wife taught me to make.

2. Maya Di’s bunk bed

It is even easier to find Classroom 2. It is right in the middle of your city, where traffic is heaviest, the population is thickest, the city is at its loudest.

Maya Di rents one of the four wooden planks jutting out of the walls of the 10 feet by 10 feet white washed room in one of Asia’s oldest and largest red light areas. She ran away from her village when she was 14 years old because her mother beat her for not doing household chores. The train’s general compartment brought her to the throbbing metropolis, where it only took 4 hours for a man to spot that she was lost, promise her a job and bring her to her wooden plank in the white washed room I sat in her with. She has been back in her village at least every year since, and sends money home every two weeks for her father’s diabetes medication, tuitions for her 3 sisters and 1 brother, and so her family can eat fish once every two weeks.

3Salima Bi’s kohl

While it might still be difficult to convince Muniyappa or Maya Di to let you into their Classrooms, Salima Bi’s Kholi is open to be rented to anyone who can pay a month’s deposit of Rs. 3000 in advance.

Five classrooms that will teach you more than any other classroom

Salima Bi’s Kholi has a blue tarpaulin roof, topped with corrugated asbestos, a reclaimed wooden door, and a 3 feet by 3 feet window with an iron grill. You can place a cook stove in the corner if you want, but it does not have an attached bathroom, and you have to go to the neighbourhood Shulabh to do your business, and so you hold your food in and drink less water. Water comes in the communal tap at 6:10 every morning, and if you line up by 5: 45 you can be amongst the first ten people in line.

4.Sister Maria’s orphanage

If you are reading this blog you are too old to be admitted into Sister Maria’s orphanage, but she will certainly let you stay there for free if you volunteer to teach the children, or play games with them, or offer to sort out their accounts.

There are 35 children. The youngest is 4 and calls Sister Maria, “Mamma.” The oldest, Nitin, is 19 and will be the first one to pass High School from the orphanage next year. Sister Maria always tells the other children that they have to be like Nitin. She has plans to have him go to the district Polytechnic college and learn to fix radios and refrigerators and televisions, and have a good job one day. But Nitin has been missing school and smoking by the canals with some older boys, who pay him Rs. 10 everyday for rolling bidis. He doesn’t think he is going to pass his exams.

 5. Surender Singh’s taxi

If you will listen to his stories, you don’t need to pay Rs. 3000 a month or offer your volunteer hours. Education is free for all in Surender Singh’s taxi.

Surender Singh has been driving a taxi for 12 years, since he was 17 years old. “I lied about my birth date on the license, but just by one year, so no problem,” he told me. He had already saved Rs. 2 lakhs and was going to save Rs. 2 lakhs more, so he could own his own taxi. But then his wife got a tumour in her stomach and his entire savings got spent on her surgery. Since then he always takes passengers who say they are going to the hospital into his taxi on priority, he doesn’t charge them extra or refuse to go. He is okay with couples making out on his back seat, “because where else will they go in this city?” Some of them are even gay couples. When he drops female passengers home at night he waits outside the gate of their house until they go in and lock and door before driving off.

Five classrooms that will teach you more than any other classroom

These five classrooms in 5 months, or even 5 weeks if you are in a hurry, are your short cut to understanding what you have in common with a pregnant woman who’s anaemic but forgets to take her iron tablets, a child who skips school to play on the river bank, the farmer who grows spinach but doesn’t eat it, the corporate funder, the local municipality officer. What you have in common with them is that you are all human. You are motivated by the same things, you are saddened by the same things, your hopes and dreams are the same. And once you understand that, you will be unstoppable.

This blog post has been contributed by Trina Talukdar. 

Trina started working in Kalighat, one of Asia’s oldest and largest red light areas, at the age of 18. Her interaction with commercial sex workers spurred her passion to start her own non-profit, Kranti, that identifies the potential in girls who have been trafficked to become agents of social change. Trina then moved to Ashoka: Innovators for the Public to explore other areas and models of work in the development sector, through Ashoka’s fellow selection process. She is currently an Atlas Corps fellow serving at the American Express Foundation. 

You can get in touch with Trina at trina.talukdar@gmail.com

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