By teaching and sponsoring Dalit children’s education after his retirement, Dr. R. Ilango has set an example for others to follow

They are the sons and daughters of masons, painters, wood cutters, coolies and scavengers who ooze confidence and have the courage to dream. If one wants to become a District Collector, another wants to join the IPS and yet another wants to become a scientist.

For the first time in five decades, students of the Corporation Primary School in Ponmeni suburbs near Madurai, are beginning to think of climbing the social and economic ladder. For most of these Dalit kids, not much has changed on the home front – they have to bear with family disharmony, illiterate parents, alcoholic fathers, physical and verbal abuse. Each has a sad story to narrate.

Yet, Ramesh, the son of a tender coconut seller, says, “I do not want to grow old without doing anything.” His classmate Lingeshwari, daughter of a mason, says, “I want to achieve something so that I am treated better.”

Offering them succour through their worst times is a new visitor to their school, Dr.R.Ilango, retd.Vice-principal of Vivekananda College, Thiruvedagam. Ever since his retirement last year, he has been spending time with upper primary students instilling self-confidence in them besides teaching English grammar, communication skills, moral values and yoga.

Escaping poverty

In a matter of 12 months, these students have not only picked up the language but are convinced that studying well and learning English are the means to escape grinding poverty and discrimination. Their perspective to life has changed.

“I stepped into the school accidentally one afternoon and following a casual chat with the students, the Head Mistress and a teacher felt they were all hungry for knowledge,” says Dr.Ilango. The day marked a watershed for him.

“I led a comfortable life all along and entered the dark world of these children only now. Their state of hopelessness and sadness moved me,” says Dr.Ilango. He is now convinced and wishes that all retired school teachers and college professors could adopt impoverished primary schools and use their teaching expertise to make the learning process better. “We will see a sea-change in our primary education which needs complete overhauling,” he says.

Dr.Ilango volunteers half a day with 15 class V students daily teaching them what he thinks is suitable for their age. He has the permission of Madurai Corporation and the Chief Education Officer is now keen that Dr.Ilango “adopts” a few more schools.

Thirst to learn

At the Ponmeni School, he has so far taught the students 330 forms of English verbs, time adverbs and tenses which he challenges even college graduates don’t know. He is amazed by the memory power of his young students, their progress and the thirst to learn. “They have proven how the learning environment can have a positive impact,” he says.

The students are now able to give self-introduction in flawless English. They sing Bharathiar’s songs with flair and actively participate in all class activity and even intra-and inter-school competitions. For the first time in the history of the school, a class V student won a prize in story telling competition last year.

“It is the confidence that is speaking now,” says Dr.Ilango who now finds the children much more motivated and keen on higher learning. He gives equal credit to the HM and the teacher for cooperating and taking good care of the students, who often turn up looking ragged.

From last year’s batch, Dr.Ilango has identified five best students for admission to city’s elite schools and taken the responsibility of financing each of their education till the end.

“Earlier,” says Dr.Ilango, “the students after completing class V here would drop-out to take up odd jobs like watering home gardens or packaging items to supplement their family income.” But this year nobody is talking about discontinuing studies. In fact, one boy has brought three children from his neighbourhood for enrolment while another boy has ensured that his two little siblings too attend school regularly.

This is the change Dr.Ilango, a follower of Swami Vivekananda, dreamt of experiencing. “It is of no use if I merely read him and not practice. As Swamiji said, an ounce of practice is better than tons of tall talk,” he adds.

He is so attached to these children now that he bought them new dresses for Diwali and celebrated every festival with them. “I no longer feel the need to go to a temple. My heart is filled with joy when I see these neglected children smile.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)