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Students look to athai for better futures

It is not uncommon to see children from Gomespalayam, a slum in Madurai, sitting on a narrow lane, studying during the mornings and evenings. They sometimes study inside a community hall in the area, and at other times, inside the cramped house of their 38-year-old teacher, R. Sankareswari.

Ms. Sankareswari, fondly addressed as aunt — chithi, periamma or athai — by the children, has been holding free tuition classes for them for nine years. Ms. Sankareswari, who has completed Class 12, says her aim is to ensure that every child in the area graduates and takes up works other than that of their parents. “Everyone from our community works either as a conservancy worker with the Madurai Corporation or as a manual scavenger. I want to ensure that no child is forced to be a conservancy worker, a job associated with our community,” she said.

While her father was a septic tank cleaner, her mother was a conservancy worker. “Although I could not graduate due to financial constraints, I made sure that I did not take up conservancy work. I want to help others cross this boundary too,” she added.

Classes at the Dr. Ambedkar Free Evening Children’s Tuition Centre starts at 5 p.m. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, classes are being held every morning from 10 a.m. “There has been a fall in the number of students attending the classes due to the pandemic. Currently, students who do not have smartphones, use mine to attend online classes,” she said.

While Ms. Sankareswari holds classes, members of the Dalit Resource Centre, of the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, have been teaching the students Maths and English, two days a week. This has been going on for a year now, until the pandemic struck. Higher secondary and college students also teach their juniors during their free time. “I repeatedly tell my students that as they grow up, they must simultaneously help out their juniors to succeed,” she said.

Students look to athai for better futures

R. Nanda Kumar, a first-year law student who studied at the tuition centre, said that apart from learning portions of the school curriculum, students also learn important values and ethics from the centre. “Due to financial constraints and dysfunctional families, substance abuse is rampant among adolescent boys in our area. Going to the tuition centre has helped me stay away from these habits,” he said.

Many parents in Gomespalayam arrange marriages for their daughters once they complete schooling, said A. Akshaya Shree, a Class 11 student. “Citing financial constraints, some families even ask girls to stop going to schools, and work at confectionery factories or take up work as domestic helps. But athai [Ms. Sankareswari] explains the importance of education to our parents,” she said.

Ms. Sankareswari used to work as a helper in a school van, picking and dropping children from their residences, for a monthly income of ₹3,000. She used to also take up election-related work at times. “I have had no work since the outbreak of COVID-19. Although a few family members insist that I charge a paltry sum as tuition fee, I do not collect any amount as that should not become a reason for parents to stop sending their children to the classes,” she said.

Children at the centre say they aspire to become lawyers, teachers, police personnel and naval officers. Ms. Sankeswari says the centre needs more books and guides to help the children study better.

Students look to athai for better futures

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 2:39:17 PM |

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