In many places throughout the world, going to school takes a backseat to more pressing necessities (such as helping parents farm, caring for young children in the home, and finding work at a very early age). In India’s burgeoning economy, there are staggering numbers of children who cannot afford to go to school or who are needed to serve as free labor for their family. One man, a college dropout due to his own financial constraints, is helping to provide a free education for young children from underprivileged families, albeit in an unconventional environment. Rajesh Kumar Sharma, who works in a general store, runs a school under a bridge in New Delhi. While his lessons are punctuated with the sounds of local trains and the cacophony of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, as many as 200 students attend school on a regular basis. Sitting on mats instead of desks and with makeshift blackboards fashioned from black-painted boundary walls, the children come each day with the hopes of learning the basics of education, and Sharma and several other teachers do their best to impart their knowledge as well as a love of learning.
The children, who would often otherwise be left to occupy and amuse themselves or work in fields or other family labor, attend the school in two shifts, with the entire day lasting from 9am until 2pm. Last year, Kumar was able to persuade government schools to take 60 of the students for more formal schooling, and the children are encouraged to find more steady educational opportunities. For many of the children, however, this survey of subjects including Hindi, reading and writing, English, mathematics, science, and geography may be the only school they ever attend.
Sharma, who has been dedicated to the school’s mission for the past five years and who logs a full shift at the nearby general store to provide for his wife and three children after his daily teaching duties have been completed, continues to seek outside help from the train authorities, local government, and others for basics such as shoes and snacks for the children. High on his wish list are bathrooms, especially for the older female students. While our concerns about schools in the United States are certainly valid, the challenges faced by this nontraditional school definitely put them in perspective.