“Teaching, is not just a job. It is a human service, and it must be thought of as a mission.” ~ Dr. Ralph Tyler
Every three minutes a speeding Metro rail kicks up a din, but the children seated below the elevated tracks near the Yamuna Bank Metro Station in New Delhi carry on with their studies unperturbed. On the faces of the children one could see a steely resolve and determination to focus on their learning and not be distracted by the surroundings. In fact, this informal ‘Under the Bridge School’ situated below the railway flyover is all about defying conventions. Located on railway land, the school has no building. Children sit on the ground on mats. There are few plastic and wooden chairs for the teachers, and a couple of steel trunk boxes for keeping the attendance registers and school records. Coats of black paint on the boundary wall make up the black boards.
The school’s founder, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, is a college dropout who owns a general store at Shakarpur, about 5 km from here. Although he has no formal training, but he has a strong conviction that education is their only hope. Around 200 kids from nearby slums attend his school that functions from 9 am to 2 pm in two batches. The children are taught to read, write, and basics of English, Hindi, Science, Mathematics, History, and Geography. Though the school does not follow any fixed syllabus and has no government approval, it achieves the purpose of a school, imparting education and building the confidence level in the children.
Rajesh Sharma checking the notebook of a student
Sharma started the school back in 2007 after seeing the condition of the children in the area. He had first visited the place to catch a glimpse of the ongoing metro railway work, when the sight of the children who were not going to school and loitering around changed the course of his life. The next morning, he came back to teach his first lesson to five excited children. Within few weeks, their number increased to 140. Speaking to the parents of the children, who were mostly farmers and daily wagers, he realized they were poor and there was no school in the vicinity they could send their children to. He eventually persuaded local labourers and farmers to allow their children to attend his school instead of working to add to the family income. Rajesh says his biggest achievement is that these children now come to school willingly. He says he has managed to light the fire of knowledge in them. “I am hoping future generations learn something from me and give two hours of their precious time for our society.” he added.
Children study with great enthusiasm despite the lack of infrastructure. “I approached the Principal of a municipal school at Shakarpur and invited him to visit our school. He visited us the next day and was surprised to see so many children attending my classes He later made arrangements to admit 60 of our students at his school,” says 46-year-old Sharma, who had moved to Delhi from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in search of employment in 1995. Sharma could not complete his B.Sc. degree from Aligarh University due to financial constraints in his family. His own inability to finish college became his inspiration to educate other poor children. “Knowledge increases when it is shared,” he declares. Sharma always encourages the children who attend his classes to join some nearby government school. Some children go to regular school in the afternoon after attending his classes.
Since the school’s fifth anniversary, he introduced a sports session every Saturday for the students. “People from different walks of life visit us on Saturdays and encourage the kids to play games like Kabbadi, Volleyball, Football, and Cricket. However, an hour’s study is mandatory,” says Sharma, who has around five volunteers to assist him now.Anshul Gupta, a volunteer teacher, studying law at Amity University, teaches English and Science at the open air school. “The students are lovely, enthusiastic, and keen to acquire knowledge,” she says. IAS aspirant Umar Imam, another volunteer teacher, devotes four hours daily at the school. An IIT-Delhi graduate, who came to know about the school through a friend says. “It gives immense me satisfaction to teach these kids. Initially, I devoted two hours in three days, but now I stretched it to four hours daily,” Appreciating Sharma’s dedicated work since past five years, he says it would be so much better if the school gets some basic infrastructure.
Sharma’s students are just as proud of him. “Our teacher has told us that when poverty strikes, you should open your mind, and that can be done only through education,” says 15-year-old Abhishek who studies at the local Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya. He enjoys studying English and aspires to become an engineer. He spends two hours in Sharma’s class under the bridge and then goes to school at 1 pm. Sharma says once Abhishek even corrected his teacher at school who had not solved a sum correctly.
Laxmi Chandra also recently joined Rajesh. He is a postgraduate and helps at the school. Chandra who was a teacher in a college, decided to join Rajesh after hearing about him. He says nothing gives him more satisfaction than imparting education. Laxmi Chandra said, “I teach children with complete purity. The aim is to make them independent, curious and confident so that they can change the course of the future.” “I don’t take attendance. They love coming here because there are no school-like boundaries. In fact, I want to keep it like that,” said Chandra.
Sharma says they are badly in need of toilets, especially for grown up girls who attend the second batch from 12 noon to 2 pm. He has sought the help of the local Member of Parliament in this regard. Metro authorities have extended their support. “They constructed the platform for the teachers to stand on and teach, and gave the coats of black paint on the wall to create five blackboards for our school,” he says. There are few well-wishers who donate footwear and snacks for the children.
For Sharma, life does not end with the school. After 2 pm, he goes to the shop and relieves his younger brother and remains there till 10 in the night. He has two sons and a daughter. His elder son, who is in class XI, often volunteers at his school as a teacher. His wife, who takes care of the home used to object to his work earlier, but has become supportive now. His work isn’t limited to the school under the bridge, because Sharma has taught underprivileged children in other parts of the city as well. What makes him a hero is that he does this selflessly and without any fees. In a country of over 1 billion people, the effort might seem a drop in the ocean, but Rajesh is igniting these young minds for a better future.