Tamil Nadu, 2021 –
I migrated with my family from Sri Lanka to South India in 1974. My first teaching experience starts in a remote part of The Nilgiris mountains in Tamil Nadu in South India, where I taught tribal children. Later I went back to Sri Lanka and taught in a school run by expatriates but I eventually returned to South India to the same school in Nilgiris. In 1986 I moved to a place called Kodaikanal also in South India and joined the Kodaikanal International School as a preschool teacher. I worked there till 1994. The following is what happened from then on.
The year is 1997. I have just returned from the USA, after a stint of about two years, as an intern in the Laboratory Kindergarten run by the Goshen College, Indianna, and a short time helping with the Title 1 Reading Programme for struggling readers in a school called the Chamberlain School. It was now August or September of 1997. I can’t remember exactly. I receive a call from a parent of one of my pre-schoolers from Kodaikanal International School. Leify, her son, has left the school. She wishes me to home school him. I agree. I had anyway no plans for my future.
Leify becomes my first student. His bedroom cum playroom in Arcortia becomes the school room. The date is October 2nd. I remember this well because it’s the anniversary of my father’s death, India celebrates Gandhi’s birthday, and it is also Leify’s birthday. What a partnership this was – learning for 15 mins and break 15 mins. He calls me Rita.
I am Aunty to everyone or nearly everyone in the Kodai community. I was getting calls and requests: “Aunty please take ___ on”, “Can my child also come?” and so on. It’s growing. A bedroom is not enough. One of the new parents offered me her verandah. So the first move. The moves continued from Arcortia to Nutshell to Summer Seat, back to Arcortia, then to Riverside. From Riverside to Holiday Home then Bourne End and now to Lakeside. All except Lakeside have been residences of Kodai families which I rented. Lakeside is the only school that looks like a school. Each house had a uniqueness about it, and I enjoyed setting up the classrooms etc in an unorthodox way. Both the children and I enjoyed the flexibility. I could use the nooks and corners as the interiors changed with each move.
The rents also grew with the number of children growing from 1 to 5 to 8 to 15 to 18 and I have lost count of the growth. It now stands at 174. At some point in the growth of the numbers I thought “This is a school. I’ve got to name it.” I was fixed on PRAKK. Most peculiar. But to me it meant the initials of my father AKK and father in law PR put together, both reputed teachers and headmasters of well known schools in Sri Lanka. My grandson called it CRACK. It still gets misnamed various things – PARK, PACK and so on.
Having seen, known and been made to understand the stress young children go through in their day to day lessons with loads of homework, cramming etc., my long-time dream of providing a happy learning environment to the community was now being realised.
PRAKK Foundation is now an established English medium primary school catering for the middle and lower middle socio-economic sector of this community. It is recognised by the Tamil Nadu Government.
We try to make the school day lessons into a fun day incorporating singing, dancing, drama, science experiments, story time, library time, excursions and so on. Hands on experiences are usually with local materials and recyclables found in and around the neighbourhood. My family refer to me as the junk collector.
Even though I despair sometimes, being bogged down with paper work, meetings etc., and finding teachers or making teachers understand the philosophy, PRAKK must go on. New admissions keep coming in.
Of course we have been closed through most of Covid-19 while still paying rent but with no income. Our lease expired on the current premises but we have found a new site and have relocated ready for when the children return.
Judging from the input I get from my past students and their recollections of PRAKK it is truly rewarding. I feel I have served this community well.
Leify, my first student, phoned me the other day and gave me his news. He is now working in the US. He is married and has a son. He said, “ Rita, keep breathing till I come back.” I said, “ I’ll try.”