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Govandi, Geeta Vikas, Truth and Hope

Govandi, one of the largest illegal settlements in Asia, sits in the long shadow of Deonar’s 326-acre dumping ground. The trash has erupted in flames three times since January, blanketing the area with toxic fumes and haze each time. “It was very bad. Because of that I got a cough and I had to go to the doctor. It was very dangerous and difficult to see,” said Ishrat, an eighth-standard student at Geeta Vikas Vidyalaya School. Govandi’s infamy doesn’t end there. The area is known for drugs, violence and serious crime; it’s allegedly the first place law enforcement searches after terrorist attacks like the 2006 train bombings by LET and SIMI, whose explosives were traced back here. The Teach For India Matriculation team set the scene for everyone who attended the school visit and community walk by sending out an overview with statistics: 76% of infants born here do not survive for more than a year and those who do will live for an average of only 39 years.

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I began the day with some trepidation, as it was my first school visit and in Govandi, no less—I expected the worst.

“I’ll also come with you, na?” said Uncle during breakfast.

“Of course, yes, definitely! You should come. Besides, what other opportunity will you have to go there?” I said.

I was excited to share this experience with him, and honestly, the thought of someone accompanying mesomeone male and olderthrough what I imagined would be damp, dark hutments, comforted me. For once, I wanted him to make good on his playful threats to tag along and watch over me. But Aunty shot him a look and that was that.

Shopkeepers guided me from the outskirts of Govandi to the orange gates of Geeta Vikas, and the sounds of cheering, laughing children drew me in. I took a seat towards the back of a classroom filled with about 40 accepted 2016 Mumbai Fellows. As the introductions flowed, the cohort’s diversity struck me: a pair of journalism majors; a post-grad in psychology; a former flight attendant who is a current Teach For India Staff intern; an ex-JPMorgan employee; and a mother who was inspired by her sona current Fellowto join the movement.

We had a discussion with Anoop Parik, an Alumnus who is now a government teacher at Geeta Vikas, and seven Fellows whose two years at the school will be ending this weekend. The soon-to-be Fellows had a million burning questions. Watching the interaction was like watching a group of people look into the mirror, or perhaps more accurately, step into a time machine. 

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The experienced Fellows all agreed that they had grown in ways they could never have foreseen. They had sage words for the 2016ers: “you are enablersyou enable these children to reach their potential; “change is slow and hard to see, but it does happen”; “you learn so much more from your students than you could ever teach them.” And no number of weeks at Institute will give you a turn-by-turn roadmap for your classroomthe path of a Fellow is uncharted.  

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When he first came to Govandi, Anoop was taken aback; “the only thing that made me stay was my kids,” he said. (In fact he came back here to teach on a municipal salary after a brief stint as Program Manager post-Fellowship.) He told us about Qadr, who couldn’t read and resisted even picking up a book. Anoop soon discovered that Qadr had ADHD and that “he actually wanted to read. He just didn’t know how.” At this point, one of the accepted Mumbai Fellows who is a mother of a child with ADHD, asked him how he learned to support the student. He leaned on the staff, his co-Fellows and independent research to have an informed conversation with Qadr about his learning style and medication.  

When sharing an example of success, 2016 Fellow Janak told us about his girls team winning the Just for Kicks championship for two consecutive years and defying critics who asked “why are girls playing sports?” Anoop simply stated “they’re still in school. They’re going to finish 10th. All but two of my students. That’s success!”

Earlier that week, Founder and CEO Shaheen Mistri mentioned that the “struggle”the grueling work our Fellows do every day—is often overlooked in stories of success. These few hours presented an opportunity for future Fellows to hear the unvarnished truth about the rewarding, yet challenging road ahead, and understand that a community is more than a mere backdrop for their Fellowship. The new batch needed exposure to the students’ worlds and the Matriculation team wanted to give them a “raw”, un-curated experience. As Anoop shared with the group, “community visits are the backbone of the Fellowship.” Rahul Gondane from the City Operations team shared this fact: “your students spend five to six hours in the classroom with you, and the remaining 17 to 18 hours in the community.” So, the more you engage with them out there, the more successful you will be in here.

We set off to explore Govandi, three Fellows to three students. Our group talked about everything from Hrithik Roshan to mathematics as we weaved through narrow but bright, lively streets. They were lined with stores and eateries, and one lane had been overtaken by boisterous cricket-playing kids. “They get into fights over this too! It’s very silly,” said student Megha in crisp, perfect English. I was amazed to see the students lead us around their neighborhood so eloquently. They shared that they’ve been taught by Fellows since the fourth standard and they love learning in school.

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Towards the end of our walk, we arrived at Megha’s home, or rather the tiny doorway that leads up to her home. “Come, miss!” she ushered us in. I couldn’t really fit in the doorway and began to wonder if only Megha-size people were allowed inside. We then climbed up a narrow, blush-colored flight of stairs to the room she called home. The uneven tiles gave way to the grout beneath them. If it weren’t for the windows, my claustrophobia would definitely have set in. But I was also distracted by Megha’s mother and aunt offering us chai and water, and refusing to take no for an answer. Her father had passed away and her mother has been mostly bedridden. She asked the eager, smiling Fellows to sit on the only cot as one of Megha’s siblings lay sound asleep on the floor near their feet. Her other brother ran around singing, “Didi! Didi!”

I overheard Megha’s Aunt tell Sultana, another student, that they didn’t get any water that day. Later that night, I would take a second shower to wash off the sweat, dust and grime from my visit and I had never felt more grateful to be able to afford it.

During the final reflection session, the students shared one difficult decision they had to make in life. A ninth-standard student talked about the difficulty with choosing a career path—football player, enigneer, business analyst—he’d dreamt a new dream each year. His Fellows brought a chartered accountant to class and introduced him to the Just For Kicks football organization; he’s since decided to study commerce, while keeping his options open (and never missing a day of  football practice). For Fellows who come from largely privileged backgrounds the visit brought them face-to-face with a vibrant community that they were only warned about in the news.

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I was amazed by Megha, I will her remember forever. I consider myself lucky to have met her and get a glimpse into her life. She stands tall, her almond-shaped eyes shine bright, her smile is sincere, and she speaks thoughtfully and intelligently. She carries both her truth and her hope. “This is not a nice area, because there is a lot of trash, and abuse. It’s too much,” she told me. A few seconds later, she shared that she wants to become a doctor“I hope I can,” she confided. “Why not!” responded a 2016er.

I left Govandi feeling lighter, hopeful. The students’ sense of possibility is infectious. I know that the persistence and belief of our Fellows enabled Megha to see her own potential despite the despair and deprivation that surrounds her. For the first time, I was able to feel, hear and see potential. It stood before me, as a plait-wearing, plaid-donning ray of light.

Photo by 2016 Fellow Shiby Nair

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This matriculation event took place in April 2016.

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