[Inspiring Stories – Part 5] The shopkeeper who founded a school under the bridge

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There are no limits to spreading knowledge and education. The question is to innovate and think out of the box. That is what Rajesh Kumar did. With no formal training, but a conviction that education is the only hope, he founded a free school for children living in slums where they write on blackboards painted on the wall of a building under a bridge. At least 80 children have  received free education from this school in recent years. But do not think that for being under the bridge the school`s requirements are lower. The students have schedules, rules and homework to do.

Forty three-year-old Rajesh Kumar visited the construction of the Delhi transit station in 2008 and was disturbed by the sight of many children playing at the site instead of attending school. “One day I spotted children playing in the dirt as I walked to the train station and asked their parents why they were not at school. They complained it was too far and their children would have to cross a dangerous highway to get there. They told me: ‘if you are concerned about the kids` education, you should teach them’,” says Kumar.

Rajesh Kumar was forced to drop out of college in his third year due to financial difficulties. When he decided to start the free school, he didn’t want other children to face the same difficulties he had. Kumar is a shopkeeper by profession but spends hours every morning teaching children from the poorest of the poor in India’s capital. For two hours every weekday, Sharma leaves his day-job at a general store in Shakarpur so that he can teach.

His open-air classroom was born between pillars and beneath the tracks of the Delhi metro system. Every morning, more than 50 children gather under the bridge for two hours of lessons. They sweep the dirt flat and roll out foam mats to sit on, just meters away from the bushes where several men had been squatting minutes earlier. Every few minutes a train passes above, but the kids are unperturbed by its sounds. There are no chairs or tables and they sit on rolls of polystyrene foam placed on the rubble. Three rectangular patches of wall are painted black and used as a blackboard.

India’s Right to Education Act promising free, compulsory schooling to all children aged between six and 14 was supposed to take full effect, but millions of children still don’t go to school and many who do are getting only the barest of education. These free classes help to provide them with a foundation. “It’s most important to inspire these children to study and give them an opportunity of an education.”I will be fortunate even if two out of 20 study further. I will feel satisfied that I contributed to their future generations,” says Kumar.

For some of these dozens of children of poor migrant workers in India’s capital, this makeshift, open-air school under the rumble of mass transit is the only school they have. Anonymous donors have contributed cardigans, books, shoes and stationery for the children, as their parents cannot afford them.

While some kids were admitted to a government school, a few never showed up due to the nature of their parents’ work. In his experience, these children have a hunger to study if encouraged. They need support from society and a means to achieve it. “No money can buy the respect and gratitude that I get from these children and their parents. That’s all that I want,” says Kumar.

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