One in ninety-eight


October 21, 2010

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    Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Rajan taught his father how to write his name and is now teaching his mother and older sister to do the same. Photo: Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps

Ninety-eight. That's the number of kids in Rajan Tiru's class. He's in class nine — the equivalent of ninth grade in the U.S. Next year he'll be in class 10 and will need to pass a big exam so he can continue his studies.

Rajan lives on the Maud Tea Estate in Assam, India. Both of his parents are permanent workers on the tea estate and can't afford to send Rajan or his siblings to private school, where they might have a chance at a better education.

I'm visiting a coaching center on the Maud Tea Estate. Here and elsewhere in Assam, Mercy Corps is lending money to help people start or expand a business, tutoring high-school students and providing literacy classes for women. Much of this work is supported by Portland-based Tazo Tea, our partner in helping improve life on tea estates in India.

The idea behind the coaching centers is to give students an opportunity to get the help they need to understand their schoolwork and ask the questions they don't get to ask in class. The classes are divided by grade level and are capped at 25 students, so that students get the opportunity for one-on-one help that they can't get at school.

I ask the class nine group if they have someone at home that can help them with their homework. Only about half the students raise their hands. The literacy rate among women in tea communities in this area is about 30 percent, and just a little better for men. For most of those that raise their hands, the only literate person in their family is a father or a brother. And because literate mothers are more likely to help their children with schoolwork than literate fathers, this means they're not getting a lot of help with their studies.

I try a different question and ask if any of them have applied the skills they've learned in school to help out their family or someone in their community. Everyone's hand shoots up. Some of them help their family with the finances, or help their mothers by going to the market. Others help their families by reading letters or important documents for their parents, or by helping their younger siblings with their homework.

Rajan is called on again and talks for a long time. When he is finished, the class breaks into a round of applause and my colleague David Ekka gets a chance to translate for me. Rajan's father finished only one year of school, so Rajan helps him by writing out a shopping list for his father to take with him to the store. He taught his father how to write his name so he doesn't have to use his thumbprint in place of a written signature. Now he's working on doing the same for his mother and older sister.

He continues, "I'm not a fast learner. If I could learn more I would teach my brothers and sisters and my community.... I will definitely help my community learn after I have finished my studies." I don't doubt this.

Several of these students will be the first in their family to finish class nine. And when I ask how many of them are going to make it to class 10, they all smile and raise their hands. They recognize how lucky they are to know how to read and write, and to get this far in their education.