No one has asked me why I decided to switch to the social sector and the education sector in specific, 10 years ago, but I will tell you the story anyway.
So 11 years ago I used to be a journalist covering the health and education beats in Chennai. [1/n]
I had once visited a govt school for a story during the lunch hour when midday meals were being served. While waiting to speak to the HM I loitered around to where meals were being served and saw big fat worms that kids were removing from their rice and then eating the rice
Appalled, I sensed a story there, called our photographer, surreptioutiously took pictures of the worms in the food, spoke to ICDS, did a history of mid day meals and wrote a story about this which became quite popular
The story was about the poor quality of mid day meals and how children in govt schools are being made to eat worms and school authorties don't care and how much money is allocated to mid day meals but at the end of the day this is what kids get and no one in the school cares.
I received a lot of praise for the story and was generally feeling good about myself. Two days later when I was sitting in office I got a call at my office desk. It was the HM of the school where I had 'unearthed' the story.
She said she wanted to meet me and asked me if I could come to meet her. I went in feeling very good about myself and about breaking what I thought was a great story which I thought would cause a big change and change lives of kids
I went to meet her and had the most humbling conversation of my life (and I have had many of those since). She asked me if I had ever studied or taught in a government school. If I even knew how government schools work or even midday meals distribution works
I said no and she said 'that's the problem with you media people. You don't try and understand the whole situation. You don't empathise. You are just looking for a story which will make the newspaper sell and make you popular. You didn't even speak to me and wrote the story'
She went on to tell me how the funds the school receives for midday meals is very little (70 paise per child per day) which makes it difficult to procure vegetables and rice etc for the whole school and make sure kids have a good meal and even that money doesnt come in very often
She also told me about how she and the teachers put in their own money to buy the necessary rations for the mid day meals everyday so that kids don't go hungry and have some kind of meal that they get since for most kids this is the only meal of the day
In my haste to write the story and hide the fact that I had found worms in the mid day meals in her school, I had not spoken to the HM or the teachers. Had just taken the pictures, spoken to the ICDS department and written my story blaming everyone in the 'system'
She ended the conversation by saying 'you do what you have to do. but I thought you should know that all government schools and teachers and HMs are not as horrible as you media people paint them to be. I don't expect you to understand, but I want you to know'
That conversation had a profound impact on me and apart from making me feel ashamed and really small (also an evidence of bad journalism), it made me seriously reconsider my life choices and wonder why I was doing what I was doing and whether I really understood what I was doing
10 years ago after a conversation with an HM, I applied for the Teach for India fellowship to understand what education at the grassroots levels looks like, what ails education in this country and where the bottleneck is, so to speak.
I did so hoping to come back to journalism and write about issues of education in an empathetic manner but I have never looked back. The TFI fellowship despite what many people might say has been the single most defining moment of my life
It fundamentally changed me as a person, made my life better in countless ways and while I don't claim to understand education or schools or children very well, I think personally it has been a very rewarding and humbling journey
If you are thinking of applying or have been contemplating applying for the fellowship, I would say do it. It's a decision you won't regret and it's a journey you won't forget :)
The first deadline to apply is September 19th

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