Some people say, “This generation of yours, it is doomed.” Some others say, “We were so much better, your parents and grandparents.” I don’t mean to compare ourselves with fellow humans, but just believe that every day we evolve into something better by learning from their experiences. And, no, we are certainly not doomed.

In early 2012, I was unemployed. I wasn’t sure about my career path, and frustrated with the monotonous routine of applying online, attending interviews, coming back home to be a couch potato. I made up my mind to join Youth For Seva, a local NPO, and thought it’d be good for me if I took up volunteering at a government school in my locality. These were dark times indeed, and I loved children. I figured, “How hard could it be to teach them English?”

My first day was overwhelming and I never got used to it over the months I served there. A shack at the intersection of two roads that I cross every day, turned out to be the school campus. Three rooms with just about ten benches in total was home to children studying in grades 1 through 7. I heard they had trouble with budget allocation, and so they were devoid of electricity, water, and even a lavatory. The least shocking of all, was that they couldn’t afford a lock for the gate. Every day, a student would scale the wall and jump over to the other side to place a concrete block against the gate to prevent intruders after school hours. A cat had claimed Room 2 as its kill zone. We’d find a dead mouse and blood at least twice a week. The students of this school were from families below poverty line. Their parents worked as vegetable vendors, maids, busboys or such. It wasn’t surprising that the children engaged in brutal fights and word wars with each other that were hard to stop. The principal of the school was an abusive woman who’d get the children to do her house chores during school hours or sometimes, have them massage her legs as she rested under the fan.

You’d be thinking now, “Where’s the hope and optimism in all this?”

Regardless of all circumstances, visiting the school everyday was something I looked forward to. My class was something they all looked forward to. I taught English to grade 5 through 7, and would spend half a day there trying to find a way to explain the various meanings & contexts of words like ‘about’, ‘this’, ‘that’, and more in the regional language. You see, they’d not learnt English at all till then. They couldn’t recognize the letter A or understand why it is pronounced as “aa” in apple and “aye” in alien. Still, every day, they’d dare me to test them in spelling, pronunciation and reading. These weren’t kids who’d raise a hullabaloo when the lesson gets tough. These were kids who showed me that they really wanted to learn.

Have you seen these campaigns on your Facebook newsfeed? The ones that have children with a slate holding up what they want to be when they grow up? That reminds me of my class. They had a dream to be a doctor, nurse, railway engineer, teacher, cricketer, manager and so on. They’d come to class with bruises (mostly from abusive parents or siblings) and still have a bright smile on their face with a notebook held out, and say, “Ma’am check my spelling today. I learnt them all. If there is even one wrong you can beat me.” I guess they were used to that kind of behavior from the rest of their world. Even that couldn’t scar them from wanting to learn more.

There was one girl, who’d never focus, always looked lost, never got anything right. It felt as though she couldn’t learn or rather didn’t want to. In my initial days, I tried talking to her, spending more time helping her with letters, but it became frustrating when she continued showing up with an empty notebook every day. I remember asking her to identify letters and write them on the board. The way she got them all mixed up, reminded me of Taare Zameen Par. I felt like I failed every time I tried to teach her anything.

One day, I asked them all to draw anything they wanted; anything that made them happy, hoping to see something that showed me where they come from. It was also a day when a YFS senior volunteer was visiting us for inspection. The girl painted. It was a picture of her hut, the sun rising at dawn, rangoli on the porch, a little girl cooking by the fire and a grandmother sleeping in the hut. It was the day I heard her story. Her father had passed when she was just a baby and her mother had eloped with a man she was in love with, leaving behind the baby girl with her old mother. This girl would wake up at four every day to do all the household chores and take care of her sick grandma before leaving to school. To add to this, during the inspection, she was the only one who stunned every student by answering every question right (made me feel like she was just playing around with me before). When asked, “Your notes don’t show anything, where did you learn all this?” She said, “Shruti ma’am taught us all.”

While asked what she wanted to be, her innocent answer was, “I want to get married.” The other kids laughed. She said, “That involves more work than any other job. You can quit other jobs, you can’t quit this. Who’ll then take care of the children?”

If anyone learnt anything from the time I was there, it was me. To forge ahead, head held high, regardless of the holes in my shoes or the blisters on my foot. The heart of a child is filled with optimism, and the fact that our generation may as well be the first to stand in line at any NGO and NPO that needs help, tells me enough about the future we are going to have.

Our generation is not doomed. We have them to light the way and lead us.

This was my lookup story, what’s yours?