At 8am, the early morning sounds of the city slum are just beginning to swell into the bustle of the day. Thirty students begin to trickle into the tin-walled classroom at Path of Light Primary School. Their two teachers carefully watch and welcome each one as they enter – looking for signs the children have bathed and eaten before coming.
Iashin strolls in, already laughing conspiratorially with one of his classmates. Before he joined the school, Iashin spent his days roaming around the water bridge, surreptitiously hooking rides on the back of rickshaws. He became known as a member of the group of “bad kids” who caused mayhem in the neighborhood.
Iashin, however, was filled with a deep sadness. When he was very young, his father died of cancer. His family hadn’t been able to afford the treatment that might have saved his life. After his father’s death, Iashin and his mother moved between his uncle and grandfather’s house, living off their kindness and the meager income Iashin’s mother makes in a garment factory.
Iashin still has an independent, naughty streak – but he’s learning the importance of channeling his energy into education. He dreams of being a doctor one day so that no other fathers will die from lack of treatment like his own.
Lima arrives with her two sisters, tugging her head scarf into place. The three of them have found their own way to school since their mother had already left for her job as a housecleaner and her father for his work collecting recyclables to sell. Before a place at the Path of Light Primary School opened up there wasn’t a school option close to their squatter settlement. So, at thirteen years old, she is one of the oldest students in second grade.
Rashed arrives happy, his stomach full from breakfast. He remembers when his family, living on an impossibly small plot of land in their village, couldn’t afford to eat anything for an entire day. They arrived in the city hoping to find jobs to earn money. With his mother working as a housecleaner and his father as a rickshaw driver, they can now afford to eat. The free education at Path of Light provides an opportunity to study that they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Rashed studies hard. His teachers are helping him learn the value of discipline and his parents are glad to see his behavior improving. He’s learning about the opportunities education gives to him and dreams of having a good job to help his family. He wants to be a police officer.
Chadni settles into her spot in the corner, watching the world carefully. Before she joined the school, she spent her days collecting recyclables to sell or looking after her younger brother. Her time spent roaming the street alone has made her cautious beyond her years. Her stomach rumbles. Even with her father working as a day laborer, her mother as a housecleaner, and her elder sister in a garment factory – their family of seven still doesn’t have enough to eat quality food every day.
Starting to study at the school has opened up new possibilities for Chadni. She dreams of getting a good job and being able to afford moving her family out of the slum. She imagines being able to take care of and support her brothers so they can study. She has discovered a talent for singing and dancing.
Iashin, Lima, Rashed, and Chadni settle into their places on the thin bamboo mats placed in a u-shape on the concrete floor. The teacher begins calling the roll and each child answers with a “yes”. Classes include math lessons, grammar and writing exercises, science and health, as well as drama, crafts, singing and moral education lessons.
Most of the children in the two Path of Light primary schools come from rural families who moved into the city looking for work and a better way of life. The city in which the schools operate is one of the fastest growing urban centers in the world. Most of these new city-dwellers live in non-formal settlements (slums) that are unrecognized by the government. This unrecognized status means residents lack access to sanitation, medical care, and education.
In these families, both parents usually have to work to supply even meager rations. Paired with un-engaged schools, children end up roaming the streets like Iashin or pulled into child labor in various small enterprises, like Chadni. The lack of education and opportunity that contribute to the poverty and disempowerment of their parents are being handed down to Rashed, Lima, and their friends. If left unchanged, the cycle will continue for their children and grandchildren.
The two teachers watching carefully over their students this morning are inviting children and their families to imagine a different future. They see teaching at the Path of Light School as a way to serve God. They hope their creative teaching approaches will encourage a love of learning. They also look out for and encourage the children’s natural talents - like Chadni’s singing and dancing.
Their goal is to offer the school program up to fifth grade, since there aren’t other good educational options for students in the area. They also have several mothers, themselves illiterate, who are asking for adult reading classes. While funding limitations make it unlikely they’ll be able to meet all of the needs of their families, next year they will offer third grade for their current second-grade students.
The three hours of class is almost up and Iashin is distracted by the group of first-graders crowding around the door – waiting for their turn. Chadni is still puzzling over a math sum with the help of a teacher while Lima gets her two sister’s notebooks tucked into their bag. Rashed is proudly helping the teacher clean the blackboard. It feels like the end of a very ordinary day. But as each child files out of the classroom, they are just beginning to dream of extraordinary futures.