The Price of Adolescence
The Government Highschool
The only government high school in Kannagi Nagar is Arasu Melnilai Pallu or Kannagi Nagar Government High School. It was built in 2006, six years after Kannagi Nagar was established.
Currently, there are 1300 students and 34 teachers, Principal Mr. Muthukarrupan says. They teach classes from 6th standard upto Plus two in English and Tamil medium in this school. “This school has a mix of communities.” he says, his voice soft barely heard through the rattling fan. A board in the office shows the number of students in the school in an alphabet soup of MBC (Most Backward Classes) to SC (Scheduled Castes). From this, it is clear that most of the students come from depressed castes.
“When the children have fees only then they come to school,” he mentions. While Hope Foundation has very low dropout rates, one of the problems that the government high school faces is the large number of dropouts as most parents’ livelihood is unstable. While the school has a higher ratio of girls, the dropouts of girls are incidentally very high. “The parents here want security so they get their girls married off quick before they can complete school,” he says.
It is very important for these students to go out and earn their own money, he adds. Often, they drop out and become daily wage labourers to support their families. In situations like this, the school cannot force them to attend classes. Additionally, It is hard for them to save money as often, they are pulled towards bad company.
There are several students that prefer to study elsewhere. Subashree, currently studying in 10th standard, attends Sree Iyappa Matriculation Higher Secondary School at Sholinganallur. Subba, as she is called by her friends, enjoys school very much. Often her school van does not come to her house in Kannagi Nagar and when this happens, she calls in sick at the school.
When asked about sanitation, toilets, drinking water and steps taken to curb dropouts, Muthukarrupan falls silent. “What best can be done, we are doing,” he finally says,wearily.
As the murmurs in the class increase in volume, one girl asks the teacher whether English is spelt with an ‘E’ or an ‘I’. The students of class 10 at Hope Foundation school are preparing for their Matriculation exam. The teacher, V. Jayalakshmi, has passed around a bunch of crumpled question papers from previous years. Most students pore over their Social Studies textbooks to find the answers as Jayalakshmi goes around the classroom. Once in a while she points out the important questions and students scribble it in their notebooks.
According to Nalini Kagoo, the Principal, one of the motives of the school is to keep its students engaged. Younger children are sometimes scared to attend classes as they have not done their homework or they don’t have proper uniform, Kagoo still encourages them to come to school.
The hotchpotch of settlers that is Kannagi Nagar have caused conflict in the past. Kagoo remembers the last altercation she witnessed, three years ago, where a person died in police custody but for the last couple of years things have stabilised to a great extent. She gives credit to the changed attitude of the police. They now approach the community with ‘police is friend’ mindset rather than hostility. According to reports in Times of India, the police of Kannagi Nagar have conducted driving crash course for women and taken initiative to bring dropouts back to school in 2018 and 2017 respectively.
Manikandan—nicknamed Monkey— of class 10, would rather come to school than stay at home. His father works as a painter in Mylapore while his mother is a housekeeper. With both of them working, its his teachers who listen to his problems. He gets to play kabbadi with his friends and edit videos, which he has shot, in the school lab.
Lack of space and strained relationship with parents is an issue the students usually face. Lily Paoyaola, the school counsellor says that almost all the fathers of the students have a drinking or drug problem. “They come to school and they can relax a bit,” Lily remarks.
The teachers make it a point to give individual attention to the students, says Kagoo. According to her, it is important to gain their trust. Coming from homes where they are not heard, the school is one place where they can be themselves.
Challenges become more complex with students stepping into adolescence. Boys are more interested in games than in education but Kagoo makes it work. Her motive is to keep them away from a life of crime. “This year we have sent them for all the games. Don’t worry about winning prizes I tell them,” she says. She has sent them for chess and tennikoit (a game of throwing rings played in tennis-like courts) among others sports events.