Education does not need to be conventional to be effective
I had seen the man several times in the past while walking past the Sonargaon Hotel intersection into the road, leading to Hatirpool bazaar.
On one side of the pavement, a young man in his 30s is seen almost every evening, deeply engaged in teaching a group of vibrant young girls and boys seated on mats.
While the desire to do a story on this person was always there, the chance came unexpectedly, through a folk-rock-musician-cum-avowed-maverick called Papi Mona.
One evening, last week, I accompanied Papi and his bandmates to what he told me was a “pothshishu” school -- meaning a school for street children.
Once we came to the place, a group of vivacious, smiling, and rambunctious kids surrounded us.
One girl called Bithi came forward and introduced herself in English: “I am Bithi, a student of class III. My hometown is Jamalpur but I live in Dhaka now.”
It was impressive because Bithi did not flinch while talking and delivered the lines with aplomb. Willing to take the conversation further, I asked: “What is the name of your school?”
She answered without pausing: “I am a student of FNF School.”
A noble initiative of a young dreamer
At the centre of the school is the ever-optimistic man called Zahid Shokal. He tells me that he has been teaching the kids for four years. FNF stands for Future Nation Foundation -- the name immediately picks up the spirit.
So, why did the man choose to spend his evenings imparting free lessons to street children?
“I wanted to bring out the latent talent in these children because I believe that, given the chance, they can be every bit as confident and skilled as any other child from a privileged background,” says Zahid.
But, it’s not just education, because what Zahid tries to instil in the children is something far more important: Self-belief and respect.
That’s exactly why it needed a lot of persuasion from us and a nod from Zahid to get the children to join us for tea, biscuits, and bananas. They are also taught not to ask or take any money from anyone.
How does Zahid run the school costs?
“It’s mostly from my pocket and support from friends,” but added emphatically: “No one is ever forced to give any donation -- in fact, instead of money, what is more appreciated is the time given by someone to these children.”
Where does Papi Mona fit in?
Papi is a musician who does not conform to the definition of orthodox performers. Drenched in the moonlight, reveling under the open sky, his music is a blend of folk, rock, and surrealism.
As he says: “I seek out unconventional people who are steadfastly doing something for the poor and the underprivileged.”
“I spend evenings here, entertaining the kids,” comments Papi, adding: “The interactions are profoundly natural and never contrived.”
I believe him.
Challenges for Zahid
The main challenge for Zahid in pursuing his dream came when he got married last year. His wife, a social worker, was not too keen on losing her husband every evening. “I talked to her and soon she understood that teaching the children gave me a sense of accomplishment.”
Amazingly, now the wife cooks for the children every other week.
Zahid completed his education in criminology and is in employment. However, his aspirations with the school are always rising. “Now we are teaching the students to prepare for the primary school exam and, at the same time, emphasis is given on English and math,” said the teacher.
Zahid observed that the common tendency of society is to look for leaders among the middle class or the affluent sections of society, leaving out a large section of people who struggle every day to send their children to school with the hope of a better life.
“There is no reason to believe or propagate the notion that leaders, players, teachers, and doctors should only come from certain sections -- FNF tries to make the street children believe that they also have the ability to change the future of the country.”
Zahid lives in Farmgate, which is close to his school and is always on time to spend time with the children.
“There’s no pressure here. We learn by having fun.”
The most noticeable feature of the school is that the students enjoy the teaching method -- which incorporates games, jokes, plus a sense of camaraderie.
As I was talking to the children, a four-year-old wanted to take my pen but was gently told by others that it’s not the right thing to do.
Etiquette is also part of the curriculum here, Zahid informed me.
As we were about to leave, he made an impassioned request: “Come and spend some time with us, share your knowledge, whenever you get some leisure moments, drop by.”
Well, with so many upbeat faces, how can one refuse?
An evening with children, an offbeat musician, and learning under an open sky -- what can be more exhilarating?
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.