At 7 am on weekdays, you will see teacher K R Ushakumari getting ready to go to work. But her journey to school is not the same as that of a teacher in the city. She rides her scooter from her house in Amboori for 25 minutes and parks it on the Kumbikkal Kadavu river bank. She bought the scooter recently and that has helped her escape a long walk. Then she gets on a boat and rows across the river, often with a boatman. “But I need to row the boat, as well as the winds, will make the boat stray otherwise,” Ushakumari explains. And that is only half the journey to school. After the boat ride, she treks through the hills of Kunnathumala for four km to reach her school. She is the lone teacher at Agasthya Ega Adhyapaka Vidyalaya, Kunnathumala, in the Agasthyarkoodam Biosphere where tribal children come to learn from their dear teacher.
Speaking of what inspired her to take up teaching tribal children, she explains that P N Panicker is her mentor. She worked with P N Panicker, the Father of the Library Movement in Kerala, in 1985-86 to educate tribal children. “He inspired me to go to villages to teach children who did not have access to schools.”
Challenges encountered“The biggest challenge for me was to convince parents to send their children to school. They are scared of us. They even hide when they see us and keep their children away. They are mostly involved in making and distilling arack and they would get drunk and ignore their children’s education. I had to sit with them and have meals with them and be one among them to get their trust to send their children to school and today, they believe in me.”
There is a big uphill climb, wild elephants in the forests and more such challenges to reach school. “I started teaching in Kunnathumala in 2003. There were no roads and we would have to walk over rock boulders then. Now, there are small roads that lead to the school. There is news that they are going to build a small bridge across the river but I think we will have to wait for that,” she says.
“Another challenge as a lone teacher here is that I am in charge of classes 1- 4 and all subjects. In between, if they call me for a panchayat meeting or a block meeting, I have to attend it. I sometimes feel it will help to have another teacher here. My son has completed the TTC (Trained Teacher s Certificate) and sometimes he comes over to teach. ”
She feels a deep sense of satisfaction in the work she does when her students go places. “I have students who are working now. Some have done the TTC, some have done BSc and some have got government jobs. When I joined the school, there was not even one student who had passed 10 grade but today they all manage to pass class 10 exams,” she says proudly.
“After the students reach class 4, there are people who own hostels who take the students away to send them to other schools in the city but my students don ’t like it there. They come back to me. My own children always complain that I don ’t have time for them and that I only have time for my students in Kunnathumala, ” she jokes.
There are social groups that help provide food for the students and she is happy that there are many well-wishers who provide financial help to support the cause. “There is a group in Trivandrum that provides raw materials for breakfast that we cook and feed our students. For lunch, we cook rice. The bags and books are also sponsored by our well-wishers. Because I put up posts on Facebook, people are coming forward to contribute to the welfare of our students,” she says.
She has been teaching in the Kunnathumala school for 16 years, encouraging children to learn and get into jobs to lead better lives. She hopes to continue. “I’m growing older and I get leg-aches because it’s a long way to walk. I also take eggs and milk for the students from Amboori. So most of the time, I will have extra baggage too to carry on my head or arms. But I will stop teaching only when the day comes when my legs stop moving,” she concludes with a chuckle.
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