Published: 29th May 2017
Meet Mahalakshmi who convinced scores of tribal children to attend school. The hills are truly alive with her music
K Mahalakshmi, a teacher at the Government Tribal Residential Middle School, Arasavalli talks about how the school was empty 11 years ago when she arrived, but it has since transform
There wasn’t a student in school until she got there eleven years ago. K Mahalakshmi, the 31-year-old teacher at Government Tribal Residential Middle School, Arasavalli wasn’t expecting an empty school on her first day. “It was a complete shocker. I was so excited that I bought biscuits and sweets to give to the students, but imagine my disappointment when all I could see was a dilapidated building fortified with just a cook and a security guard,” she says. Mahalakshmi soon realised that the school has students that have enrolled, but none of them attended class.
“I scored pretty well in my XII Board exams, but fell short of the cut-off for Medicine by just a few marks. Then, my sister insisted that I take up teacher training.
K Mahalakshmi Teacher, Govt Tribal School
When she heard that the children come to school only to pick up lunch in the afternoon, she broke down. “Imagine 20-year-old climbing trees to drag kids to school. It wasn’t easy to convince the children, or for that matter, even their parents. They would either run away from me or say things like ‘My kids need to take care of work at home’, ‘You have a government job. It doesn’t matter if you’re working or not. You’ll get your salary anyway, so leave my kids alone’, or worse, ‘In the last fifteen years, no other teacher has made any effort to attend school, so don’t start now’,” reminisces Mahalakshmi. It took time to convince them but she believes that it was her tenacity that earned people’s trust.
Trust issues: She believes that it was her tenacity that earned people’s trust
How did she manage to keep the children in class? “I always use stories to teach and I think that’s what got the children interested in learning. I grew so attached to my students that I went out of my way to take care of them, like feeding those who refused to eat or using motivational techniques, like small gifts, when they spelt right,” smiles Mahalakshmi, who points out that these children couldn’t even be put into different classes according to their age, because they had to be taught the basics, right from personal hygiene to moral values.
Strings attached: She grew so attached to the students that she took extra care of them
Having had to face many obstacles in her own life, she says that she finds happiness with these children. Mahalakshmi reveals that it was her older sister who supported the family, as their father suffered from partial vision and their mother was diagnosed with clinical depression. “I scored pretty well in my XII Board exams, but fell short of the cut-off for Medicine by just a few marks. Then, my sister insisted that I take up teacher training. After that, I began teaching in the same school where I did my higher secondary education, but I was earning only `900 a month. Dejected, I quit and started working for a textile company in Tirupur,” she says.
Their playmate: Mahalakshmi went out of her to play with her students to keep them in school
So what brought her back onto the teaching path? “I think destiny came into play when a friend of mine asked me to fill in a vacancy at a school run under the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) scheme that focusses on rural female literacy,” she explains, adding, “In two months, I received an order from the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department informing that I had secured an interview.
Destiny believer: Mahalakshmi thinks destiny has brought her to her students
My distant relatives told my family that there was no future in it. But the NGO head, who was working in the KGBV school, insisted that I take up the teaching job, as it’s these kids who need more help. It’s him I need to thank for convincing me.” Her own son will be joining this school in a year’s time.