We were still in our first year in our new city and were moving to a different room in the slum for the second time. The dirt-floored room we were moving into had an inadequate roof, so I carried over the bamboo-and-tarp roof that had been made for our previous place and stuck it right up on top of the new place.
The new roof wasn’t adequate to cover the whole room, but at least it reduced the number of places water could leak through.
It took three people to make this happen, myself, my friend Salman, and a 15-year-old neighbor. The teenager and I chatted a little during our work. Peregrine translated for me at times as my language skills were rudimentary.
At one point, the young man asked me if I could teach him how to read. He shared that he had never had the chance to go to school, had worked in an embroidery shop as long as he could remember, and that he really wanted to learn how to read in his native language. And English too.
His request struck me.
Of course I wanted to teach him to read. That sounded like a fantastic idea. I liked to teach (my background was in teaching math and science), and reading sounded important to learn. But….I didn’t know how. I was a science teacher, not a literacy teacher. And my poor language skills were an impediment.
“I want to but I’m not sure how. I can only barely read your language myself,” I told him.
And so it sat for six months.
The next year, my friend from a slum on the other side of town called me to say he had been invited to meet with an education NGO that was trying out a literacy program. He knew about my background in education and thought I might be useful. We arrived at a nice office and met a fascinating woman, a born-and-raised local who had gone off to Cambridge for her Ph.D., worked with the World Bank for a decade, and was now back in her hometown running her own NGO to reform education in her home country. She had a technique for teaching Hindi literacy in a simple yet effective manner, but needed someone to trial it.
We appeared to be the ones who could do that.
After the meeting I felt a cautious optimism. This was the first meeting I’d had with an NGO that was doing something I was interested in doing. I wanted to know where this could lead.
So I went home and tried the program out with the 10-year-old (Saziya) and 12-year-old (Naziya) daughters in the family we live with. Saziya already knew most of her letters and could sound out a few words, but Naziya struggled with reading (I had heard her working on schoolwork before and could tell she was almost completely illiterate).
Yet on that first day, Naziya went from knowing only 4/10 of our first set of letters to getting all 10 correct by the end of the 15 minute session. At our second session the next day, she could read 2-letter words using those ten letters with 80% accuracy. This is a girl who only two days earlier couldn’t even string two letters together to make a word.
It was a promising start.
Peregrine began teaching Asfiya, the 11-year-old daughter of the renter who lived next door to us, and I started going over to my friend Salman’s house to teach his younger brother and sister, and after a few months his new stepsister as well.
Within just a few months the first three children were literate. Within a few more months after that, and the next three were literate as well. Six children, two of whom had never attended school and the other four of whom all attended school but struggled, all reading fluidly. Respectively they had taken 45, 30, 75, 31, 23, and 55 lessons to get to a 3rd-grade reading level, with every lesson being no more than 15 minutes long.
Pretty good for a teacher who could barely speak the language at that point.
And so from those six kids my little literacy program began. I reported the data of the trial run back to the NGO, and suggested ways in which the program could be improved. The NGO director was overjoyed to see the results and my suggestions both, and solicited more of them. Peregrine and I went to a few more homes and taught more people there, not just children but young adults as well, then after eight months we opened up a dedicated room in the slum to teach at specific times of day to anyone who wanted to come. That went so well that the NGO asked me to become a full-time employee, and I picked up a work visa and was on my way.
The time of “just being there” was over. We were “doing something” now.