Describing a really good rural schoolmaster, an early 20th-century traveller, F.L. Brayne, in his book The Remaking of Village India in the Punjab, noted:
“. . . The boys come crowding to the school, and so do the girls; he is spoken of with reverence by the villagers; and his little charges are happy and good-mannered and do him credit in after-life. What more could a teacher desire than a life of such usefulness?”
What more, indeed, and I was thus privileged, one fine autumn morning, recently, to meet such a schoolmaster in his school, located between Lahore and the Pakistan-India border, in a rural community of some 25,000 inhabitants. Ishaq Masih’s is the most popular school in town: arguably so perhaps where 50 private schools exist (including the one across the road from his) in a relatively small town. But, due to its popularity, Masih must limit his students to 500 boys and girls from nursery to Class VIII and regularly turn away, with the utmost courtesy, those whom he cannot accommodate.
Ishaq Masih and his rural school are an exemplary model of community resilience
Masih is a remarkable man. He was obliged to leave school, aged 12, to work with his father but continued his education privately until he had completed all steps to a master’s degree programme. He then earned an MA in Islamic Studies from the University of Punjab. While he teaches all subjects to Matric level students he prefers to teach Islamiat and Arabic. In his school, he teaches till Class VIII, on completion of which, some children leave school to work, others go to the government school for Matric (class IX and X). Alternatively, students may enrol in classes IX and X in Masih’s evening school.
He began his teaching career as an apprentice for a stipend of 500 rupees per month and, subsequently in another school, at 800 rupees per month. In 2006, he opened a two-roomed school with the assistance of his late sister, Asma Sardar, receiving a few orphaned children as their first students. Because of their love of teaching and care for each student, the school steadily grew to its present size with 17 female teachers and students coming from all parts of the town, as far away as five kilometres. Masih says that he has never advertised or used other means to publicise the school. “Our students are our publicity,” he says. He is right: each child is an able ambassador for the school. There is a small name plate in Urdu on the outside wall but nothing else to indicate that inside the building there is an active, orderly, peaceful and harmonious school in progress.
Indeed, the students’ exam results testify to the effectiveness of the school: those who move on to the government school for Matric are well-received as they have been well-taught and are well-mannered young people. They often score highly in Matric exams; one girl, two years ago, even obtained a record 1,078 marks. The provincial education officers who occasionally visit Masih’s school also praise it. Primarily, though, it is the parents’ support for the school that indicates its effectiveness; they may not necessarily be literate themselves but they see the difference that the school is making for their children.
I asked Masih where his office was. His reply surprised me: he doesn’t have one other than a small fold-away table at which he sits amidst the classrooms when he is not teaching (which is rare). He visits each class twice a day, memorising the students’ details such as their names, their parents’ names and addresses, and their siblings and cousins in school. Written records of each student’s annual exam results and the payment of fees are maintained. Fees range from 275 rupees to 500 rupees per month. Sometimes, if parents are unable to pay in cash, they can pay in kind, bringing rice or other grains for Masih’s family.
Most of the teachers are qualified to Intermediate level while six are graduates with a BA or BSc degree. They are paid between 4,000 and 5,000 rupees per month. Masih prefers to employ untrained teachers and to train them himself to ensure they work in accordance with his requirements. In practice, however, many, including three of his sisters teaching in the school, have been students themselves in Masih’s school and understand the requirements.
Masih’s day begins at 5 am. It is usually his responsibility to milk the family cow for the extended family household in which he lives with his three brothers, their wives and children. Then at 5:45 am it is home, bathe, prayers, reading, breakfast (usually home-made yoghurt, parathas and salad). He is at school by 7 am. If breakfast is late, he misses it; such is his strict adherence to timekeeping. However, he says, that this strictness does not, within reason, apply to the teachers as, being women, they often have domestic responsibilities that delay them. Many students also have domestic responsibilities that they must complete before attending school: cutting fodder and feeding the buffalo perhaps or, in the cold months, gathering peas or carrots from the fields for the mid-day meal.
The teachers and students arrive at school between 7:30 and 7:45 am for the school assembly, with prayers and readings from holy scriptures at 7:45 am. The assembly ends with the singing of the national anthem.
The first period begins at 8:15 am when prayers are again offered in the classrooms in Arabic and Urdu, including prayers for learning and increase in knowledge for all students and teachers, for the country, and for protection from harm and dangers. Each period lasts 35 minutes. The break of 15 minutes for breakfast begins at 11:15 am, though younger students have an earlier break. School ends at 1:30 pm for all students.
Every evening, Masih reopens the school for students of Class IX and above, of whom he has regularly more than 200. Day school and evening school are held every day, Monday to Saturday.
Before school begins, at break-time and after school, students may go to the (unshaded) flat roof where kabaddi can be played on the court marked out for this, or simply talk and play with friends. In my conversations, cricket and kabaddi were the only games the boys proposed as their favourite, there being no appropriate areas in their community in which soccer or other games can be played. (I am always disappointed when I see no provision of playing areas for children in rural communities, presumably due to the [constant] work ethic and to the priorities attached to the use of land.)
The class teacher stays in the same classroom during the day with her students and usually teaches all subjects for her class. The curriculum consists of eight subjects including Urdu, Arabic, and English. Some of the older boys and girls said that their favourite is mathematics. Science was not mentioned, possibly as it must, of necessity, be taught theoretically: without practical science there are clearly disadvantages for students including a gradual decline in interest.
The students are taken on a field trip once a year to Lahore, perhaps to the Badshahi Mosque, Shalimar Gardens, the Central Museum, the zoo, Jinnah Gardens, and so on. Most students had been to Lahore but only one said she had been to Islamabad.
Most of the students, according to Masih, will work on the land with their parents when they leave school. Perhaps, a few will become teachers. It saddens me when I hear bright young people, studying under great disadvantage compared to students in elite urban schools, say they want to be a doctor or an airplane pilot, or join some other profession far beyond the reach of most rural students. Perhaps they will reach their goal. We hope and pray they do, but there is much truth perhaps in that famous 1750 English poem that says:
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
Schools such as Masih’s, and many more, demonstrate not the urge for self-enrichment by its owner but the resilience of a community and its ability to overcome challenges. Good schoolmasters whose motive is that of making a meaningful contribution to society rise up to fill the gaps when government resources are insufficient. As Brayne observed: “True [school teaching] does not tend to great distinction, but to be loved and honoured by one village is more than many a great man can boast.”
The writer is a school principal with a national and international private schools’ organisation in Pakistan and is the author of Village Schools: A History of Rural Elementary Education from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Century in Prose and Verse
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 6th, 2019