Friendship and trust certainly don’t come easy. I learnt this the hard way from a girl I used to teach at a foster home. Devika (name changed) isolated herself from the other children and wouldn’t talk to anybody except her sister. When her sister had to leave the foster home because of psychological difficulties, Devika stopped talking altogether.
After days and weeks of imploring her to speak up, to use non-verbal communication, I finally did something outlandish – I introduced her to Sudoku. Thankfully, Devika was intrigued enough to want to learn how to play it. And that meant she had to ask questions. In fact, I made it a point to refuse telling her any ‘hows’, unless it was prompted by a question from her. It seemed to be working. Slowly, she found her voice and gained confidence day by day. She opened up like a flower – not just to me – but to others in the home. Sudoku, it would seem, became a turning point in Devika’s life. She later went on to study in the UK. To think a game of numbers filled a child with words seems ridiculous at first. But this, among other everyday miracles do happen when you give your time dedicatedly to someone.
Sometimes, you may not be so lucky. Like Maithili (name changed), who wanted to become a gynecologist. She studied hard but couldn’t complete Grade 12. An unforgiving education system was her undoing. A daughter of a sex worker, she also had a rough and rather complicated upbringing. When I last met her, she had found a job in an ice-cream shop. She quit shortly afterwards and got married as soon as it was legal to. I think about her more than the hundreds of other girls I’ve mentored. Could I have done anything differently to help her get the kind of turnaround success that Devika had? In any case, volunteering changed my life. I was never the same again.
After teaching children for a long while, I shifted my focus to career counselling. Because children needed life guides just as much as they needed subject guides. I started spending my Saturdays in a Mahindra-organised programme called Social Ambassadors for various schools in the city. Spread out over three days at every school, the programme gives career counselling to children in Grade 9.
The first day, we soften them up to concepts; let them know the different jobs and careers that are out there through games and videos. We introduce them to hard and soft skills. We also play a game that allows them to advise a fictional character who looks as if they are on the wrong career path.
The second day is a psychometric test. It maps a child’s interest and ability, in order to recommend several potential career options to them.
The third day is the hardest. Especially for me. It’s the day the results of the test come. Telling young kids the truth about their dreams is always heart-breaking. I have to tell children who want to become cricket superstars that they should pursue architecture instead – because of their high spatial reasoning. I have to tell girls who want to become airhostesses that they may be more skilled as lawyers because of their verbal reasoning and critical thinking.
I have to tell the person who only ever wanted to get into an IIT that their math simply isn’t up to speed, and if they really wanted to, they should try harder. But have a back-up plan in place. I find I am usually the first person in their lives to talk to them about such things and give them a glimpse of reality.
So why do I still continue to volunteer?
Because volunteering enriches life. Irrespective of the outcome, and no matter how daunting the task, you will still add to yourself. I believe the depth that it brings to my life cannot be replaced. It brings equal amounts of joy, sadness, frustration and achievement. As with all experiences in life. It’s the difference in listening to elevator music, versus Beethoven. That’s what volunteering brings to me.
I’ve taught children Euclid and Thrasymachus, explained the World Wars and the Syrian Crisis. I’ve guided them through chumming, I’ve cajoled parents, threatened parents, been the cause of smiles, the cause of tears. I’ve been told by a 12-year-old that I’m the only man she met who wasn’t ‘evil’. It melted and broke my heart at the same time.
I like to think that these girls find successes of different kinds because of something I brought into their lives. I like to think that I’ve become a better human, with depth of thought, sensitivity and empathy, because of something they brought in mine.
Ronaan Roy is a Senior Brand Manager for Mahindra and a serial volunteer. He first started teaching the underprivileged at the age of 13. He dreams of a day where education in India is accessible to everyone and a profitable investment of time for all social classes.