Friday, February 4, 2011

Blown away

Imagine for a moment that you are a 10-ish-year-old boy living on the streets in Mumbai. Imagine you have no parents, beg on the trains to earn a living and live with people you are not related to, to whom you pay money every day for the privilege of sleeping on the cold floor and eating the burned crusts of rice at the bottom of the communal pot (and also because these people will beat or burn you if you do not fork over your earnings). Imagine you have never been to see a doctor before. Imagine you have only briefly (for several months) attended a local government school before having to drop out because the people you live with disposed of (or sold?) your school bag and school supplies. Imagine knowing, at age 10, that the only person in the world that you can rely on is yourself and that your entire life and future depends on you and only you.

I was immediately struck by Rahul. The clarity and simple eloquence of his words. His bright eyes and eager smile. His self-assuredness and plucky sense of humor. The fact that the first thing he told me about himself was that he planned to study for sixteen years. Why sixteen, I asked, not quite understanding where he had come up with that number. Because after 12th standard, he'd do four years of university, obviously! was his completely straight-faced answer. (Oh, obviously.) And what did he plan to do after studying for so many years, I asked, wondering where this conversation was going. His reply?

"I am going to become somebody."

[I wish I could adequately express how emphatically and confidently he had spoken those words, but you'll just have to imagine it. It would have been the perfect scene from a movie.]

* * *

Rahul has been staying with us in the Residential Program for a few days now. He had made his way to Pune in the hopes that he could stay with his older sister, who lives in the Waghri slum in Yerwada, but her living situation in her in-laws' tiny hut is precarious enough and he was told in no uncertain terms that there was no place for him to stay there. He'll be with us for a short time while we figure out what to do with him in the long run. In the meantime, however, he is absolutely astounding everyone with his intelligence.

After first having him practice the numbers 0-9 because he only knew them in Marathi from his brief debut in 1st grade at a Marathi-medium school, I printed out a basic addition worksheet (3 + 2, 4+ 5, etc). I explained the first one to him, and when he said he understood it, handed the worksheet over. Wordlessly, and with complete concentration, he completed the 20 problems in approximately 2 minutes. No marks or erasing or counting on his fingers. All were correct. I then printed out a second worksheet with 2-digit addition (26+52, 13+65, etc). I asked him if he wanted me to help him with the first one, but he said he would "figure it out" and 4 minutes later, handed me back a completely correctly solved worksheet. And then did the same thing with 3- and 4-digit addition problems.

I then switched modes to subtraction, since clearly he was getting the hang of addition. After explaining what the minus sign meant, he completed the 1-digit subtraction worksheet effortlessly. And then the 2-digit worksheet. Curious as to what he was capable of, I decided to give him something significantly harder - a 4-digit subtraction worksheet that required understanding the concept of borrowing to solve.

I handed him the worksheet without any explanation, watched his face as he studied the first problem (4035 - 2,867) and then could hardly believe my eyes as he wrote the answer, correctly, underneath. Within about 10 seconds. And then every single other answer as well. Correctly. Quicker than I could have done it myself. With no marks or notations on the paper whatsoever.

He breezed through several other worksheets - greater than/less than, writing numbers in ascending and descending order, etc - as fast as I could print them out and explain the first problem. Counting by 2s, 5s, 10s, etc? Got that covered. Multiplication? No problem.

Clearly, Rahul appears to have a bright future in maths. I then decided to see how quickly he could pick up English concepts. After going over the English alphabet with him (he decided to painstakingly write each letter about 75 times while I was out yesterday), we sat down with a book of basic words and pictures arranged in alphabetical order during reading time last night. By the end of reading time, he had figured out the sounds associated with each of the letters and was successfully sounding out words like "hat" and "hut" and "top". And then harder words like "donkey" and "arrow" and "potato" and "onion". Occasionally he stopped to ask me what sound a particular letter made so that he could sound out a word, but other than that, this kid was on fire. And once he had sounded out a word correctly, he made a point of saying it five times, as if to commit it to memory. And commit it to memory he did - when we went back over the pages we had already looked at, he could remember about 50% of the words without having to re-sound them out again.

Oh, and he told me to only speak to him in English. And I overheard him telling the kids that he aims to be able to communicate fully in English within one month. I mean, seriously, is this kid for real?! The kids, Sangeeta and the volunteers are also in awe of his earnest determination and impressive ability to absorb and retain information.

I'm not sure what to make of Rahul. I've never encountered a child quite like him. And while his future is a bit hazy at the moment, I can say with absolute certainty that Rahul will become somebody. No matter what it takes or what kind of living arrangement we have to figure out for him, we at AIC can't let him fall through the cracks. It would be a shame - no, a crime - to let this child's talent and drive go to waste.

Our goal now is to get him ready for school in June. I'm thinking 5th standard. 5 years of material in less than 5 months? I'm confident that he can do it.


  1. AWESOME!!!! He sounds like he has a BRIGHT future ahead of him...I'm sure he'll get 5 years in 5 months no doubt...esp with you all at AIC :)

  2. AMAZING. Thanks for posting this, Liz! So great to get to hear what's happening in Pune, and Rahul sounds extraordinary. I love that he's sharing his intentions about English with the other kids - that is such a great challenge to them to continue to improve their own language abilities.

  3. a few weeks later and your post brightened my already bright afternoon. please, when AIC determines where Rahul will be do post another update. thank you for blogging, it makes so many happy to follow you and the children's life in Pune.