Do you know what an equal chance at a good education can do? It can help parents who have lived in bastis their entire lives move to posh homes in metros in India as well as abroad. It can give wings to the dreams of a house help’s daughter and assure her that even she can work at a multinational company abroad.
“All these kids need is a school willing to take a chance on them,” says Beula Gabriel.
And the school she runs is doing exactly that.
Her students are doctors, engineers, teachers, computer scientists, financial advisors, nurses, armed force personnel–most of whom are first-generation school-goers.
Who is Beula Gabriel?
Born in a large family in Secunderabad, Beula was the oldest of nine siblings, and as early as age eight, she learnt to care for her siblings as well as the household. Her father, Louis Emanuel was an engineer, and mother Emilia, a doctor.
Growing up, she had observed her mother bring home rural girls, educate them and enrol them for nursing training. Even her father helped several underprivileged people set up small businesses. This made her believe in the power of education. Almost naturally, she grew up with one aim–to become a teacher who would impact the lives of children who needed it the most.
Today, even as she turns 77, Beula Gabriel transforms the lives of hundreds of underprivileged students at St Joseph’s Secondary School, that she founded 25 years ago.
“I am touching 77, but I still continue to come to school every morning at 8 am and work until 3 pm. The happiest time that I spend is with my students and my teachers,” says principal Gabriel. Over an illustrious 45-year old career, she has taught across colleges and schools.
A unique school
St Joseph’s is not the only school she started though. Her family had previously founded St Andrew’s School in 1985. But Gabriel opted out of its management for very strong reasons.
“My extended family wanted it to be like any other modern-day school that would charge high fees and admit children only from well-to-do families. So when they came across uneducated parents, they wouldn’t want to admit their children. It went against my vision. I wanted a school where children from all walks of life–from the richest to the neediest, from highly educated families to first-time school goers could study together,” says Gabriel.
In this way, most students at St Joseph’s come from the middle class, and the lower-middle-class strata where their parents work as house helps, rickshaw pullers, labourers and watchmen.
Presently, the school has a strength of 300 students from KG to Class X, with some paying the nominal fee, and others studying free of cost.
St Joseph’s was founded in 1993, she says, with the underlying philosophy that they wouldn’t shut doors to any student. This was pathbreaking because schools at the time were conducting screening processes not only to test the child’s skills but also check whether the parents were educated and could speak in English.
Gabriel decided that her school would take an alternate route. The test that they conducted would not be an entrance test but one which would help them understand where the child stood in terms of their learning level and cater to their needs accordingly.
“No child was ever sent back because they failed an entrance test. Instead, priority was given to those who were rejected by other schools due to academic, social or financial reasons. Just because their parents didn’t have an opportunity to get an education, didn’t mean their children wouldn’t. We give our best to every child, regardless of whether their parents are educated or not.”
An open-door policy
The doors of the school, just like Mrs Gabriel’s office, are always open to children from all backgrounds. Her ayah, Sangeeta, often has to force her to shut the door during lunch.
She will soon retire, after serving as Gabriel’s right-hand for the past 25 years.
In an interview with The News Minute, 58-year-old Sangeeta spoke about her battle with cancer and Gabriel’s relentless support through it all.
She told the publication, “My husband is an auto-driver. My kids also studied here. I have been working with madam from day one of the school. In between, I battled cancer. But not once did she ask me to leave my job. My kids are doing well now. I have two more years of service left, and I really don’t know what I am going to do if not work at this school.”
Sangeeta isn’t the only one. Most other ayahs and teachers have worked at the school since its inception.
Managing the finances
The school runs on the goodwill of those around her and the nominal fees that it charges. But the challenges are many, reveals Mrs Gabriel.
“Their salaries are not great. But they give more than their 100% because they want to help the poor and the needy. While the average salary of a teacher can be as low as Rs 10,000, the highest paid ones are Rs 14,000 based on the classes they teach. And most of them stay back after school to give free tuitions to many of these kids.”
She continues, “We don’t own the school building, but our landlord is a patient man. At several times, even the nominal fees don’t come in on time, and it becomes difficult to run the school. But never in the last 25 years have we stopped a child from writing an exam because of pending fees,” she says.
At one point, Gabriel even sold a home gifted to her by son, Gerard, who also works in the infrastructure business. She had to sell the house to sustain the school, while she lives in a rented house. She shares, “I know it must have hurt him deep down, but we never discussed it. I like to believe that he understood my reasons and believed in my vision.”
With Mrs Gabriel’s other children based in other states in the country or abroad, Gerard helps her run the school. He doesn’t take a penny from the school, she points out. She hopes that Gerard will continue her work when she retires. Presently, though, he is working on a ‘sponsor a child’ programme where people can volunteer to support the kids.
Speaking to The Better India, Gerard Gabriel talks about how even at 77, his mother has twice the strength that he does. “She has always been a superwoman. Sometimes, I tell her to slow down a bit as age is catching up, but with her, there’s none of that. She reaches the school way before the ayahs do,” he laughs.
He continues, “Mum has always been extremely shy and never really wants to talk about the work she has been doing. But I think it is important for people to know that there is a woman who has been doing this work, not for recognition, but for the simple reason of uplifting students through equal opportunities.”
Mrs Gabriel’s grappling with the financial challenges of the school has always bothered him, he shares. While their family pitches in, it’s not always enough. He elaborates, “Mum puts everyone ahead of herself. It has affected her financially several times. The new premises is extremely expensive, we didn’t even pay our teachers their increments last year, and yet the dedicated lot stuck around. Solely because they share her vision and a have mother-daughter bond with her.”
Mrs Gabriel Beula believes that teachers should not merely teach the students and give them information to write and learn and gain marks, but care for the young like their mothers. She concludes, “You are arming them with skills for life and building citizens with high moral values for our country. So put your heart and soul into it and give them your best.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)