She wanted to become a doctor, but if she had, she could have never changed the lives of Gautam, Lakshmi, Srikanth and innumerable other children in the hinterlands of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli.
Let’s go back to where it all began.
Shailaja Ghorekar, lovingly called Shaila, is one of three daughters born to Maluji and Shanta Ghorekar in the tiny hamlet of Allapalli, located 972 km from Mumbai. Her father sold chillies to earn a living.
Since childhood, she dreamed of becoming a doctor to save the lives of people around her. She worked relentlessly and secured a seat in a prestigious medical college. But, her life took a different turn. Since her father had two other daughters to raise, Shailaja had to give up on her medical dreams.
And thus, her journey began as a teacher in a Zilla Parishad Primary School in 1998.
When she first went to the school, she was taken aback by the caste system prevalent there!
When we think of a morning assembly in a school, we imagine students sitting or standing class-wise in straight rows. But, in Mosam’s tiny school, she saw something unconventional and shocking. The headmaster had made four rows of students, and their seating was based on the caste to which they belonged (Madgi, Mahar, Gond, and Kunbi).
Shailaja decided to change this.
The headmaster feared that it would not go well with the community, perhaps even lead to a fight.
Shailaja then assembled the children and told them to stand class-wise in four rows.
Nobody among the community raised a voice against the brave step.
Next, she addressed the dwindling numbers of students in higher education. For this, she spoke to a teacher from an Upper Primary School to enroll the students there.
Since then, every student is treated equally, irrespective of their caste. They also complete their education.
When Shailaja was transferred to another school after nine years, the children and the community did not want her to leave. But she took the transformation in her stride and went to her next stop—the Zilla Parishad Primary Girls School in Allapalli.
Under her guidance, for four consecutive years, the school came first in the dance competition held as a part of the Block-level sports competition.
After four years in 2011, she was transferred to a third school, Zilla Parishad Upper Primary School, Cherpalli, located in Aheri cluster. Here, she saw that no classes were taking place post-lunch. She employed an old-school solution to counter this—grabbed a stick and stood near the gate of the school—to ensure that no child went home post-lunch.
Soon, classes became more regular, and students also began to take an interest in reading.
The headmaster of the school credited her for the transformation, saying that she could even achieve the impossible.
The children of the school loved her deeply. One boy, Gautam, wrote, “I will never forget Shaila madam.”
Gautam came from a poor family. Shailaja recognised his innate talent in arts and bought him a variety of art material. He began making extraordinary paintings. She also conducted writing competitions to improve the skills of the students.
In 2017, she was transferred to another school. This time, she had to choose a school through the online transfer process. She had fewer choices, so she randomly selected a school located in the Bhamragad cluster. She was excited as this wasn’t any ordinary school.
She would have to cross the river on a boat to reach the premises!
On the first day, she went along with a teacher and her husband. She was awestruck by the boat ride. Moreover, she did not know swimming. She was in two minds but finally decided to begin her journey at Zilla Parishad Primary School, Gollaguda.
After walking for 3.5 km on a cycle pathway, surrounded by the dense jungle of Bhamragad, she crossed the river in a tiny boat. Once she reached the school, she forgot these challenges. The sparkling eyes of the eager children welcomed her.
Moreover, she was the first-ever female teacher at the school!
Through her interactions with the children, she realised that they only knew their local language. Her solution was a journal in which she translated local words to Marathi.
In no time, she was able to learn their language and teach them too. She also made teaching-learning materials (TLM).
Shailaja came across a small school in the vicinity. The condition of the kitchen shed where supplies of the mid-day meal were stored was appalling! It hadn’t been cleaned in years! She took the initiative to clean it in three days. This improved attendance at the school.
Back at the Gollaguda School, she initiated that the premises be decorated for Independence Day. It was the first time in the school’s history that this was being done!
When an officer visited the school for a survey, he was impressed! Shailaja was then felicitated in a small ceremony.
Among all these transformations that Shailaja brought, are tales of Lakshmi, who could hardly recite the alphabet but now reads stories; and Srikanth, who skipped school to play cards and earn money but learnt to read in fifteen days; and Gautam, whose artistic talent would have gone unnoticed if not for her.
What is the secret of her success? She answers, “Main dil se kaam karti hoon. I work from the heart.”
Here’s wishing the best to the warrior of Gadchiroli!
(Written by Nidhi Kamath and edited by Shruti Singhal)