Hailing from Pamohi village in Assam’s Kamrup district, Uttam Teron’s life was carefree and purposeless just a couple of decades ago. He would spend days roaming around the village with his friends. Once in a while, he would collect and sell firewood. But a turning point came in his life when he spotted kids playing with water and mud during one of his trekking trips.
“These children should be at school,” thought Uttam.
“I saw what life they were leading disconnected from the mainstream, so I asked their parents to send those children to my home. I turned the cowshed in my home into a classroom and started teaching them for free. My mother would cook for these children,” recalls the 47-year-old.
With just four children, Rs 800 in his pocket, and a cowshed with bamboo walls for a classroom, Uttam established a non-profit school ‘Parijat Academy’ in 2003. Today, the school imparts education to nearly 400 children with the help of 22 trained teachers.
The school is named after the parijat flower — a reference to the innocence and delicacy of children, who need to be nurtured into better human beings.
Backbencher to teacher
The BSc graduate was influenced by many career choices, but becoming a teacher was never his primary choice. Uttam, who was once a backbencher in his class, says, “I tried my hands at learning yoga, and I wanted to excel at dancing like Mithun Da and Govinda. But nothing really worked out. Teaching seemed like a boring job to me, but that incident birthed a teacher out of me.”
After the word of free education spread, more parents started sending their children to Uttam’s school. And now, children from 20 villages — Pamohi, Maghuapara, Maina Khurung, Ulubari, Jaluk Paham, etc, come to avail of free education. Children from remote villages of the Assam–Meghalaya border are now provided accommodation facilities in the hostel, which has a capacity of 60.
“When I started this school, I thought it would continue for 2-3 years, and that I would enrol the children in government schools. But seeing the belief of parents from low-income groups, I felt responsible and started opening more classrooms instead,” says Uttam.
The school is affiliated with the Assam state board and imparts education to children from nursery till Class 10. The school is built on an ancestral property of a 20,000 sq ft area and has a library, skill development centres, and a computer lab.
Upskilling the underprivileged
Apart from providing formal education — Assamese, Hindi, English, Social Science, and Maths — to the children, the institute teaches various crafts to upskill underprivileged kids. For instance, they are trained in computer learning, sewing, sports, and dance.
“We focus on skill development so that they get trained for livelihood opportunities. We teach our students agricultural and computer skills. Further, we have handlooms in our learning centre and teach weaving to our students from Class 8. They also learn to make cotton and silk sarees and shawls using handlooms,” says Uttam.
He continues, “Our girl students have stitched reusable cloth sanitary pads, helping them earn an income from people who had no access to pads. We also make boys aware about menstruation.”
Fun activities including drama, survival training camps, trekking trips, and skill development classes make Uttam’s academy a popular choice for children over government schools in the area. “Our kids have been to places like Mohali, Goa, Jhansi and Puducherry for school programmes. They find these programmes enjoyable and interesting,” says Uttam.
Manju Bongjang, who hails from Garbhanga Ulubari village, studied in Uttam’s school from Class 2 to Class 10. Belonging to an impoverished farmer family, Manju lives in Parijat Academy’s hostel with her younger brother, who also studies in the same school in Class 9. Apart from learning Assamese, Geography, Logic and English, she learned to stitch and weave at the skill centre of the school.
“The education system is good here and the atmosphere as well. In my free time, I also make sanitary pads from clothes, which helps me earn an income along with studying,” says Manju, who manages to earn around Rs 1,000 per month. After securing 66 per cent in the board exam, the 17-year-old is now enrolled in a junior college in Guwahati. She aspires to become a teacher like her mentor.
Not an easy road
The academy has become popular with volunteers coming from across India and overseas to help the children in different activities such as painting, sports, art and crafts, and yoga. Uttam receives help from individuals as well as organisations to run the school.
But the task has not been easy.
“I keep emailing institutions and organisations. Of the 100 emails I send, I get responses from two or three. It takes around Rs 400 to afford a kid’s monthly education. I keep looking for financial support as I need to manage school expenses and also provide an honorarium to the teachers,” says Uttam.
“But now there is no turning back. I wish to increase the accommodation facilities of the hostel so that in the new year, more underprivileged kids from remote villages study here,” he adds.
The educator collects pencils, old school bags, old books, clothes, blankets, bedsheets, computers, and even green vegetables and rice from people to sustain the school.
For his selfless work, Uttam has been awarded the CNN IBN Real Heroes Award 2011, the Karmayogi Award from Lions Club, the Eastern India Women’s Association Social Service Award 2009, and recognised by the Rotary Club of Dispur in 2015.
“I have no selfish motive here; I do not earn profit from this. But this work gives me happiness worth a million dollars. If these underprivileged kids get educated, they could live a life of dignity and secure the future of their next generation, and so on,” he concludes.
To support the education of underprivileged kids at Parijat Academy, contact here.
(Edited by Pranita Bhat; All photos: Parijat Academy.)