Back to School

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School began this week and I had my first Garbology 101 class with my 4th standard students yesterday. I realise that it is going to be quite a bit different than it was last year. In a lot of ways this is going to be a better test of whether this curriculum works. Last year I had two students, both children of colleagues whom I knew for a good two years before teaching them, before class began. Both of these children deeply appreciate nature and the environment intuitively, instinctually. And both children have rather innate leadership personality traits. So it was relatively simple to get the rest of the students on board. As you can see from our first brainstorming session about trash at least one student was able to articulate that this is a problem because of our consumption. I hope that voice multiplies this year.

But the problem with grown ups persists.

This week I started thinking about the whole back-to-school industry. I grew up with this in the U.S. I used to love going shopping before school began to buy new shoes, a back pack, pencils, a lunchbox and all the other fun stuff. What dawned on me is that we do all this shopping in a habitual manner. Most of the time we don’t need to buy a new lunchbox or backpack. But we do it because the media makes us think that we must have new stuff for school each year. Perhaps even schools and teachers feed into this with their lists of what a child needs for the school year.

In India I also see this phenomenon, especially as a house parent in a hostel. So many children come with new stuff and I suspect they could have done just fine if they brought stuff from home that they already had. This is especially true with notebooks, pens, and also maths supplies like scales compasses. And it’s not just the parents. The class teachers decide purchasing for students without checking to see if they already have items (e.g., many children already have rulers from last year–including metal rather than plastic, so more durable–and yet they are forced to buy new ones from the tuck shop). This seems quite wasteful to me.

But is this really necessary? It’s so easy to use fountain pens that you refill with ink (so no gel pens or other disposable pens are necessary). It’s also possible to either use last year’s notebooks, which often have at least 1/2-3/4 paper left in them. They can easily be made into new notebooks (which is also true with paper that has been used on 1 side) by punching holes in the paper, getting chart paper or cardboard for a cover, and even a nice piece of used fabric to cover the spine. And the best part is you can create your own design on the cover. roy + arati design made some lovely notebooks like this that they sell at the Daily Dump in Bangalore.

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Also unnecessary, which I hadn’t thought of until this year, is the mindless purchasing we do for our hostels before the school year begins. The papamas come to the house parents to get us to fill out chits for items they want. A lot of this consists of cleaning supplies, including brooms, buckets, dust pans, mops, rags, and floor mats. It took me a good 30 minutes (with Telugu translation help, of course) to explain that we are not buying any new brooms, mops, rags, mats, or buckets because those we have from last year are perfectly usable.

It’s also quite upsetting to think about all of this mindless consumption when there are so many people in India who actually need notebooks and school supplies and other basic essentials. Organisations like Goonj are helping to meet those needs. There are also a couple of crowdfunding campaigns on Milaap that are funding school supplies for needy children in India (see here and here).

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