Haven’t heard of Uttam Teron? Here is why you must!
"Like other young people of my age, I would roam around in leisure and would spend time in the nearby paan shop gossiping with my friends", says 40 year old Uttam Teron reminiscing his youth.
Uttam was born to a train-driver father and a homemaker mother, who never went to school. Hailing from Pamohi village of Garchuk, a peaceful Karbi area, 20 km away from Guwahati, Uttam returned to his village after completing his graduation from a city college. He started taking tuition classes that generated a paltry amount of Rs. 800. If he was out of money for his escapades, Uttam and his friends would collect wood from the hills and sell it in the nearby market. He was content.
Until that one sunny day in 2001 when he suddenly noticed the lack of joy and hope in the faces of children who loitered around in a village up on the hills. He came back from the hills and soon started noticing the children in his own village. The same despair showed. He realised that most of them were either school dropouts or have never been to school. He realised deep in his heart that he has to do something for them. Maybe start teaching them. But with no money, there was little he could do so waited.
His wait lasted 2 years.
In 2003, Uttam Teron started a school named – Parijat Academy. As per Hindu mythology, "Parijat" means a beautiful flower that blooms in heaven. Unlike anything close to head, Uttam's Parijat Academy started in the old cowshed of his house.
"I started the school because I could not forget the faces of those children who I had first seen wasting time playing in dust in a Karbi village in the hills instead of going to school and learning", he explains.
The task was not so easy. In fact it was much tougher than what he had imagined. The parents of the children had no idea what a school education meant. They themselves were illiterate. He was face with much reluctance but somehow managed. Uttam started Parijat Academy with just 4 children under a tin roof and bamboo wall. All the Academy offered was a desk, a bench and a blackboard. But what Uttam had was a dream, a dream that seemed so unreal to everyone around him especially since he saw it 7 years before the Right to Education Bill was passed.
"I chose to use the word 'Academy' rather the'school' because I wanted to teach them a bit of English along with Assamese and "Academy' sounded more appropriate to what I wanted to do", Uttam stressed. The 4 students who Uttam picked up from the Karbi village he first saw them in, had no place to stay so started staying in his house. Uttam's mother started cooking for them and feeding them. Uttam started collecting pencils, old school bags, old books from the villagers who were better off to give to these children.
His parents were obviously unhappy with his new choice of career and explicitly told him that they would prefer Uttam to look for a salaried job. "My parents were poor and would say that I would not make money this way", shares Uttam though he understood their concern. But after they saw students coming to the school, they started believing in him and most importantly believingthat a good thing was actually happening.
Soon, the news that Uttam Teron had opened a free school reached far and wide. People started enquiring about whether their children could be enrolled in the school as most of the villagers were poor and could not afford to send them to a paid-for school. There was also another problem which Uttam describes, "I would often hear my friends discussing how the education of village children comes to an end once they reach Class 4. We have no middle and high school in our village. One has to walk more than 12 miles to reach the Tetelia High School. So it was easier for parents to instead engage them in the paddy field and household chores. This used to disappoint me."
In 2005, when the number of students burgeoned at 32, Uttam Teron borrowed Rs.50000 from his parents and built two classrooms inside his compound, shifting the school from the old cowshed. The problem of lack of funds for arranging books, bags, pencils however continued. Uttam started asking people to give him old stationery and he somehow managed to keep the school going. And given that the villagers and children started calling Uttam "Sir", he had to leave the habit of gossiping in the paanshop along with my friends, a routine he missed but never regretted. "Now look at Seuti," Uttam pointed to a girl, busy drawing a card, and said, "Seuti came with me at the age of 3. She has grown so big. She is pursuing her higher secondary. I still remember how she used to annoy me when she came here at the age of 7. At that time she had problems in identifying and writing the alphabets. But now she can speak English too" he said smiling indulgently.
That same year a photojournalist visited Uttam Teron's house to enquire about the free school. Overwhelmed by Teron's effort, the journalist published a feature in an Assamese daily lauding his efforts. The news managed to catch public eye. The same year an English daily from Assam published the story under the headline, "Teron needs help for his 32 children". On publication a stranger visited and gave Uttam Rs.4000 to buy stationery for Parijat Academy. That was the first monetary help he got ever since the school started, outside of inputs from his parents and his own."I did not have any idea where to ask for help. I heard that some organisations extended help to such schools but I had no idea where to contact these organisations. I heard about internet but I did not have idea how to reach to people through internet. But the constant urge to keep the school alive so that it can reduce dropout rates constantly pinched me," said a determined Uttam. In 2006, Uttam learnt to send email from internet. He went to an internet cafe in Panbazar and asked the person at the cafe to open an email account and for an hour learnt how to send mails. In the meanwhile, Outlook magazine published a story on Parijat Academy under the title "Making a difference".
UttamTeron started writing to organisations seeking help. Many others contacted him to extend help after reading about Parijat Academy in newspapers and magazines. Some donated bags, some donated pencils, and some also provided him with clothes for the students. "I am overwhelmed with whatever I received at that time. I was able to extend the school from Preparatory to Class 4. But the villagers requested me to extend the school to high classes and given there is no school nearby, I had to do it," he recalls.
Today Parijat Academy has 540 children and 23 teachers. The school adheres to normal school timings and have classes from Nursery up to Class 10 offering subjects like Assamese, Hindi, English, Mathematics, Science, Social Science and Art. Training on computers, sewing lessons, sports, dance are also offered. Parijat Academy also boasts of its own library. Uttam Teron believes employ ability is the next logical step post-education. The students of Parijat Academy who are trained to sew, make toys and decorative articles sell these to people who visit the academy."We take orders from people who want to help the students. Many foreign visitors buy them for the cause. I want my kids to stand on their own feet after completing their formal education and without a skill, in today's world, it is tough to survive," says UttamTeron, who belongs to a state where unemployment is a huge issue. Uttam has other concerns too. "Due to lack of steady fund flow, we cannot give salaries to the teachers regularly. Sometime we pay them in 2 months, sometimes in 3 months. But I am fortunate to have highly qualified teachers who are willing to sacrifice lucrative jobs to bring the hope that education offers to the lives of these children" said Uttam Teron.
In 2011, Uttam Teron, was awarded CNN-IBN Real Heros award for his contribution towards children education.
Today his school covers 11 tribal villages nearby. There are two separate hostels for the students."Today Parijat Academy is fortunate to get people who are willing to volunteer for education for the students. Many foreign students visit my school during their vacation and teach the children. I have got visitors from Germany, US, Netherlands, France etc. Last year, a PhD student from Bolivia taught the students German Language. I am fortunate that people like US Astronaut Mike Finke visited the school. He spent an hour with the children" added Uttam.
This 2016 will see enrolment going up to 600. Uttam needs more school bags, more pencils and more books. Uttam Teron definitely needs more well-wishers so that he can keep the good work going. Despite this pressure the ever-optimist now has something bigger planned. "I have decided to extend two more Classes – 11 and 12. This will complete the entire system. I do not get much help from the Government since my school comes under the segment of private schools. But I am hopeful that I can do it", Teron said pointing at two half constructed room of his school.
At present, 95 percent people of Pamohi and the nearby villages of Mahguapra, Deosutal, Garchuk, Mainakhorong, Dhalbama, Nowagaon, Garoghuli and Garbhanga are literate thanks to Parijat Academy. The rate of school dropouts is nil in his village. "Earlier children helping their parents in the trade of selling local brew was a normal sight here, but now you won't see them. They are busy studying" says a proud Uttam standing in the middle of his semi-concretised school. Uttam Teron's, mother who was once worried about Teron's future, today looks happy and content to see her son as an agent of change. "My family now helps me run the school. I want everybody to be a part of this journey…from darkness to light" says Uttam Teron, the real hero.