Who stole my playground?

Anuradha C

My return drive from work every evening includes a mandatory tour of Bengaluru’s famed IT district. While the posh high rises and gleaming tech parks might ‘wow’ a new migrant or tourist, it only elicits a groan of frustration from the regulars. Road after road of concrete monsters with hospitals, colleges, schools, malls all with identical glass facade! Where are all the creative architects, one might ask!

Today, as I spent a good four minutes at a traffic signal in front of an acclaimed “International School”, my thoughts wandered to the famed “Who stole my playground?” campaign that brought about a sea change in the school a few years ago.

The first time I set foot into the school was during the summer vacations five years ago. My brother-in-law, Sethu, had just taken up the post of Vice Principal in the school. I was waiting in the parking lot to pick him up after his first day at work. One look at his face as he walked towards the parked vehicle, and I knew something was wrong. He plonked himself into the car and announced, “If my kids weren’t enrolled into the school too, I would have resigned the job today itself!”

Later in the evening, the whole extended family gathered on the terrace of my apartment complex where Sethu had also taken a flat. He came out with his frustrating first day experience. “They took me on a tour of the entire school premises. Room after room, lab after lab, the whole place looked like a stack of matchboxes! Finally we went to inspect the school playground and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A muddy square area of about 500 square feet and they call it a playground!”

Sethu is an ex-army man who had quit his posting due to a personal tragedy – his wife was killed in a road accident. So he had shifted base and taken up the school job because his kids had also got admission there. Physical fitness, sports and outdoor activity is in his DNA. Being associated with a highly reputed school which did not care to have even the most basic outdoor amenities really ticked him off!

After a bit of convincing from the entire family, his determination to immediately quit the job at once began to waver. His son, Karthik, finally came out with the winning line of argument “Dad, you have taken up a senior post in the school. A position which can influence the management and bring about change. By quitting, you will easily find better employment. But the kids in the school would lose out on you.” That did it.

Sethu left to work the next day with a renewed sense of purpose. What one man’s determined efforts can achieve – we were all proud witnesses to the transformation within the school over the years.

The first victory – an indoor sports and Yoga centre
The first visible signs of change came about when Karthik came into my kitchen one day, grinning from ear to ear. “Tomorrow, we are inaugurating our indoor sports and Yoga centre on the occasion of World Yoga Day, June 21st! The guys are thrilled. Some minister and top movie stars are coming to the school to do yoga! My friends are all binge watching yoga videos and practising alongside instead of playing Pokemon Go!”

I was puzzled to hear his declaration. “But Karthik, where was the space to create such a facility? Your father said there were no free spaces at all.” Karthik explained what ingenuity Sethu had applied to get this idea going. Apparently, there were two auditoriums in the school. One abandoned for a newer one, because the former one had horrible acoustics! Sethu got the dark, cloistered auditorium remodelled and opened up into a large hall, with plenty of natural light and ventilation. So now the school had its first space for non-curricular activity!

Wanting to punch a hole into his glee, I countered him. “Karthik, yoga is not about binge watching videos! You kids need to get out there and learn to align your body and mind to the practice. Build a level of steadiness and well-being in your body and thoughts. Physical exercise is just the starting point of yoga. You kids are jumping as though you are getting a fancy gym with JLo’s music videos playing in the background!”

The next challenge – Tennis Court!
The Yoga centre was bringing about a big change in the school routine. Time tables were altered to accommodate students in batches. But the capacity was just not sufficient to meet the school strength. The clamour for outdoor sports began among the students and parents, now that they had tasted their first success. Sethu was fast becoming a champion of their cause, albeit untapped until his arrival!

Next, Sethu had his sights on the parking lot. Why would a school with a staff strength of around 80 have almost 100 car parking slots, was the question puzzling him. Several teachers lived in the vicinity, they came by two-wheelers or the school bus. After deeper investigation, the true reason emerged.

The school complex accommo-dated a branch of a private bank, at the rear of the complex. What began as a school extension counter was now a thriving branch with thousands of regular customers who had no connection with the school. My husband too had an account in that bank!

Initial attempts to get the branch shifted elsewhere did not meet with any success. Many of the parents were also happy about the branch being there. The principal cracked the solution to this tricky problem. She suggested to turn the campaign strategy from an analytical one to an emotional one. And thus the popular “Who stole my playground?” campaign was born.

An army of kids was deputed to meet 1000 bank account holders of that branch. The goal was to get their signatures on a consent form to shift the branch elsewhere. The kids would hold pamphlets and “Who stole my playground?” placards at break hours. Their sorry faces and earnest requests to the people visiting the branch would have melted the hardest of hearts. Little wonder then, what started off as a long drawn battle was conquered within a week! The 1000 signatures were ready. The bank management fearing disrepute among the local community silently obliged. A state-of-the-art tennis cum badminton court complex was built in the place thus vacated.

UN charter on International Day of Yoga, 21st June
Yoga is an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India. The word ‘yoga’ derives from Sanskrit and means to join or to unite, symbolizing the union of body and consciousness.
Today it is practiced in various forms around the world and continues to grow in popularity.
Recognizing its universal appeal, on 11 December 2014, the United Nations proclaimed 21 June as the International Day of Yoga by resolution 69/131.
The International Day of Yoga aims to raise awareness worldwide of the many benefits of practicing yoga.
Source: https://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/

The final frontier – an open playground
The impetus being given to yoga, sports and outdoor activity was bringing expected rewards in inter-school and state level tournaments. It was also ushering in positive trends from totally unexpected quarters. Student absenteeism due to sickness reduced significantly. Teachers were ready to vouch for the fact that the students’ concentration in the class was improving too. Lunch hour became a quick, no-nonsense affair as kids would be famished from all the exertion and the thought of lingering over their lunch or wasting it wouldn’t even occur to them!

However, amidst this sea change that was sweeping the school, the school promoters and management were maintaining a silent and unaligned position. Even during the uproar caused by the bank episode, they had been curiously mum. But with one chance discovery made by Sethu and his team, the promoter’s carefully built image of being social do-gooders came crumbling down.

Since most of the staff in the school were fairly recent recruits, there wasn’t much knowledge among them about the school in its inception days. One exception being a lab attendant, a reticent old man, who had been employed there since the beginning. He revealed a disturbing fact about the management’s clandestine deal in which they had sold off a large portion of the school land decades ago. The land was indeed used as a playground in the early days; however a used car sales showroom occupied that space now.

Land requirements for CBSE school affiliation
The school should have the following land:
2 acres (In general)
1.5 acres (In general with restriction on no. of students)
The land should be in a single piece of land and no public road, railway line, stream, canal and power lines should cross through the piece of land.
The plot of land should be surrounded by a single continuous pucca boundary wall on all four sides enclosing the school building and the playground.
Read more: http://cbseaff.nic.in/cbse_aff/Attachment/OnlineServices/Checklist_Applicant%20_Schools.pdf

Sethu now realized that the battle he was fighting meant antagonizing his own management. But the staff and students were firmly behind him, so he led on with this final confrontation. This was to be a long drawn legal battle, but they were armed with one undisputable advantage – the rules of CBSE affiliation for schools that mandate the presence of a playground within the school premises.

It’s been more than three years since the battle began, and the case is still dragging through the courts of law. The school is of course thriving as usual with no outward sign of the turmoil inside. Sethu has moved on from the school and taken up a corporate job in his native town. His kids passed out of the school last year – just the trigger he was waiting for! But the fight that he began is being carried forward by other conscientious staff members and parents. I still have kids from the school coming over to my place on September 5th to ‘proxy’ wish their dear Sethu Sir a Happy Teacher’s Day!

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at anuradhac@gmail.com.

This article has been reprinted from Teacher Plus May-June 2019.

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