Paint Brushes


It was the first time since being here that I physically could not get on to the train to travel to the slum school. I had always managed to fight my way on and push my way away from the doors into the safety of the carriage. But not so today, it was too busy. I knew there was no point in trying to embark the train without being in the dangerous position of hanging out of the door. I had to let two train pass before there was enough room for me to get on.



When I arrived at the school the children were already there, I was late. But not only was I late, but Marie hadn’t arrived either. I entered the classroom; all the children stood up and said good morning and then just sat back down again. They were just sitting there waiting for the teacher to arrive, some were reading, some were writing but most were just sitting on the floor waiting. There was hardly any noise and no talking. I was amazed. I couldn’t help comparing this back to the UK. I remember you would not dare leave the class for less than a minute without running the risk of something bad happening in an unsupervised class. It was a total pleasure to witness. These children had just been sitting there patiently waiting for over 20 minutes. Sheetal, the cleaner that lived next door, had just open the classroom and told them to wait for their teacher and that’s what they were doing.


Children playing outside the classroom.


Marie finally arrived, and explained there had been a strike, and students were protesting their rights by laying down on the railway track, hence the delay. I then realised that’s why I had found it so difficult to get on a train myself. I then thought about the students laying on the track.  Wow! that is some way to protest, but then nothing surprises me any more in this wonderful country.

It was Diwali, the celebration of light. This is the largest holiday in the Indian calendar, and these people really love a colour festival. The school had brought in sweets, snacks and crisps to help the celebrations on their way. A sweet and a snack, at a time of celebration is as important as Santa is at Christmas.


Diwali in the slum


The whole slum was transformed into streets of colour, large music stands were set up everywhere. People were getting ready for the big day with dance and music and light.


Here in the classroom, after stepping over all the crisps and sweets, we were making the same effort. Children had already drawn and made posters and coloured lanterns out of paper. But today, there were going to paint a clay Diwali light holder, which the school had provided for each child. I had seen these clay candle holders being sold on the streets, there was thousands of them, they cost less than 10 pence each.

Children were keen to get painting, and they were getting excited. They don’t often get the chance to paint, and the last time they had used a paint brush was a year ago, doing the same activity.

I was keen to join in so I had my unpainted tea light holder ready to make colourful.

Marie then sat the children into groups of 8 children, and distributed the paint and water. There were only three colours pink, white and yellow. I am not sure why these colours were chosen, but every class could only have 3 colours. I help to separate the colours into small pots so the children could get ready to start painting.

The children just sat in circles waiting, so they could get all the equipment they needed to start painting. This reminded me again of teaching art back in the UK, except it couldn’t have been more different. These children were just waiting for everything to be given to them before they started to paint. In the UK, you would have to prepare all the stuff ready in advance, because the children would find it very difficult to sit and wait while you got everything ready. They would expect to start as soon as they knew what they had to do. But not here – the children just sat in silence waiting for the teacher to get it already and then they would start, and not before.

So the children had their clay tea light holders, they had the paint and water, the only thing missing was the paint brushes.

‘Marie I think they are ready to start painting, where are the paint brushes? I will hand them out’

‘They are on my chair’, she replied.

Remember that the teachers, just like the students, had no desk or cupboards.

So I walked over to the chair and there were 10 paint brushes. I looked at the class and there was 40 children, give or take a few, all sitting in groups of 8.

‘Marie, there are only 10 brushes here, where are the rest of them?’

‘That all we have,’ she replied. As if to say ‘that’s enough.

Maths was a subject that I was quite good at school and even teaching it. I looked at the half eaten brushes on the chair, and worked it out – that meant 1 paint brush for every 4 children. So each group, of 8 children had 2 paint brushes.


‘Marie, how will this work, there are not enough paint brushes for everyone to paint?’

‘What do you mean,’ she said puzzled by my question.

‘How can they paint if they have not got a paint brush?’ An obvious question I thought, well that’s what I thought.

‘They will share’ she replied.

I handed two paint brushes to each group, and took a back seat, and just watched. Wow, I was blown away, I had never seen anything like this in my 20 years of teaching. And it is something that I will never forget. Marie was so right; they did share. They sat in the circle.  One child would paint in one colour, and then after they had finished, pass the brush onto the child sitting next to them in the circle, so 8 children were sharing 2 brushes. There was no arguing and each child just sat waiting patiently until a brush was passed to them.

So their work might have taken a bit longer to complete, but at the end of the lesson, every child had painted their tea light holder in pink, yellow and white. I had also managed to sit with a group and joined in with the sharing of a paint brush.

I still have my painted Diwali tea light holder, and every time I look at it, I think of sharing. And how amazing these children are, and how much I have learnt. But I still wouldn’t try this back in a UK classroom.

2 thoughts on “Paint Brushes

  1. Josie

    I remember you telling me about this. Beautiful. Keep the stories coming! I wonder if you view the times differently now with distance of time and place.

  2. Stuart Barber

    You are right John, The pupils in the UK do not know how lucky they are. Your stories are humbling indeed.

    Do you need some more brushes sent over ?

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