Where: USA and India

June 24, 2000: In the first week of June, Indian newspapers wrote about two very different kinds of success stories. Both involved youngsters — one 12 year old and another teenaged boy. One was in the United States, the other was in Madurai (Tamil Nadu), India. But both proved that their success had very little to do with the education system. It had more to do with their desires and determination.

A Tale of Two Wonders
A Tale of Two Wonders [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]
The 12-year-old was George Abraham Thampy. His parents are originally from Kerala, India, but are now settled in the US. And their son won the prestigious US National Spelling Bee championship. He knew the spellings of words that many of us do not know of. Like psilosis, eudaemonic, ditokous, among others. He clinched the title by spelling ‘demarche’, which means an official protest that is communicated through the offices of diplomats or ambassadors. Thampy emerged a clear winner among 2,000 contestants, and went home happy, with a prize cheque of $15,000.

At about the same time, ‘The Indian Express’ carried a report about the teenaged Veerapandiyan from Chennai, who ranked second in merit in Geography in the Class XII board exams in Tamil Nadu this year. He got 197 marks out of 200. But, unlike George Thampy, who has the advantage of growing up in a comfortable environment, Veerapandiyan has to support himself and his family. He comes from a poor Dalit (untouchable) family and earns Rs 30 a day making parothas in a small restaurant in Chennai. He is known as the “parotta master”. He lives in a slum.

When journalists asked him what he planned to do next, he replied that he would continue making parothas, for he has no other means of support — especially not for studies. But the boy dreams of studying law and becoming a bureaucrat. The Government of India recently announced a scholarship for Veerapandiyan so that he is able to study further.

Veerapandiyan did not go to a good school. He could not afford to. In fact, he has memories of being turned away from school for not paying the fee. It was his geography teacher’s belief in him that kept him going.

On the other hand, Thampy had a choice to go to one of the best schools in his area. But he and his parents decided that he should not.

The reason was simple: the public schools in Houston had metal detectors on their premises. They had been installed there to see that students did not get weapons and indulge in violence in school. This was not the sort of school that our wonder boy or his parents had in mind. So they decided to go for home schooling, where children learn at their own pace and do not face any kind of fear or pressure at school.

Many parents and children around the world, who do not like the idea of the school system, are preferring the idea of education at home. Of course, there are organisations like the National Home Education Research Institute in the US that the Thampys joined. There is a syllabus, but it is covered at home. George Thampy’s mother teaches languages, economics and social sciences to him, while his father teaches math and science. The Thampys are home schooling six of their seven children.

Home schooled children have been doing very well in competitions of all kind. The first three positions in the contest that Thampy won were taken by home schooled children. Thampy’s brother was a finalist in a similar geography contest some years ago, while his sister finished six in the same national contest last year.

There are about 1.3 million home schooled children in the US. The movement is growing all over the world. If you have something to say about the way in which you want to be educated, say it now.