We were going to grow mushrooms! Please note the use of the past tense as the project lies in tatters and has been abandoned, because I refuse to play ball.
The last two years the school has entered an international UK-run competition to teach entrepreneurship skills to students. A very laudable initiative when the purpose of taking part is indeed to educate the children, to prepare them for the real world of work and to ensure their learning extends beyond memorising useless facts. Unfortunately, two years ago the school’s first business venture won them a prize, mainly due to the hard work of the Western volunteer in charge of the project then. I do not use the word ‘unfortunately’ lightly, as it has given the management the impression that a bigger win is within their grasp, without them putting in any effort…
As last year’s project, run by one of the school’s teachers, failed miserably to attract the coveted prize and the accompanying prestige for the school, I was approached to head this year’s entry. Well, I never say no to a challenge, and agreed on the understanding that the bulk of the work would be done by the local teachers and that the students would actually be taught some real business skills. At least I would be able to write an honest report for them in grammatically correct English, unlike the previous report that was heaving with ‘exaggerations’ and bursting with ‘white lies’. Nevertheless last school year ended on a positive note with several teachers expressing an interest in supporting me in the venture, and the children brimmed with enthusiasm at the chance to escape the monotony of sitting at their desks the whole day, caged in classrooms and beaten into obedience by the ubiquitous cane. I made it abundantly clear that I would not be prepared to write any untruths in the report and that the children’s learning must be paramount, and teachers must be given the time to play their part. ‘Of course’, nodded the Indian heads in charge…
Forward to my return. I had barely set foot in the country and had not even reached my ‘home’ when I was queried about the progress of the Enterprise Challenge. ‘And do you have a business plan?’ was the Manager’s first question upon my arrival, ‘We expect to win this year’. I laughed it off, ‘Give me a chance at least…’
At school, the teachers had given my ‘list of urgent things to do whilst I was away’ the anticipated Indian attention, so an immediate meeting was in order to jump-start the enterprise. But when to meet?? The yoga period, which in February was agreed to be used for my teachers’ meeting , had suddenly been hijacked by Academic Director who assigned policing duties to the teachers to ensure that children approached the yoga positions with the necessary discipline and agility. And the newly introduced ‘hobby period’ to give teachers and students time to focus on the project??? Again, Academic Director had his own agenda, and growing mushrooms or teaching business skills was far from the top of the list…
My very first weekend back, the Manager paid me a visit at my home. ‘And you have the business plan ready?’ he demanded. Patiently, I tried to explain that the business plan was not required until the end of July and I needed to gather a lot of information , such as costing, marketing plans and profit projections. The ‘planning ahead’ business approach, clearly a Western concept, was quite alien to the Indian School Manager, who runs the school first and foremost as a business rather than an institution of education.
In the meantime and against all odds, a meeting with ‘my’ teachers got off the ground and we discussed the ‘dark room’ in which the mushrooms would grow. Pens aflutter, Art Sir who is part of the team, skilfully sketched out the structure to be built and promptly offered it to the Manager to do the ‘needful’. Now, if you are familiar with Indian English (I must devote a whole post on that soon…), you will understand this is not a good thing and is very similar in outcome to ‘we’ll take care of it’… Where were the measurements? Who had worked out the materials needed? Whereas any Western man or woman would have been able to wield a measuring tape, pencil and a piece of paper and present me with the number of pieces of wood and their exact measurements, Indian Man’s response was to pass on the responsibility to the next person… but it was still early days and I had not yet fully understood that ‘Indian Man’ simply does not have the skills and may never have learnt taking measurements at school as it requires applying knowledge rather than spitting out meaningless memorised facts.
Things went from bad to worse in the hands of the Manager, who had agreed to do the ‘needful’ and was obtaining a quote (or so I thought..) to make the frame in metal, on the recommendation of MalayamTeacher, who has experience growing oyster mushrooms.
‘Sir, ‘ I approached him a week later, ‘Do you have a costing for the frame and a date when it will be ready???’ His reply, ‘And do you have the business plan ready???’ ‘Sir, may I respectfully point out that I need the costs and timings to be able to do the business plan…’ ‘Ah, but metal is expensive and the metal worker is fully busy making desks and benches for the school… there is a shortage of metal… and after that he can do the frame…’
I tried a different approach, three weeks in. I sent a text message: ‘Can you please let me have the cost of the frame and a date for when it will be ready. We cannot start growing mushrooms until then. I cannot do a business plan without having some idea of the start-up capital we need.’ The manager arranged an urgent meeting with me and enquired enthusiastically, ‘Excellent, so how much does the frame cost and when can we start??’ Clearly, something got lost in translation and I was beginning to see red!!! ‘Sir, has it possibly escaped your notice that YOU were the one giving me the costing, not the other way round….’ ‘Metal is expensive… A frame will cost thousands of rupees… Tell me, how much profit will we make?’ ‘I don’t know, Sir, I need to do the calculations, but I need to have actual costs… Maybe we could use bamboo instead or just any wood. It would be cheaper and we would be able to build it ourselves with Art Sir and Science Sir and maybe some children.’ ‘Yes, good idea. We’ll need a carpenter to cut the wood and put in the nails…’ The mind boggled. Were Art Sir or Science Sir not capable of nailing a few pieces of wood together? How about using rope instead? It would at least be a safer option, just in case.
The answer to my questions was revealed when I accompanied a small group of children and Science Sir to measure up the room and calculate the number of pieces of wood of different lengths required, using triangular cross-sections to strengthen the frame. Simple measuring, applied maths and some of Pythagoras Theorem mixed in for good measure. Giving due credit to Science Sir, he stayed for the first part to measure the walls, but left when it came to doing the maths. Did he lack the skills or just the enthusiasm? So the children were left to fend for themselves and indeed worked out the total length of wood needed, rather than a breakdown of how many pieces of each length. I generously praised their efforts and set off doing the ‘needful’ myself: the benefits of a Western education.
But how to get hold of said pieces of wood…? Not conversant with the local language, nor having any knowledge of where wood is sold in the area surrounding the school, I had to call upon Science Sir, Art Sir and Academic Director and this time they came up with a solution! They called upon ‘General Dog’s Body’ – or the school’s caretaker – who knew a man who could get the wood delivered on Monday , ready for building the structure on Tuesday under the supervision of the carpenter.
‘Any idea how much the wood will cost?’ I enquired. ‘I need to know so I can work out how much start-up capital we need, so I can work on the business plan which really is not due until end July but School Manager has been asking for it since end May…’ But the question fell on deaf ears as the men congratulated themselves on having offloaded the responsibility onto someone else… a job well done! Yesterday was Tuesday, and although no one apart from a few privileged souls had been let into the secret that the project has been abandoned, neither the wood nor the carpenter were anywhere to be seen, but I had been informed that wood was available in a shop 4 kilometers from here. Some progress, indeed.
But the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was finding the start-up capital, not that I ever came close to discovering how much we were actually going to need. School Manager decided that the profits from the existing school businesses (soap and organic compost making) would be channelled into the new business to get the ball rolling. ‘Hooray,’ I thought, ‘finally some common sense… Not just the school handing out the money. Let the kids work for it and earn it. Give them some real experience and a sense of achievement!’
So I approached VicePrincipal M’am, who is in charge of soap and compost, and asked to see the books so we could work out how much money was available and I could think about how to cover any shortfall. Vice Principal looked glum and the smile on her face faltered. ‘The books, LeefaM’am (that’s me, by the way)? The books??? ‘ She looked bewildered; and maybe was about to head to the library. So I rephrased my request: ‘Yes, M’am. The books with all the income and outgoings for the soap and vermi compost… I need to know how much profit we made…’ There was the deepest sigh, and VicePrincipal shook her head in clear despair : ‘We did not make a profit…’ What happened to all the ambitious plans mentioned in the final report to make lots of money with the compost and organic vegetables?? More white lies to impress the judges in the Western world? And the books?? I never saw any evidence of their existence. ‘And the soap you just sold to the hotel?’ I clutched at straws and I knew it…. Vice Principal looked harassed and far from comfortable. ‘I sent the soap a few weeks ago, but we will not get paid…’ My ‘Why??’ evoked more unease, but no clarification. Could it have been that the soap was not up to standard, I wondered. The few wrapped soaps I spotted at the end of last year would certainly have fallen short of expectation… So, the only start-up capital available was a very small amount left over from selling organic vegetables at the end of the previous school year.
‘So, no money, but not a disaster, yet…’ I surmised. We still had time to raise some funds. ‘Let’s rekindle the soap making business, quicker than growing organic vegetables at short notice,’ I concluded. ‘We can put in some effort and give the children some marketing experience selling the soaps to parents at the end of the school day.’ ‘Let’s ask the management for the money,’ was the knee-jerk reaction from my Business Brain Team of Year 9 students. Really?? Were these the Indian entrepreneurs of the future? ‘Why waste time making soap? We want to grow mushrooms and surely the management will give us the money!!’ added my team of teachers. Hmmmm…. They clearly favoured the easy route. ‘I suggest that all the teachers involved in the project put in 1000 Rupees of their own money,’ interjected the Academic Director, who was obviously not going to chip in himself… (1000 Rs represents roughly 1/7th of the monthly salary of those teachers…) The molehill I had envisaged to navigate in my efforts to enlighten everyone on the process of making a profit in business had just taken on Himalayan proportions. Did they not understand that money borrowed (from school or elsewhere) has to be paid back, and the prospect of our enterprise becoming profitable dwindled with every passing minute? But then they did not have the Manager breathing down their neck with a demand of delivering the WINNING entry; it was only my neck on the block!
And when the Business Brain students finally suggested to do a small fundraising event – just a small presentation and passing round the bucket – at last Sunday’s Parent/Teacher Convention, this needed to be sanctioned by the Manager. Unfortunately, the Academic Director did not mention this, nor did he do the ‘needful’. The teacher who was supposed to talk to the Business Brain students and help them with the presentation ‘forgot’ to do the ‘needful’… so I exploded last Friday when I realised that no one had done anything and everything was left to me to sort out, again…
My early Saturday morning email to the Manager indeed got an immediate response. He visited yet again and claimed, ‘This mushroom business is giving me too much of a headache’, as if he actually had contributed in any positive manner… What about my headache?? ‘We are now so far behind with the project…,’ he continued. ‘Really, Sir??? We are exactly where we are expected to be… the business plan is not due until end July and we should not start growing mushrooms until then… ‘ I am fully aware that his headache was caused by my insistence on doing the project properly, my unwillingness to bend the rules and demanding the unthinkable that the teachers and students would be given TIME to work on the enterprise and learn something. So, the plug has been pulled on the mushroom project because I am refusing to do all the work myself and am expecting the teachers and students to do the bulk of the work, whereas the school’s expectation is that I do the work, they pretend they did the work and want me to lie about it in the reports… Over my dead body!!!!
I can’t get through to them that if they put the learning of the children first and make that the priority of the project, the winning will come. What an example to set the children!! What an education… The only one learning anything has been me, an Indian education indeed… Next time when anyone mentions mushrooms, I will make it clear I am only interested in the magic variety… and the only thing I will be growing in India will be basil, coriander, tomatoes , pumpkins and chillies using the contraband packets of seeds I smuggled into the country… It’s OK, on some occasions I do bend the rules… ‘