“Get up, stand up”: The existential precarity of Dr. Ámbédkar High School
by Nora Tyeklar
The first time I visited Dr. Ámbédkar High School in Miskolc, Hungary was near the end of 2016, just before the winter break. I spent the day getting to know some of the students and teachers, observed classes, and was fortunate to be present for a school assembly in which students were awarded scholarships based on their academic performance.
Students, teachers, and administrative staff alike gathered in the large front hall of the school building where the gong used to signal the start and end of classes stood, among columns painted red. The teenagers chatted, called out to each other across the room, but the lively, friendly noise came to a halt once one of the teachers called for their attention. The school leadership, János Orsós and Tibor Derdák, began to read off students’ names one by one and the amount each would receive as a scholarship to reward their work and support their studies. One by one, the students approached the two men and claimed their scholarship—some with visible pride, others more shyly, not so comfortable with being acknowledged in front of a larger than usual group. As each name was read, a smattering of applause sounded through the gathering.
As I learned in the following months, the scholarships are essential to the retention of the schools’ students. However, the distribution of these scholarships does not yet occur regularly, in part due to the fact that donations for the scholarship program are garnered through grassroots efforts of the school leaders. It is not easy work. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that student retention is crucial for another reason: Hungarian state policy funds some schools, like Dr. Ámbédkar High School, on a per-capita basis. That is, such schools receive the funding they use to pay their bills, buy classroom materials such as textbooks, and provide teachers’ salaries—in other words, the essentials necessary for a school’s day-to-day operation—based on student enrollment. Yet, when the majority of a school’s students come from families living in deep poverty, there are other essential costs that are required for its daily functioning, for example, providing students with regional and city public transportation passes, free notebooks and pens, waived class fees, and a morning snack and lunch at no cost. By comparison, at the average state- or church-run Hungarian secondary school, the number of students from multiply disadvantaged backgrounds is relatively few compared to those who are not in need of the sort of financial support that determines in a basic, everyday way whether they will be absent from or present at school.
Challenges of a second-chance school
I have heard Dr. Ámbédkar High School described as many things: Buddhist, alternative, “a unique institution”, segregated, Roma-only, and also as a second-chance school — the sort of school with the goal of providing students coming from multiply disadvantaged backgrounds a more realistic chance at achieving high school graduation. The school, founded in 2007, began operations in Sajókaza, a small village with a population of about 3,000. Over the years it has had locations in Ózd, Alsózsolca, Hegymegy, Szendrőlád, but in 2016 the school moved to Miskolc and continues to operate in a pale blue building, the previous school’s name still visible in faded letters across its façade. The building can be found directly across the street from the Számozott utcák — a neighborhood of Miskolc where the housing rights of Roma families were violated, with hundreds of families evicted from there homes—and only a short bus ride toLyukóvölgy — a wooded area found on the edge of the city and “described by activists as Hungary’s biggest and most rapidly growing segregated Roma settlement”. In Lyukó, there is no running water, but instead its 4,000-5,000 residents get their water for bathing, drinking, and cooking from four public wells. Many of the houses are built from whatever scrap materials people can find. The streets are unpaved and street lighting has still not been installed in a lot of places.
Most of the Ámbédkar students are of Roma ethnicity and received their elementary school education in segregated schools, in segregated classrooms, or in schools where teachers had given up on them. There is a history of segregating policies in the Hungarian education system that has brought into existence segregated schools throughout the country among its counties, cities, and villages. Two laws in particular paved the way for the gradual and still growing segregation between Roma and non-Roma students. Beginning in the 1980s and ‘90s, families were allowed to freely choose the schools to which they would send their children and schools were allowed to begin accepting students outside of their school districts. These policies essentially created one of the most inegalitarian educational systems. In Borsod County, drop out rates among students (both Roma and non-Roma) coming from multiply disadvantaged backgrounds are among the highest rates nationally; for Roma, this is all the more so. In the past several years, each of the Ámbédkar graduating classes has numbered fewer than ten students despite the fact that approximately forty (or more) students start out in the ninth grade. There are numerous factors for the small graduating classes, including high rates of early teen pregnancy and pressure from family members to work and earn money. Additional influencing factors in recent years are two-fold: 1) the tracking of students coming from multiply disadvantaged backgrounds into vocational schools or vocational training, with little possibility for continuing their education, and 2) the lowering of the compulsory school age from eighteen to sixteen in 2011.The student retention among this segment of the population becomes all the more challenging given the aforementioned circumstances.
The school’s namesake is Dr. Bhimrao Ramji “Babasaheb” Ambedkar, an Indian-born Dalit activist who worked tirelessly to eliminate the caste system, inspired the mass conversion of Dalits (also known as the Untouchables) from Hinduism to Buddhism, fought against social discrimination of the Dalits, received doctorates at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, served as independent India’s first Minister of Justice, and drafted the Constitution of India. Such a prolific figure as Babasaheb is intended to be a role model to the Ámbédkar students. His image appears as paintings in classrooms, on the walls of the teacher’s lounge, as stickers in windows, and as the backdrop on some of the PCs in the computer room. He is everywhere; beginning in the ninth grade, students learn about him and his life in history class. He appears again in English lessons and his birthday in April is celebrated in the form of a short performance given by a mixture of grades. By the time Ámbédkar students reach the twelfth grade, they can speak about him with you in both Hungarian and English. In fact, he himself is a topic that students are expected to answer questions about on the history school leaving exam.
Belső Igény, the Ámbédkar teaching philosophy and pedagogical foundations
The pedagogical foundation of the Dr. Ámbédkar High School is founded on a document called Belső Igény (Internal Demand or Internal Need in English) written by Tibor Derdák and János Orsós. The document describes the teaching philosophy of the institution as a whole and provides detailed instructions on what forms of knowledge are considered important in each grade. Furthermore, it outlines some of the pedagogical methods necessary for the effective instruction of students who arrive to the high school with a number of disadvantages, like having attended a segregated elementary school in an out-of-the-way village. During my first time meeting Tibor, he instructed me to read the nearly three hundred page text before my first day of teaching.
Over the two years I have worked at the school as one of the English teachers, I have observed the plethora of ways in which the institution tries to show its students that the world is much bigger than the settlement where they grew up. The school building itself is decorated in a way to present this on a daily basis—each of the six classrooms are named after cities, moving west-east: Innsbruck, London, Montevideo, Nagpur, Bangkok, and Taipei. Inside the classrooms, the four cardinal directions are tacked to the appropriate walls in Hungarian, English, Hindi, and French, and a historical timeline runs high up on the walls. Together, these serve as an instructional tool and a reminder of the spatio-temporal connectedness of the content of their studies. English is literally brought out of the classroom when Ámbédkar students travel monthly to the Central European University (CEU) to receive English language classes from university students. There they not only study English all day, but they get a chance to take a peek at university life, get to know people who have come to study from all over the world at CEU, gain familiarity with Budapest as a global urban center, and have a chance to see Hungary outside of Borsod county. In essence, there is a global community-building project happening through the pedagogical methodologies of the Dr. Ámbédkar High School.
In the fall of 2018, Ámbédkar students performed at the yearly Roma Pride Event in Budapest. They showed the audience that they were not only versed in traditional Romani songs, but also in English-language songs like “Get up, Stand up” by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh—a song that fits well with the school’s mission: to fight against the forms of oppression that keep all people from living lives grounded in equality. Students learn the songs’ lyrics and its message, too. At a time when the very existence of Hungarian civil society, including its educational institutions, is regularly threatened due to state policies, political rhetoric, election campaigns, and denied resources, the song is apt in signaling something positive.
Precarity as existential threat
Numerous scholars have written on the topic of precarity in the twenty-first century, including Anne Allison, Judith Butler, Clara Han, Sharryn Kasmir, and Kathleen Stewart. As a condition, it has existed long before their work. It disproportionately affects the poor, the disempowered, and the disenfranchised, and is rooted in class-relations, manifested affectively as pessimism, hopelessness, depression, frustration, and impatience. To quote Sharryn Kasmir, it is a state of “anxiety, insecurity, and feelings of un-belonging”. As a lived reality, it means instability, short-term solutions to long-term problems, and the extremes of forced migration and hyperlocality—that is, a certain kind of immobility and social isolation that, for example, might prevent someone from traveling beyond the edges of the village where they have lived their entire life.
Dr. Ámbédkar High School has experienced its fair share of existential threats. To cover operational costs, teachers have occasionally had to forego salaries in order to pay the school’s bills and the school is often dependent upon short-term grants from the European Union. Over the past months, I witnessed the school face one of the most trying financial hardships of its twelve years in Borsod county. Out of dire necessity, the leadership had to turn to government officials as an attempt to keep the school running. The response they received was hardly positive. In fact, they were given an ultimatum: the school will be handed over to the Hungarian state should the financial troubles continue into the future. Faced with these circumstances, the school’s leaders and teachers reached out to its “global community” and began networking, doing everything in their power to find some kind of solution. In the current political milieu, in which the day-to-day operations of academic institutions (e.g. CEU, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, etc.) are threatened by the Hungarian government, prospects looked grim. If the Hungarian government could force an entire university out of the capital (and country as a whole), one can scarce imagine what they can do with a small high school in the impoverished northeastern region of the country. At the end of April 2019, a series of articles appeared about the school: Államosítanák a Dr. Ámbédkar Gimnáziumot, Ösztöndíj a lemaradásért – Az állam ellehetetleníti a Dr. Ámbédkar Iskolát, and Cigány gyerekként legalulról indult, most a Corvinus mesterszakos hallgatója. The third article was shared over 35,000 times. It relayed the success story of one Roma student who had recently completed his Master’s Degree at Corvinus University in Budapest with the support of the school’s founders, Derdák and Orsós. After much outreach, networking, and many meetings, Derdák and Orsós were able to find the necessary partners to keep the school running. Nevertheless, these few but long months put many things into question, including the futures of the Ámbédkar students.
And yet, the futures of these students were already in question, already on the precarious precipice of whether or not they would remain in an educational system that more often than not instills “feelings of un-belonging,” feelings that persist both outside of and mixed up with the school’s own precarity. Dr. Ámbédkar High School’s raison d’être is to alleviate the symptoms of this particular form of precarity, to keep students from giving up, to encourage them to get up, stand up, and fight for a place in a county, country, and world designed to keep them out. Still, this unique institution’s own struggles with the everyday realities of precarity risk reproducing feelings of “un-belonging” amongst its students despite its best efforts. We need more schools based on the Ámbédkar model, not fewer and not weakened or incapacitated by policies or laws that crumble its foundations. Instead, we need schools that are without fail supported by the state, by civil society, by other academic institutions, by community members, and by the very families’ whose children attend it.
If you are interested in learning about how you can support a student attending Dr. Ámbédkar High School, click here: https://www.manumissio.org.