Iran: little school, big dreams

Unesco has dubbed it the smallest school in the world, but to Abdol-Mohammad Sherani — a young soldier-turned-teacher in the small southern Iranian town of Kalou — it presented the biggest challenge of his young life.

Sherani, 23, is the principal of the Kalou school — student population, four. He's also the sole teacher, and the secretary, the librarian and the janitor, as well as being a fundraiser and drill sergeant of sorts.

Sherani began teaching at the school, which services a tiny village of seven families totaling 35 people, after completing a two-year mandatory military service. As part of their service, the Iranian government sends soldiers to small, underprivileged areas to serve its community in different ways. Depending on the service needed, some soldiers become teachers, others work in health clinics, or oversee farming activities.

With five of his seven siblings having become teachers in the town of Dayyer (about 20 miles from Kalou), Sherani was no stranger to the profession, though he said that from the outset, every day was a challenge. His students were different ages and, therefore, grades. So he simply taught all four grades at the same time, creating different lessons for each student.

An avid blogger and, owing to his own promotional efforts a minor celebrity of sorts in Iran, Sherani has certainly never forgotten his first day of school in Kalou and how far both the students and teacher have come.

“There was no school,” he recalls, “the building given to us was a storage for fishing equipment.”

Sherani's military service and can-do attitude served him well, and along with the students — two girls and two boys — rolled up his sleeves and cleaned out the building.

“Everybody took on a task. I took a broom and swept the floor, the children, one by one took piles of fishing nets and equipment out, and in no time we had a place to call classroom,” he says in a calm voice with a hint of southern Iranian accent.

To ease some of the hardship, Sherani jotted down his thoughts about life in Kalou in a diary. “I have always been interested in reading memoirs, and I dreamt of one day publishing my own memoir of living in Kalou,” he says.

In one of the early entries in his diary, titled “The most beautiful recess,” Sherani writes: “The sky was beautiful today. It rained last night for the first time this year and it left the school playground full of water. We opened the door to the class and sat together for a few minutes staring at the restless sea and the colorful boats dancing on the waves. Soon it was class time again. Hamideh had math, Mehdi, a spelling test, and Hossein had to read me his essay. I like all of them and their different personalities.”

In another, he fills in the required form for one of the students’ exam:

"Number of students in class: 1, Students present for exam: 1, Students absent for exam: 0, Teacher: Sherani, School principal: Sherani."

In a phone interview, he spoke of his decision to aim even higher: “One day I thought to myself why wait to publish my memoir in the future? I decided to set up a blog and start writing about Kalou and our small school online.”

Sherani wrote about his interactions with students and their everyday lives.

“I was cautious not to write about poverty in Kalou or suggest that we need financial aid from outside sources,” he says, “that’s maybe why so many people became interested in the blog. It wasn’t someone complaining about a difficult life in a virtually unknown village. I was optimistic.”

With an Australian friend of Sherani’s regularly translating his blog into English, it didn’t take long for the school's plight to gain the kind of attention he sought. With coverage by the local media, and the mention by Unesco, support poured in from Iranians and foreigners alike.

A benefactor from Bushehr (a port city in southern Iran) built a school for Kalou and the ministry of education donated new desks and a computer. By that time not only their classroom had desks and a computer, but it had a growing library, too.

In order to earn enough to live, he also took a part-time job in a computer shop in his home town of Dayyer. Every morning, he would hop on his motorbike, drive to Kalou and return in the afternoon to his second job in Dayyer.

One achievement that Sherani is particularly proud of is having arranged for girls in Kalou to continue their education. After one of his students completed the last grade available in the village, he asked the ministry of education to send a bus every morning to pick her up and take her to the nearest high school. They agreed. Since then, the school has replenished its ranks with another young student, a boy.

The school continues to receive emails and letters from around the world.

In an interview, Sherani reads a letter sent to him by a woman living in California: “I lived in that part of Iran when I was a kid. When I read that everyday you travel to Kalou on your motorbike, I thought that you would definitely need a good pair of sunglasses. I know how unforgiving the sun in that region can be. I hope you find it useful.” In the package was in fact a pair of sunglasses. Sherani says his heart melted as he read the letter and saw the sunglasses. He says he hopes to one day publish all of the letters in a book.

He has already published a book about the school in Farsi titled “World’s Smallest School” which was well received in Iran.

Although his plan to educate children in Kalou has materialized, Sherani’s projects are far from complete. He is in the process of creating a foundation for small and under privileged schools