She stood in one corner –shivering. Her blouse was missing; her soiled undergarment lay near her feet.
“There she is!”, the teacher pointed to her near-naked figure. Her eyes were downcast and she definitely looked embarassed.
“ This has been happening for months now. This is the fifth time Mrs.Venkataramanan, fifth day in a row that she has er….”, the teacher fumbled, probably looking for a better word to be used instead of the more child-friendly – ‘potty’. I chose to ignore her and went near my daughter. Tufts of brown hair flew carelessly about her forehead, as if trying to hide her two guilty eyes. She smelt of vomit too.
“Did you vomit?”, I asked her softly.
She shook her head in affirmative and looked up for the first time. A sticky stream of dried-up tears bore witness to the turmoil that she had undergone.
“ Yeah, she vomited too”. The teacher by now had moved closer to us. She was not over with her complaint as yet.“Everyday this is not possible na ? “, she questioned in her faulty English. “ We are a small school. Our cleaning staff cannot clean her every day. And not a single day goes without…..”, she rattled off incessantly.
“We neither punish our children, nor do we beat them, then why does she do this? As soon as we start teaching….. Mrs. Venkataramanan, I think she needs a thorough check-up….may be there is some underlying health problem with her.”, the senior teacher intervened this time, trying to tone down the situation a bit. She knew me for a longer time, having taught my son as well.
“We had her medical check-up done – her reports say she is perfectly alright. And everyday we ensure it that she goes to toilet before she comes to school”.I tried to defend our parenthood; though I had lost count of the number of times I had offered the same explanation. By now I almost sounded like a robot.
While the two teachers continued to confront my explanation, I proceeded to change my daughter’s dress as quickly as possible. By the time they finished with their list of complaints –from being inattentive to not being able to write numbers in sequence to vomiting everyday, I was done and ready to go home with my daughter.
“Now if you permit me Ma’am, can I take her home ?”.
“Oh sure”, the senior one said.
“And try not to send her to school till she is completely well”, the junior one added.
I just nodded my head and picked up my daughter in my lap. She curled up in the cocoon of my lap instantly, resting her tired head on my shoulder.
Little heads popped out from the open door of the unattended nursery classes, giggling at the sight of their friend. I felt a nudge in my arm. I knew my daughter wanted to run away.
“ 4, 5 and then…..”, I prompted again. She stared blankly for a few moments and then slowly opened her lips to utter, “ 8 “. In that same instance my left palm landed on her cheek, leaving a faint pink mark.
“Whoaaaaa”, she cried out aloud. I couldn’t care less. I threw her books, her copies; I pulled her up by her hair and pushed her to the corner of the bed.
My husband came rushing in. “Have you gone insane? Beating a girl of four and half years for no fault of hers….”.
“Yes, I have gone mad. I can’t take it anymore. Every single day, every moment I have to face humiliation because of her”, I spat fire. “Why can’t she be like her brother? She has been an ill omen for me and our family. Just as I conceived her my grandmother died, you became jobless, I had medical complications….I, I…I just wish she was not born at all”. There was no stopping me; I spoke like a woman possessed.
It was then, at that moment, that I happened to look at her. It was an accidental glance but her looks froze me. She had long stopped crying and was staring at me with wide eyes. The pain and pathos in her eyes spoke volumes – it was the kind of look one gives when one discovers her only refuge crumbling into bits and pieces. Her eyes seemed to bear a single question – “You too?”.
That night I sat with my parents to talk about my daughter. I wanted to find out the root cause of her ‘strange illness’ at school. I just did not know how to solve the problem.
“ Her fear”, my father spoke slowly, “is the reason why she falls ill in school. “
“ I know that, I can understand that. Infact, just to get rid of her fear we take a detour on the way to the school so that she becomes happy. And the funny part is that she has never protested. She is one of those rare kids who happily goes to school.”
My father smiled. “It is not the fear of her school, it is the fear of failure that prompts her to fall sick. And it happens involuntarily”.
“ Does she pretend to be sick?”, I couldn’t help wondering aloud.
“At the cost of being humiliated? “, he laughed. “Not children! They may be naughty, inattentive and difficult to control but they are not complicated like you and me”.
He ought to be knowing; with years of experience as a social worker working in the field of education he had a fair idea about child psychology.
“ I am clueless”. I was ready to give up.
“ That is not a solution. You have to think what evokes her fear.”
“ Her fear of learning, may be”.
“ What kind of fear ? Does she have a learning difficulty ? Is she having a problem with her eye-sight or may be a problem with comprehending the words”.
“ Her god-damn memory! It is her memory which is the problem.”, I was exasperated. “She just cannot remember things in sequence – whether it is numbers or alphabets.”
“ So if remembering things in sequence is her problem, why force her to remember at all?”. The sheer nonchalance in his voice irritated me.
“ It is a school Dad – they have a system.”, I tried to reason.
“ Then de-school her…..She needs to be de-schooled. Non Formal Education system works and you know that very well. Learning is for knowledge, not for instilling fear”, he signed off.
So de-schooling it was! Her father went the next day and struck her name off the school register. And I was entrusted the role of home-tutoring her. Being a working mother with minimal patience I really did not know where to begin from. So on day one I sat with a pile of books and copies strewn all around me – contemplating the right method to teach her. She sat playing in one corner with her bag full of collections – clips, chocolate wrappers and pencils – she had a habit of collecting things of her choice.
“ Have you taken three clips from my collection?” , she asked while arranging her coveted treasures.
“No. Why ?” I asked her.
“ There were twelve clips and now there are only nine”, she replied, almost absent-mindedly.
I was surprised. She can count! This was indeed a new discovery. I wanted to test her again.
“ Ruhu, look here! Tell me – if you have six pencils and I give you four more, how many would you have?”
She kept her wrappers aside, looked straight into my eyes and took six seconds to spurt out her answer, “ Ten”.
I was dumb-struck! Fluke? I couldn’t believe my own ears. I wanted to try again.
“ And, and if your brother has eleven chocolates and mummy takes away four, then?”. I tried a harder one. She took six and half seconds to answer this one. “Seven”, she said softly. I clapped in joy! But how could she? She was not even taught to count in school.
However, it did not matter anymore, I had cracked the code to teach her in a way that she was comfortable in. My father’s words echoed in my mind – “Non-formal education system works”.
And for the next one year it was a challenging yet joyous experience for both of us. I understood what my father meant when he said that the functionality of learning was more important than the process of learning. So I taught her the method that she was comfortable with – instead of writing from 1 to 100 I encouraged her to do counting; I taught her word formation instead of learning from A to Z. She excelled in this and learnt to read stories earlier than her peer group.
But the real challenge was in tackling the people around – they were not used to seeing a child being pulled out of school. They had questions laced with sympathy – “Aha, so she couldn’t cope up with the studies?” or expressed their doubts about her abilities altogether – “There are special schools for slow learners….may be she should……”.
At times it did hurt and I would secretly wonder if they were right after all but every time I would give up, her bright eyes would try to decipher a new word. And I would be convinced that the right path are not always the easy ones.
“ Aha….so she is ready to attend a big school now! Do you like this school?”, the Principal asked my daughter.
She smiled at him; her eyes fixed at the jar of chocolates placed strategically on his table.
“Would you like one?”, he asked.
She nodded her head in delight. He pulled out two and handed those to her. Then he turned towards us.
“Where was she studying earlier?”
My heart stopped for a second. “A small Montessori school near our house”, my husband answered on our behalf. We exchanged glances. A half-truth for a good cause would do no harm – I comforted myself.
“ Hope she would catch up with the other students. Our standard is pretty high.”, he remarked casually while putting the seal of approval on her admission form.
My heart missed a beat. My own insecurities muddled my mind.Would she be able to cope up with other children in the new school? Afterall she hadn’t been going to a formal school for more than two years! What if her fear crops up again ?
But I knew there was no other way, no other option – we had to take a chance!
“ Good Morning!”
“ Mr. & Mrs.Venkataramanan ? A very good morning indeed!”, the teacher smiled at us.
“ How are you both doing ?”, she asked courteously. I was in no mood for pleasantries. It was the first ever Parents-Teacher meeting at the new school and I was curious to know the list of complaints.
Asking us to sit in front of her, she flipped through the series of report cards piled in front of her. How long? And why was she so quiet? I was impatient.
“Ah, here it is”, she pulled out my daughter’s report card. She had a routine glance through it and held it in front of me.
“Your daughter is a champion Mr and Mrs. Venkataramanan. At first she was very shaky; we were not sure whether she was able to follow her lessons. She is a bit slow in her writing. But we are immensely satisfied with her performance. She has done extremely well. Look at her marks, A+ in all the subjects”, her voice oozed with pride.
How much ever I tried to see the writings on the report card I couldn’t – the unruly barrage of tears would again and again put up an opaque curtain in front of my vision! I knew it would look silly if I cried but a drop managed to surpass the rim of my eyes nevertheless. I somehow managed to blurt a ‘thank you’ and got up.
Taking a few steps away from the crowd I hugged her tight while her father pretended to have something fallen in his eyes. She looked surprised. I put up my right hand in front of her.
“High five!”, she giggled and slapped against my hand. Her weak hand barely created a clap but it sounded like a thousand cymbals and trumpets playing together. To me it was the sound of triumph! It wasn’t about the grades,it wasn’t about her marks either.It was all about the victory of the extraordinary power hidden within every ordinary child!
Picture Courtesy: Pixabay.com