Getting desperate for education is one thing. Getting desperate over the mechanics of it is another thing.
In a world, where school really appears to be about making smart people smarter, one was faced with a situation of learning disability within the family, once high school happened. In a world, where relative inability in maths, and pathological aversion to physics and chemistry, was, actually treated in families like a disease, it took a lot of learning and observation on my part, to realize that children's successes could be of many types, all not necessarily academic.
Open Schooling was an option, and was grabbed with both hands, at what I today consider , one of the best centres for it in Mumbai. It is a telling comment on professional attitudes, that I was warned NOT to send my child there, as "there were a lot of disabled children there !"
At such times, one is grateful for the one big dose of good sense and realism that god and our parents may have bequeathed us. I wanted my child to learn to respect differently abled children, and empathize with them. I had s een enough parents so obsessed with the success of their own children that they bred a lack of sensitivity in their own children, who often stared and didnt know how to react when confronted with a differently abled child. (What one thinks of such parents is the subject of a separate blog post one day)
As it turned out, it was a normal school which opened its arms to a few differently abled children, and took special care of them, integrating them with the mainstream, to the benefit of the entire student body .
While the lack of constant rankings in class, missing superior attitudes of teachers, and excellent textbooks prepared by the National Boards enthused my child, the main thing was that it gave her an immense amount of self esteem which got her interested in studying subjects, which she could select as per the rules of this Board. Liberal Arts with a dash of Business courses did the trick , and my child comfortably did her 10th and 12th grades from there.
For various logistics reasons , I took my daughter to school every day, waited and brought her back. The Principal, a Jesuit priest, noticed some of us parents in the same boat, and requested us to be parent volunteers while we were there, and we could assist the teachers etc. We gladly agreed.
Children from many other centres were appearing for their Boards at this particular school, and I was asked to invigilate a class where several children who were classified, spastic, and with other medical problems were writing their exams, with "writers" . (Writers are people who are interviewed , and accepted as someone who would transcribe what the child dictates during the exam. These are selected based on the specific child , his abilities, disadvantages, and sense of security , all within the framed rules of the Board, followed strictly by the school.).
Sandeep was appearing for the Junior Boards or the 10th class boards. A student of the Spastics Society School in a suburb of Mumbai, he was a mentally very active child. His parents both worked, and his grandparents lived with them. His mother rued the lack of time for him (thanks to the time she spent commuting to work everyday), despite his grandmother assuring her , and happily participating in looking after the chap and his various needs at home.
Sandeep was allowed to bring his grandmother as a writer, and he was one of the 10-12 such student-writer combinations that I was to invigilate. All the students, without exception, looked tension free and had smiles. They came in looking around the desks, choosing their places, willingly giving in if another wanted it. Some wanted to be near a window, some insisted on sitting right in front of the class, and some simply quietly sat down with their writer wherever they could. The question papers were distributed.
The students were supposed to quietly dictate answers to their writers. Despite what may be brought up by skeptics as a perhaps valid doubt, the writers don't write the papers on their own. (It is not unknown for perfectly able students to do this claiming a fake disability, with the connivance of their parents, and I had seen one such case, which happily, had an unhappy ending).
After a while I started hearing some really loud whispers, and a bunch of suppressed giggles. Sandeep was giving a loudly whispered dictation to his grandmother, who was trying to quieten him, and the rest of the students thought this was funny. It never occurred to any to "listen" to the answers. They just thought it totally amusing that one of them was getting away with this, to the complete consternation of the grandmother.
She called me over.
I tried telling Sandeep, that he should quietly dictate or everyone would hear his answers. He pointed to the fan saying it was making too much noise above him. We shut that off. He looked at the other students, and all of them smiled at each other, in unity with Sandeep. The whispered dictation continued. He would suddenly remember something from a previous question and make his grandma go back, trying to accelerate her gnarled fingers with his own as she turned the pages. Then he would switch back again.
After a while, water was in fashion. Everyone, starting with Sandeep suddenly became thirsty. It was like a little break while everyone parched their whispering throats. That's when Sandeep suddenly noticed the speaker like contraption on the wall of the classroom, and demanded to know what it was.
For me it was a lesson in patience. This was not how exams were. But then this was not how children were supposed to be.
I told him that the Father Principal, could hear everything going on in the class via this thing. And chances were that he, the principal, was actually aware of the excitement Sandeep was generating with his talk and activities, all while dictating answers. Maybe he would come down from his office. Maybe he would get upset with Sandeep. (Actually, these were speakers used for public announcements at school).
Sandeep quietened down a bit, and finished the paper along with the other students. Sandeep was ecstatic as he was done with his papers for that year, and he could now get back to what was his version of cricket . I asked him about his school, and he told me about the visit of the cricket greats like Gavaskar to his school , where they played with them, misbowled balls, shaky bats and all. But his eyes told a different story. They shone with confidence.
He asked me if I would report him to the Father Principal. I told him to go wait for his Grandma outside.
The old lady was in tears as she collected her purse, and a little pack of refreshments she had brought from home for Sandeep. She extricated herself from the school desks, something she was doing, possibly after several decades. She removed her thick rimmed glasses, wiping her eyes with the edge of her traditional silk saree, and started apologizing for her grandson, saying she was sorry for the trouble he was causing everywhere he went, like the classroom today.
I was completely aghast. I told her there was no problem at all. Sandeep was doing fine. He was NOT a problem. I liked invigilating this class, and would do it again. And if Sandeep were to be appearing for another paper, it would be my pleasure to invigilate .
She wordlessly held both my hands, touched my cheek, and then left, suddenly remembering that Sandeep would be waiting for her in the foyer.
I took all the collected answer sheets to the supervisor lady. Amongst all the invigilators who came in with tired troubled faces, shaking their heads at the tricky things the so-called normal students could do , I was the only one who seemed to have enjoyed the activity.
The supervisor , who had been doing this for years knowingly smiled when I told her I had a great time and would offer my help again.
Education was not about getting a B++ student to get an A+, or appearing in an merit list. It wasnt about framing tough discipline rules that considered all students tricky till proven otherwise.
It was about bringing assurance to a life, beset with disadvantages, and making the child feel, he was doing so well, he could face anything in life now, including a googly from Gavaskar.......
Sandeep eventually passed his 10th grade with distinction, taking one subject every year. I stopped going to the school after a year as my daughter went to college, but I met his grandmother accidently once , and this time the tears were of a different type.
Degrees are fine. Scholars are applauded.
But what will always stay in my mind's eye, is the smile on the face of a child, who everyone thought was a recipe for failure, his innate honesty, his conviction that grandmothers are made to be troubled by grandchildren, his fellowship with his classmates, his laborious yearly attempts at examinations, and the twinkle in his eye at the prospect of getting back to his school game of "cricket", as his grandmother looked on through indulgently flooded eyes.