Anmol

The phone shrills. I smile as I pick it up. It is a call I have been expecting. “Sunita, please speak to your student,” says Anuja, Anmol’s mother as soon as I picked up the phone. “He refuses to even have his breakfast without talking to you.”

“I was going to call in a while. I thought it was too early,” I reply. “His exam starts only at 2.30 in the afternoon, no?”

“Yes, but he is so keyed up, he won’t calm down until he hears your voice and gets your blessings!”iHIHhhh

I chuckle as I hear that. It is so typical of Anmol.

“Good morning Anmol. God Bless you. Do well. Answer what you can. Don’t worry about what you don’t know and give your writer enough time to write what you say.”

“We are prepared.  I know that. I will answer. I will pass.” He repeats these sentences a couple of times.

“Yes, you will.” I assure him. “Now go and have your breakfast and rest for some time.”

“Okay. I will eat my breakfast and rest and then go for my exam. Now speak to Mummy.”

Anuja comes back on line, heaving a sigh of relief. “Now he will be okay,” she says, with the acceptance of a mother who knows her special child so well.

This conversation happened two years ago. Anmol was appearing for his Xth Standard Board Exams through the NIOS. We had been preparing for this exam for two years. Each day was both a joy and a challenge.

“Anmol!”  His name means “Precious” and precious he is. I have never met any student of mine who is so eager to learn. I have never seen anyone who is so prepared to work for success.

Anmol is 21 now, but due to certain breathing difficulties when he was born, his brain is that of a much younger child. There are certain things he just can’t comprehend. No matter how much I try, even simple maths is beyond him. He has no sense of direction and can get lost even in familiar places. Yet he has an amazing memory for dates in history.

Every morning he greets me with a cheery, “Good morning, Aunty! Today we will finish studying ten chapters.”

His optimism is infectious and by now I know better than to bring him down to earth, so I agree and ask him, “Okay, so what do you want to learn today?” If he is in the mood, he will go with whatever lesson I have planned for him. But if he has decided to do something else, then no matter what I say or do, he will not budge. Experience has taught me that it is easier to go with his plan, because then surprisingly a lot gets done. Not ten chapters a day of course, but at least a couple of questions are understood and learnt.

It makes no difference that he will forget everything by the next day and will have to learn it all over again. He just keeps at it till it becomes a part of him. This may take a week, it may take a month. But he just doesn’t give up.

From him I have learnt both patience and perseverance. I have realised that while he can’t learn anything quickly, he can learn it well and in the long run, the patience that I have had to force myself to display has been rewarded when I realised than once he has managed to learn something, it remains with him forever.

His philosophy is, “I am different. My brain is different. So I have to learn differently. It’s okay. At the end of the day, I have to learn. It does not matter how long I take.”

Over the years, Anmol’s ambitions have changed. First he wanted to become an engineer. But then I gently explained that he would need to understand maths for that. “Okay,” was his answer, “so because I can’t understand maths I can’t become an engineer. Then I will become a business man.”

This continued for a couple of months, during which period, he would only pick up his economic and business studies text books. Then one day, we were talking about why I became a teacher.

It was teacher’s day and he brought me a card he had made. It depicted a lighthouse and a ladder standing in the water, reaching up to the sky. Anmol’s explanation was: the water was where he was. The light house was me. The ladder was the way I taught him, to help him reach the sky which signified success. Though the drawing was childishly imperfect, it is the most beautiful card I have ever received.

That day, he asked me why I became a teacher. I told him how I want to make a difference in people’s lives and help them succeed. He immediately said, “Like you help me? That means anyone can be helped if you teach them?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I believe that everyone can improve, no matter where they are in life.”

“Even other children like me who are different?” he asked.

“Why not?” I questioned back.

He pondered for a moment, then said in a decisive voice, “I know what I want to do. I will work with other children like me and help them.”

That was two years ago. He spoke to his parents about his dream. I must say, both Anuja and Nitin are wonderful parents. They encourage him to dream and be as independent as he can.

After he finished his Xth, we decided (after a lot of trepidation and a lot of pleading on his part ) that we would allow him to go to regular college for his 11th and 12th.

He had to deal with being made fun of, being bullied, but he managed to come through unscathed.

This was two years ago. Anmol has just cleared his 12th standard with a 61%, scoring 69 percent in Psychology. He has not given up on his dream of helping other kids like himself and plans to do his B.A in Psychology.

However, our educational system is so flawed that he is being forced to take only the subjects prescribed by the college, which means that Hindi or Marathi would be part of his curriculum. This is a disaster because he just can’t read the script. To him it is just a meaningless pattern.

I do hope we manage to get the university to allow him to choose the subjects he can learn, while at the same time attending regular college to help him develop the social skills he needs in life.

© Sunita Saldhana

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Letting You Fly

We reached the garden. You saw the gigantic metal giraffe painted in red and yellow and green. Colours designed to attract every little soul who entered the garden. Without warning you left my hand and ran to the giraffe. Before I realised it your feet were on the first rungs of the bars that made it up. And you started climbing. I don’t really know how tall that thing was. But to my fear numbed brain it seemed at least 10 feet high. And there you were a tiny little thing, just past your second birthday, trying to climb up as fast as you could.

I opened my mouth to shout and call you back down, when I caught your father’s eye and he just shook his head to stop me. I understood what he meant. We had made a pact that we would never stop you from exploring, from learning by doing. We had promised ourselves that we would give you the freedom to grow, to fly, to touch the sky. And now that it seemed that you were actually trying to reach for the sky, I could only stand there paralysed with fear, watching you as you climbed higher and higher. And as you reached higher all that I could think of was that it was a longer way to fall. I had visions of broken bones and worse.

Dad in the meantime positioned himself beneath the monster, encouraging you and telling you where to place your feet. His presence there gave you the confidence to go right to the very top, secure in the knowledge that Daddy was there to catch you if you fell.  You finally reached the top and squealed with delighted laughter. I could not help but laugh with you, as tears streamed down my face.

You climbed back down with Dad guiding you and the minute you reached the ground, I swooped you up into a hug that hid all my anxiety. And then so sweetly and innocently you asked me, “Mamma, why are you crying?” I answered you with what I now realise was the truth, “Because I am so proud of you.”

 

 

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Are You Turning Your Kid Into An Assembly Line Person?

She came to pick her little daughter up from my language development class. And she looked harassed. Now she is normally not a mother to look like that, so I asked her what was wrong.

“Sunita,” she said, almost in tears, “I feel like such a bad mother. I don’t know what to do”

“Why? What happened?” I asked surprised. She is generally one of the most sensible mothers I know. “Riya starts her appraisals tomorrow and I am terrified that she will do badly,” she said.

“But she is only in the first grade. And these are the first appraisals of the year. So why are you so worried? And even if she doesn’t do well, it’s just a school appraisal. Why are you so tense?”

“I was not tense. Her teacher made me tense. She says that Riya does not do anything in class.”

At that moment, Riya piped up. “I learnt vowels in school today. You put an before apple and elephant because a, e, i ,o and u are vowels. But you will say a book or a fan.”

“See, she is learning. Isn’t that what matters?”

“I thought it was. But all the other mothers have even stopped looking after the home to sit and take up their kids studies. Their husbands help in the house. I cannot afford to sit with their lessons all the time like that.”

“Do you want to?” I asked, “And why?’

“I don’t want to …..but then when I see how much the other kids are doing , I start feeling guilty. Even her teacher was critical of me as a mother.”

“Tell me, is Riya happy? Is Riya healthy? Does she talk to you and share everything that happens in school? Is she friendly and sociable? Doesn’t she love going for her dance and drawing classes and as you said, she hates missing our language classes.”

“Yes, I know and I felt that I was doing a good job till I realised what the other parents are doing.”

“And what are they doing?” I asked. “Turning their kids into assembly line people.  Into school at 3 years and out at 18; all of them with the same mindset, the same ambition, the same goals.  Get a good job that will pay me well for which I have to slog my whole life, live the same life as everybody else and finally die.”

“They will never have a single original thought in their heads. They will never be independent learners because Mom or Dad is sitting next to them controlling and directing their homework, their projects, their lives.”

“What you have done is you have allowed your kids to chose. You do not tell them not to go for dance class because they have an exam tomorrow. You do not sit with them the whole time they are studying. You are teaching them so much more than school will ever teach them. You are teaching them to be independent learners, not just students. You are teaching them to be responsible. You are teaching them that life is meant to be more than just chores. While other parents are preparing their kids to earn a living, you are teaching them how to live.”

“Thanks, Sunita,” she smiled, looking vastly relieved. “I feel so much better now. I guess, being a parent is such a responsibility, that we are always second guessing ourselves, especially when we are doing things that no one else is doing. As they say, kids do not come with instructions booklets; it’s trial and error all the way.”

As she left, I couldn’t help thinking of the many parents who want to do something different with their kids, but buckle down to the system and become “normal” parents with “normal” kids.

When we become parents we are given a gift. A gift that is so unique and beautiful. Every child that we have is precious not only because they are our kids, but because there is nobody else like them in the world.  I have a pair of identical twins, and believe me; even they are so different from each other.

And what do we do with that precious gift, we immediately try to change it and make it just like the millions. If you were to own something unique like say, the Kohinoor, what would you do? Would you change it and make it just like any other diamond? Or would you do your best to ensure that its inner fire sparkled? Then why don’t we let our kids sparkle? Why do we dull their fire? Why do we not let them be what they are born to be?

There is a reason why kids do not come with instruction manuals. That’s because each child has to be brought up differently. Each child is different. One manual would not work at all.

You as a parent have a choice. You get to chose whether you want your child to be one in a million or just another kid in the system. YOU CHOOSE!  Because the kids can’t. And by the time they are old enough to realise that they could have been different, it’s generally too late. The years of conditioning have taken their toll. They are too weary to even try.

So what can you do? First of all realise that getting good marks in school is not everything. A school can make your child study. Only you can help your child learn. You can allow your child to explore different things, which are not necessarily academic. Is your child passionate about dance or drama or drawing or even cooking, encourage him to learn as much as he can. You never know, that might just be their ticket to fame. But more important, it will give them something that will add meaning to their life, something that will flavour an otherwise insipid existence and make it delicious, a life worth living!

 

The state of our schools

I visited my daughter’s home in November.  Right opposite her house is a building which is barely plastered from the outside, leave alone painted. Most of the window frames have no windows and the windows that exist are without panes. The lane it is situated in is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other and that too with the drivers holding their breath and praying that they will not scrape the other car.

Early in the morning we were woken up to the sound of the entire school yelling out spellings in English. I walked onto the balcony to see what was happening and was aghast to see a teacher beat the living daylights out of a student. The child must have been barely ten years old. And then totally nonchalantly, the teacher walked up to the window and spat out a stream of paan juice on to the road below.  And the student was back in his seat making faces at the boy in front of him as if nothing had happened.

The next day was terribly cold and I could see the students sitting on the floor, shivering and huddling into thread bare sweaters.  All at once I felt helpless and angry. Angry because I’m sure it doesn’t cost all that much to get the windows fixed, yet if our schools are looked after, how will the officials make their money.  Helpless, because at that moment there was nothing that I could do.  More than that I didn’t know what to do.

Our schools never cease to amaze me.  Time and again they prove that education in India is only a farce.  It doesn’t matter whether it is a big school that is a part of a chain of schools all over India or a barely legal school run in a rundown building in a tiny obscure lane.

But even as I write this I wonder why I am so surprised. Wasn’t this the very reason we started Shiksha Power?  But then I am the eternal optimist who sees pots of gold at the end of every rainbow and silver linings behind every cloud.  Somewhere deep down there was still a hope that people who chose to be in the field of education are not so bad.  But now that I interact with schools on a regular basis, I am so glad that we have started Shiksha Power. There is such an urgent need to do something;   not just to bring about a change, but to revolutionise our views on education.

The system apart, it is the little things that give cause for worry.

Back in Thane, we have been visiting a lot of schools this week to conduct a few competitions for the students. We were at one of the so called “better schools”. We happened to be there when the assembly for the primary section was being conducted. After the prayers and invocations hymns were sung, one of the students read the news headlines for the day. The first headline he read was, “Delhi Police chief apologises for inaction over rape case.”  Both Anish and I looked at each other aghast. For heaven sakes, this is the primary section! The news is being read out to children who are between the ages of 5 to 10. Is this what their parents would want them to hear? And is it really relevant to them.

I can understand that the school wants to encourage the students to keep abreast with current news. But isn’t there anything in the newspaper that is more age appropriate? Isn’t there any happy news at all? Can’t we allow our kids to be kids for a little while longer? And what were the teachers or co-ordinators doing? Couldn’t they have guided the child on what news it was okay to read? If we are going to be surrounding our kids with so much unpleasantness so early in life it is no wonder that  another  headline in the day’s  paper reads, “ 1 in 10 students complain of aches and nausea, hinting at stress.”

The saddest part is that I’m sure that the teachers did not even realise what he had read or what impact it could have on young impressionable minds. And if this was the headlines read today, the same news has been making headlines for so many days now; which means that everyday someone has been reading out similar things and yet the teachers remain unaware.  And then ironically the assembly ends with Tagore’s poem , “Where the mind is without fear.”

This utter indifference on the part of the teachers and schools is scary. If they do not consciously decide what a child should learn and how he should learn, how can we groom leaders? How can we groom responsible citizens when the people responsible for their grooming are themselves so irresponsible?

The sheer enormity of the problem sometimes worries me, but if we do not make a start, we can never hope to change anything.  And so we move on with baby steps, hoping others join us on the way, bringing about a quiet revolution for the sake of the future of our kids; for the future of our country.