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.”
“What’s so great about it?” she wondered, “I am the same….no change from 12 and a half to 13.”
“Oh, you don’t know,” they said. “13 is a magical year! Things happen!” they whispered mysteriously.”
But the girl shook her head and smiled. She knew all about false hopes and broken promises. And anyway, magic never happened to ordinary dull girls like her who couldn’t even get up the courage to speak for themselves.
No, magic happened to Sabrina, her sister. Even her name was magic, like the teenage witch. Sabrina had been born on a full moon day, fair with hair flowing down to her shoulders. Till date her hair had never been cut.
But as for herself, she had been born dark and ordinary….just a baby girl…no magic…nothing extraordinary.
But true magic was her youngest sister…Janice…the cutest baby with the most adorable dimples and huge melt your heart brown eyes.
Looking at the baby, suddenly words started forming in her mind and joining together, they created magic….A poem…..a perfectly magical poem
The words arrived….tumbling over each other…from some unknown place…. forming new sentences… ….creating a picture…as perfect in her mind as her little sister!
The words flowed on and on and continue flowing till today, bringing with them admiration and applause.
Yes, that day I discovered my own magic, the magic of writing!
I was all of fourteen. It was the 5th of September, 1979, Teacher’s Day. I was in the tenth standard and as usual the teachers had gone for a picnic, leaving us, the tenth standard students to run the school.
I was in charge of the kindergarten. I had been told to ensure that all the kids wrote down the alphabet. Everyone complied, except one little girl, Monica. She just stared sulkily at her note book. When I asked her why she was not writing, she just shook her head stubbornly, without saying a word.
But the rest of the class yelled out, “She can’t write. She is a dumb head.”
I was shocked to hear these little five year olds talk like that. “Who says she is a dumb head?” I asked.
“Our teacher, Miss Margaret,” they replied.
I felt an uncontrollable surge of anger towards Miss Margaret. “How can anyone call a baby a dumb head?” I wondered as I looked at little Monica who had hung her head in shame.
I put my arm around her and said, “You are not a dumb head. You are my friend. And so friend, tell me, what do you like to do?”
She looked up at me with eyes round in surprise and not a little fear. Then she whispered, “I like to draw.”
“And what do you like to draw?”
“Houses”, she said.
“Okay”, I told her, “Let’s see. If you can draw your ABC just like I am doing, I will let you draw a picture of a house for me. I will take that picture home and keep it on my fridge. Okay?”
Still full of wonderment, she nodded and “drew” the alphabet neatly in her book. After that she drew a beautiful house and garden for me.
I showed her book around the class and said, “See, Monica is not a dumb head. She is an artist.”
The beatific smile on the child’s face was all the reward in the world.
This was my first experience of how we as teachers can make or break a child. All it needs is a few words to build up someone’s confidence and confidence is a mighty motivator.
I tasted power that day in that kindergarten classroom. I realized that I had the power to change the way a person thinks about himself. I could make people believe in themselves. I could help people succeed.
And in that moment was born my dream. I decided there and then that I would be a teacher… not of academic subjects but a teacher who would teach people to be confident and believe in themselves. I would help people succeed in life.
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!”
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.