My first year as a teacher. Another hectic day at school. I sighed deeply staring at the hillocks of books in front of me that awaited scarring by my red pen, hoping to dispel all my worries through that single bout of strong exhalation. There was lot to be done. I checked my diary:
1) Prepare worksheets
2) Correct notebooks
3) Prepare flash cards and other teaching aids
4) Arrange the class cupboard
I was in no mood to correct books, clean the cupboard or make charts and flash cards. Those could be done after school hours or even at home. My thoughts drifted to the tiny little girl in my class who always smiled (sometimes for no obvious reason), never did her homework and had a pathetic attendance percentage - Mahalakshmi. Too complex a name for a girl who struggled to read even two letter words properly at Grade 3. Mahalakshmi, the lazy girl who always wanted to visit the loo, blow her nose or drink water when I gave the class some written work.
It was the last week of August and we were three months into the academic year, yet this kid was a mystery to me. She missed the very first week of school and that was just the beginning of the endless red “A”s I marked against her name in the attendance register. She hated reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kannada classes were a nightmare for her. Every teacher worried about her laziness and inability to do a simple sum, write a simple word, recite a simple poem or answer a simple question that most others in the class could do with considerable ease. Her grades in each test were deplorable. I watched exasperatedly as she ran up happily to collect her answer papers which always indicated zero marks. What was wrong with this girl? She didn’t want to study, was punished most of the time, never scored decent marks but loved coming to school! It was truly puzzling. What was it she enjoyed? What made her happy? What was she good at?
I got my answers on hot sunny afternoon as I climbed up the stairs with a handful of cardboard sheets, paper, sketch pens and other stationery to find a silent corner in the corridor to make some display charts for my classroom. The staff room was too noisy to let my stubborn creative juices flow freely. I heard some children screaming excitedly as they played games in the playground. I looked down and saw my class enjoying their P.E period. About to turn away and resume my work, I noticed a few girls poised for a running race. As the P.E teacher blew his whistle, all I could see were flailing pigtails and fluttering pinafores. Tiny feet kicked up the loose red dirt and clouds of dust rose creating a brown haze that glistened in the sunlight. Suddenly, I saw a tiny figure dashing ahead of all the others to reach the finish line. Mahalakshmi!
She declared to the world that she was the winner. She saw me leaning from the parapet, smiling and applauding her victory. I could see her blush, even from a distance. She was hugged by her friends, Vani and Kalpana. The trio ran around the ground hand in hand, celebrating her victory. For the first time, I saw a confident and determined Mahalakshmi and forgot all about her failures in the classroom.
I decided to help her. I sat with her during classes, reading her stories teaching her numbers and the alphabet while her friends were busy writing essays and solving complex numerical problems. Gradually we became friends. She was happy to get a lot of attention from me, and I was glad I was able to help her. This continued for a few weeks and I felt the need to check how much she gained from this association. I tested her spellings by giving her easy 2-4 letter words and asked her to write a few number names. I was confident she would do well as both of us had put in tremendous effort. I was shattered when I saw her answer paper. Almost in tears, I marked a big red zero on the paper. It was my biggest failure.I checked my diary again.
The remedial teacher had given up on her after two months of trying. That was after my big failure. Since no one knew what the problem was she was labelled” lazy and playful”. Some of my colleagues asked me to “leave it” and “not to worry about it” or “be happy that I did my best”. With a class of 31 students 10 of who had some learning issue or the other, it was difficult to give individual attention to an extent where it resulted in improved grades. I did not know what her problem was and I was against labelling children with fancy words like LD, ADD, ADHD, Special Ed etc. It sickens me to think of my children as problematic. In reality it is a problem with us adults/teachers if we can’t identify the interests and needs of a child and teach accordingly.
So totally clueless of how to teach her, I decided to find out a little more about the girl. Not to dig into the history of zeroes in her exam sheets, but to find the real her that unfortunately got smothered by worksheets, tests and projects. I got to know that she was under the care of her step-mother and father. She had a half-brother, who she had to baby sit when her mother was away at work. Her parents were labourers, illiterate but nursing big dreams about their daughter. From our conversation I realized that Mahalakshmi missed her mother terribly. She was still searching for shadows of her dead mother in her step-mom. She loved her brother a lot. Though she loved coming to school to play with her friends, her parents would often go to their native place, forcing her to be absent from school frequently. She was often bullied by other children as she was academically weak. She was still searching for answers to many questions in her personal life. Silly for others may be, but really important as far as she was concerned. I never imagined that a tiny tot could have such a heavy heart and so much emotional baggage to deal with. And she was braving all this with a sweet smile.
I realized that day that for some kids, coming to school was just to stay away from problems at home. Standing in front of me was a girl so emotionally troubled, searching for love, a mother figure with whom she would feel reassured and safe. And what did I do? Tried to help her learn spellings and to count when it made no sense to her. Tried to push her to do as well as others. In the process I failed to see her outstretched hands, calling for help, calling out for a little love and care. From that day I never pressurised her to do anything. During my classes, she would sit beside me, help me distribute books, erase the board and do similar chores she liked to do.
Gradually, she started asking me for kindergarten level worksheets and would meticulously try and solve them. I would reward not her performance, but her effort with stars and smileys and stickers. I don't know if I did the right thing but she seemed to be a lot happier with this arrangement. As the year progressed, we shared a special bond. I encouraged and appreciated her when she won medals in sports. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do? Why test her Mathematics and English skills, when I already know she struggles in them?
We talked a lot during lunch breaks and she opened her heart to me. She cracked jokes, felt my dupatta, examined my earrings, gave me cards, sought permission to put jasmine flowers on my hair and sometimes kissed my cheek when no one was looking. She didn’t want the boys to tease her. I did not do anything to improve her academic status. I just let myself be her friend. We became so close that once she even demanded that I wear sari to school.
The academic year was coming to an end. There was no miracle. As I filled in Mahalakshmi’s report card with “D” grades in every column, two tender hands covered my eyes.
“I love you Vidya Akka. You are my Mummy. You HAVE TO be our class teacher next year. Otherwise I no talking you.”
The final bell rang and she left after the usual peck on my cheek, leaving me speechless. I stared with wet eyes at the tiny figure bobbing up and down as she merged with an ocean of students outside.