On my way to school, I used to pass an under-construction site. One day, unable to suppress my curiosity, I asked the old man working there, “Grandfather, why are you digging so deep?”
“If you hope to build a strong house, shouldn’t the foundation be strong too? That’s how the structure will be sustained, right?”
I smiled at him, appreciating the life-lesson he had given me with that answer, and walked on. Over time, I observed how the work progressed through various stages. First, all the mud and soil was removed from the square pit. Then huge rocks were placed at the bottom. The gaps between these rocks were filled up with the soil and mud removed earlier. Cow dung and soil were used to level the layer, and then the entire surface was watered and smoothened to create a strong floor.
Watching this activity took me back in time, and I thought of Vijay, my student. I recalled him as a lonely 5th std student, avoiding the stares and ignoring the muted comments of people discussing his mother elopement with another person, dealing with her absence, and the neighbours’ fake sympathy. I could see him struggling through the day, not wanting to talk to anyone, doing his best to not to let his tears roll down as he went through the motions in school. I remembered all this, and my efforts to draw him out of his protective shell – to reach through the walls that he seemed to have built around himself.
Although he came to school every day, I would wonder how much he retained of his class lessons. His mind seemed like a smooth leaf, unable to keep the drops falling on it from gliding off. I thought back to the challenges I faced while searching for, and drawing out, the carefree child within. Though in the material world, only a sharp or hard object can break open another like it, here I had to use the softest and the gentlest of words to carve a way into his heart and gain his confidence.
I would often chat with him about different things, taking care not to touch any raw nerve. Gradually he relaxed enough to open up to me. I narrated stories and incidents from other people’s lives to help him realise that his situation, though tragic, was not unique. I shared such stories in class, too, in a matter-of-fact way.
I would encourage and praise his efforts, hoping to boost his confidence and help him overcome the deep-rooted negative feelings in his mind. Just like the man on the construction site, I too first had to prepare the foundation of his budding personality by giving him much-needed reassurance about his abilities.
I felt it necessary to go deep and find the hidden problem. Though he would be quiet and reticent at the beginning, he gradually opened up. By and by, he started sharing his thoughts with me. My talks in the classroom, on topics that I had chosen carefully, seemed like study material to the rest of the students, but for Vijay they were soothing words that gradually healed his soul.
Today he is a laughing young boy. He has started interacting with other children. His mind is now prepared to absorb new information. When other students recite poems, he responds with one in Katkari, his mother tongue. On the school playground, he does somersaults and cartwheels, impressing the others. As he regales his classmates with his “jungle stories”, I can almost see the shell dropping off his back.
To quote Education expert Leelatai Patil, “When the Yashpal Commission recommended ‘Education without burden’ it did not simply refer to physical loads but also to such mental burdens. Let us not forget to engage with this inner layer of burden, let us make a note of all such burdens, so we do not misunderstand and become satisfied merely by reducing the physical burden students must carry.”
My dear teacher friends, in my journey to find the root cause of why a student who comes to school every day does not learn, this is the lesson that I have learned – that we need to “understand the child”.
Blog: Savita Ashtekar, Subject Assistant – Marathi, DIECPD, Panvel
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team