Just as a wilting house plant begins to thrive and bloom when it is looked after well – when it receives enough sunlight, oxygen and water – so does a neglected child grow in confidence when she receives love in full measure and is encouraged to think, “Yes! I can do it.” Prerana (inspiration) is one such child.
Prerana hails from Laadki, a little hamlet in the Hinganghat Panchayat of Wardha District. She goes to the village school, and is an enthusiastic member of the school’s Meena-Raju Manch. She is good at her studies, always asking questions in class and ever willing to help her classmates with their studies or tasks. But this is a new and transformed Prerana whose story I am sharing – she was a completely different person earlier.
Until the 3rd and even 4th standard she was a shy and introverted child who wouldn’t mix with the other girls, let alone the boys. Always quiet, her face revealed a maturity beyond her years. Her younger brother, too, was in the nursery section of our school. As soon as school was out for him, she would go fetch him and just be sitting with him, rather than playing with the other children during recess.
She always seemed weighed down by some sort of burden. Perhaps she thought that bringing her brother to her own classroom would earn her a scolding? Yet we teachers all felt sorry for her as she seemed so glum. I decided I must draw Prerana out of her shell. To gain her trust, I openly gave her my permission to have her brother sit next to her in class. I began making attempts to converse with her, asking her the easiest questions and praising her in class. Sometimes I would pat her on the back or on her head to show my appreciation. Even this small gesture would cause her face to brighten. I wanted her to have fun, too, like the other children, so at first I included her brother Devanshu, in our games. Watching him play, Prerana too began to join in spontaneously. Gradually, she seemed to open up and to gain in confidence.
I tried to get information on her family from my co-teachers and from Prerana’s classmates. Prerana lived with her parents, a grandmother, a sister, and the younger brother. The family was poor, and her parents had to work as farm labourers. As the oldest sibling, it had fallen upon Prerana’s small shoulders to look after her brother and sister. Overwhelmed by so much responsibility, she stayed away from the school’s extra-curricular activities even though she might have wished to participate. Besides, at home her brother received the lion’s share of attention from their parents and grandmother, who more or less ignored the two girls.
Though she came from a typical, poor rural household, I could see that Prerana had a certain potential, a special spark. And I was saddened by her unjust treatment at home. Finding it hard to remain a mute spectator, I started doing home visits for Prerana, and for some other girls like her. I told her parents how clever Prerana was; I praised her thoughtfulness and maturity at such a young age. Every time I met them, I pointed out that a son and a daughter should be treated equally and how, if given education, this same daughter would grow up and support the family. I could sense her parents’ attitude towards Prerana and her sister undergoing a change, however gradual, while I continued to support her in school.
It took time, perhaps three years and more, but there were many positive changes in Prerana. She had grown popular among her classmates. When she was in the 5th std. I made sure she enrolled in the Meena-Raju Manch so that she would absorb the value of gender equity from a young age and later, as a parent herself, raise her children without the gender discrimination her own parents had practised. And Prerana was truly very drawn to all the different activities in school. She participated in debates, elocution, drama and dance as well as craft competitions. Just when I thought that things were getting better for her, Prerana’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Ominous clouds surrounded her family. Her father continually had to accompany her mother to hospital for treatment. The family’s already precarious financial situation suffered a severe blow.
Her mother had to stay in Nagpur for months together for treatment, and with an aging grandmother, once again it was Prerana who had to shoulder all the household responsibilities. She also had to learn to cook. She would complete all the household chores before coming to school. I was proud of her, as well as sad to see her having to cope with so much. We teachers would chat with her and try to help her stay cheerful rather than go back into her shell.
Prerana’s mother passed away in February. I could not bear to think of Prerana’s state, but when we got there I saw her holding her younger siblings close while they wept. As soon I reached their house, her brother Devanshu came running to hug me. That was when it struck me that as the Meena-Raju Manch facilitator (sugamkarta), I had become an emotional anchor for many of these children. I held Prerana close to me and consoled the children as best as I could. Even as they walked together for the funeral I saw that it was Prerana who stood calm and strong, not just for her siblings but also for her father.
In that moment, I was extremely proud of Prerana. All of us realised that even we, as adults, could learn a few things from her. Prerana still comes to school. She still runs her household. She looks after her siblings and is careful that they don’t lag behind in their schoolwork. She is like a surrogate mother. To watch her grow from a shy introverted child into a strong and dependable young woman has truly been an inspiring journey for all of us.
Blog: Sunita Chandekar, Zilla Parishad Secondary School, Laadki, Wardha District
Photos: Sunita Chandekar
Translation and editing: samata.shiksha team