With a tearful face, a fearful heart, and lacking the strength even to carry his school bag, Tanaji entered a formal school for the first time at the age of six.
I was faced with the challenge of enabling Tanaji, a child with learning difficulties, to conquer, like his proud namesake, the fort – of excellence. I have my own ideas about and ways of dealing with children with special needs, and I began working with him, knowing that every half-step forward that he might take would delight me, and strengthen my resolve. I would encourage him to speak, and tried to get him to pick up the basics, everyday class activities, from his fellow students, but all he did was sit in one place and gaze out of the window, waiting for his mother to come and take him home. My every effort seemed to fail.
He would come to me only when it was time for his lunch of khichdi, or for help with strapping on his school bag. And then suddenly I was asked to teach Maths to the higher classes, and lost contact with Tanaji. His new teacher would talk about him once in a while, but her tone was usually one of complaint and frustration. She would also call his parents, and complain to them about him. But his mother had no idea what to do – all she could manage was to listen, and then drop him to school again the next day. After some two years, his new teacher was transferred, and I found myself back in my role as class teacher for the bright but neglected class in which Tanaji studied. Although I was initially dismayed by the signs of neglect, and a little guilty, the playfulness and curiosity of these children soon made me part of their innocent world.
Their constant chatter, their energy and enthusiasm for most school activities, and their readiness to do anything just because I had asked them to, touched my heart. And I resolved that one day I would make this into a classroom of toppers, all “first class” achievers! In this way, I resumed my efforts with Tanaji as well.
The next time his mother arrived for a parent-teacher meeting, she came prepared to hear more complaints about Tanaji. She began by telling me that she was aware that he was stupid and senseless. She tearfully begged me to let him just sit in class.
I stopped her right there and told her that the first thing she needed to do was to stop thinking of him as stupid. I explained to her that each child is capable of learning, and that each has their own pace of learning. I reassured her that I would be looking after his studies, and she was not to worry. She grew calmer.
Now I had to keep my word, and started working with Tanaji with renewed enthusiasm. Like a bud waiting for sunrays to caress its petals and open it into a flower, Tanaji’s mind was also waiting for some stimulation. I noticed him taking an interest in the poetry recitals, songs, dance and other such activities that took place routinely in class. I began to observe the shine in his eyes as these enticing activities, and the knowledge they carried, lit him up from within. Gradually, he began to change.
He started watching and listening keenly. I would see him smiling. He would make drawings in his notebook and show them to me, and actually began to ask for homework. While playing, he would sometime end up in the wrong place, and start crying because he couldn’t find his school bag. At such times, I was always summoned and made to look for it.
Six months passed, and Tanaji, who used to sit away from everyone in a corner by himself, actually started participating in class activities. Especially when poems like ‘Por dongravar bhalali’ (children attracted towards mountain) and ‘je deshasathi ladhle’ (‘Those who fought for the country’) were recited, he would start to move about and dance. And the Tanaji I saw after the Diwali holidays was a different person altogether.
One day, he brought me the Marathi language textbook and asked me to teach him the poems. As I read ‘Ranvedi’ to him, he chanted aloud the last word of each line, jumping with excitement. My joy knew no bounds. This progress infused the both of us with a new-found enthusiasm. I felt like a mother bird watching her baby fluttering its wings for the first time and learning to fly. Protective, but proud. He could sense my happiness, and that made him very happy as well.
The next thing that had me pleasantly surprised was his reading of the picture-word cards. He could read most names, and would also try to give information about the things on the cards. Now his classmates also started taking an interest in him. They would chat with him, attempt to make sense of his unclear speech, and also to teach him.
By now, Tanaji had opened up quite a bit. He loved to be around me and do little chores for me. He would bring me my purse and hanky, and tell me things about his family. He would wait for me to arrive, and run towards me as soon as I entered school. He began asking me things like, ‘Madam, is that a new purse?’ or ‘Are you wearing flowers?’ He would tell me, ‘My mother also has a saree like yours!’ or ‘We have a new cow at home!’ He found all sorts of things to talk about to me.
Our Tanaji is getting better at his studies, day by day. He can count up to 10. He can match words and letters. He now actively participates in class activities. Wiping the blackboard clean, and taking out and arranging the study materials, are among his favourite activities. He really enjoys the the basic reading sessions, and his reading speed has increased by a surprising extent.
Although he still can’t write properly, he recognises words. Once I read out the (Marathi) word “water”, and he immediately responded, ‘I fill water from the tap.’ One time, when I was talking about the letter ‘S’, one of the students said, ‘S for “savkar” Tanaji picked up on that and said, ‘We get milk from Savkar baba.’ It makes me very happy when he expresses himself in this way.
He constantly scribbles in his notebook. At first glance one might see nothing in particular, but a closer look reveals words that relate to his home and environment hidden between the squiggly lines and circles. Experience has repeatedly shown that, given an encouraging and nurturing environment, children with learning disabilities can learn, and also become better able to cope with day-to-day living.
I truly hope that we teachers collectively find the capacity to bring light into the lives of the many other children like Tanaji, who are waiting in darkness. While attempting to scale the walls of the fortress alongside Tanaji, there were times when I felt I would slip and fall… but not anymore. I can already see the destination, and feel the joy that comes when you help someone find their feet. And I am reminded of this lovely prayer:
‘Show the path to the lost, be their guide,
Befriend those who have lost everything,
Make my wings stronger, give me the sky to fly,
And forever let me follow what’s true and good’
Writer: Rohini Vidyasagar, Z P Centre Primary School, Kumbhephal, Aurangabad District.
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team