Naina Joseph has been teaching for the past 13 years. She teaches English Language and Literature. She has a keen ear for music. She particularly likes Hindustani classical and popular western music. She also likes listening to AR Rahman and Kailash Kher mostly because of the strong Sufi influence in their music. Reading is another interest. She eagerly awaits every new Amitav Ghosh book. She loves her small garden and has a fondness for flowering plants of all kinds. Terracotta pots of all shapes and sizes fill every nook and corner of her garden. Spending a day pottering around in the garden or just admiring the flowers is how she likes to spend her day off from work.
When I first saw Aarushi, she must have been all of five. She was tiptoeing down the corridor in school; I assumed the little ones were playing a game of hide and seek. It did not take me long to find out that Aarushi had come to us with a problem. She walked on tiptoe all the time; she was born 10 weeks premature and was suffering from mild cerebral palsy due to her early birth. Her feet did not rest on the ground except at the tips of her toes. After the first few enquiring glances, Aarushi was relegated to the back of my mind. I taught the older children and I didn’t have much to do with the younger ones. At times I saw her walking down the aisles in a kind of contorted dance with her hands flailing for balance and I marvelled at her grace and agility in spite of the evident discomfort. There were other times when I looked with unseeing eyes unaffected by her difficulty and her courage in overcoming it.
I did not realize that Aarushi had grown up to be a pretty girl about to turn 13 until I saw her sitting in my class, looking at me with her trusting eyes as I tried to explain simile and metaphor to the new class VIII. Once again I saw the convoluted dance down the corridor but this time she became an all pervading presence, not just because I now taught her, but because she walked past the staff room often and because she reached out for a hug at times and a hand shake when she was not in the mood to show her affection. Aarushi now became a part of my existence in the school. Her melodious voice was heard in the assembly when she volunteered to sing. Her work came in promptly with the help of an encouraging family.
It was with surprise that I noted that she had a twin brother, Anshuman, who had borne a fair share of problems brought on by the same early birth but had blended into the crowd at school because he had no visible physical difficulty. I found out later that he was on steroids for many of his early years and now had severe asthma due to his under-developed palette. Anshuman spoke little, sat alone, and played football in the breaks like everyone else. He struggled to cope with written work and seldom spoke about his difficulties. His eyes lit up when he spoke of his sister. He hovered around her and was always present to protect her if the need arose. When they were ready to move to class IX, the teachers and their parents had to take the difficult decision of separating the twins into two different sections. We had begun to feel that Anshuman was somehow not making the strides he should because he had not let himself grow beyond his role of Aarushi’s self-appointed guardian. She would also do well if she learned to fend for herself, it was felt. The parents had done a wonderful job of bringing up the twins. They had been calm and accepting, they had not taught the children to wallow in self-pity, they did not hesitate to discuss matters with their children and tried hard to supply all that the twins lacked in school. I had no inkling of just how much they lacked.
It was only when they were separated that I began to see things in a new light. I found out that the whole of class IX was insensitive to the twins’ existence. The same bunch of children that cared for their classmates Abdullah and Poojitha (one with severe visual difficulties and one with a hearing impairment) seemed oblivious to Aarushi and Anshuman. Abdullah who had to read with his nose to the book was the class topper and had the admiration of teachers and students alike. Poojitha was blessed with social grace and a friendliness that was difficult to ignore. She was charming, witty, and fashionable; girls and boys alike seemed to be fond of her. On the other hand, Anshuman managed to fit in because football was the great leveller or so it seemed. Once the game was over Anshuman was left to his own devices. In the other section, separated from his twin I found he had no one to talk to. Aarushi, on the other hand, was teased or shunned depending on the mood of the class.
I was faced with a problem I wanted to help resolve. A colleague gently suggested that I do a project in my Language class that would make the children think about their own insensitivity. I started off by speaking to the twins’ mother. I asked her if the twins would be able to take it if I spoke openly about matters that needed to be dealt with in class. The mother was delighted that I had decided to take the issue head on. She said her children were well aware of their limitations; they were hurt and anguished by the other children’s behaviour but were coping with as much dignity as was possible in the face of such indifference. She would prepare them for it. I found in my scrapbook a cutting I had saved from The Hindu* on socially inclusive schools, based on the RTE. I decided to use this as a point to take off from. The children read the article on including under-privileged children in private schools. They studied and analyzed the article inside out for a comprehension and précis writing exercise. We then moved on to airing our own views and opinions on whether such classrooms would be feasible. The children came up with wonderful ideas and suggestions on how to include children of all income groups. Soon the discussion began to veer towards including children with special needs. The discussion grew more intense, suggestions and plans flew thick and fast, arguments grew heated and passions rose. At this point the teacher (ever the spoilsport I daresay) asked whether they had put any of these suggestions into action. A sombre silence descended upon the classroom. The children were now tongue-tied and sheepish. I could see the thoughts churning in their minds. I asked if they would like to pen their thoughts down. To make it easy for them I suggested they write about a person they knew who had special needs and to write about what they had done as individuals to help that person fit into their so-called normal school.
The results were deeply moving. There were children who chose to write about Abdullah whom they admired. There were those who decided that Poojitha would be the subject of their essay. But the majority confronted their relationship with Aarushi and Anshuman. Some admitted to bullying Aarushi; others spoke of ostracizing Anshuman. Almost all agreed that they had been insensitive and hurtful. They were also eager to hear what the others had said. They wanted to know what Abdullah, Poojitha, Anshuman, and Aarushi had said about their own feelings. They clapped when I read out Abdullah’s humble essay about his desire to become a marine biologist and the best student ever. They smiled wistfully and were proud that they had made Poojitha happy by being her friends. They understood when Anshuman, always the introvert, refused to share his feelings. It was only on hearing what Aarushi had to say that some broke down and cried.
Aarushi explained her medical problems. She spoke of things that had hurt her and left her scarred. She told them how much she longed to be their friend. She spoke of reaching out and being shunned. She spoke of anguished loneliness and despair. She said again that all she wanted was to be their friend. The exercise was over. Would something give? Would there be a change or was this going to be in vain I wondered. I shed quiet tears when I saw many in the class hug Aarushi and thump Anshuman on the back. I do not know if things have changed forever, I am unaware if the friendliness and sensitivity will last but when I look at the innocence of the children I teach, I sincerely believe it will.
Before sending this article, I reached out to the parents to get their consent. They asked me to put their twins’ real names. Aarushi recently underwent a major surgery on both her legs to give her some normalcy, it is hoped that after about eight months of recovery, she will have an improved gait. Anshuman is preparing to take the Board exams against all odds. Aarushi, will have to wait a little longer for that. Both may opt for Open School exams. Their parents named the piece ‘Realizations’. They said they feel encouraged and said they were grateful that ‘towards the end at least there was a beginning’.
*The article I used for the classroom exercise was called, ‘In pursuit of socially mixed schools’. It was written by Manabi Majumdar and Joe Mooji. It appeared in The Hindu of 5 May 2012.