One Hundred Thirty Fingernails

One hundred and thirty fingernails… that’s how many I cut in a week.  Every other week I also trim 130 toe nails.  Once a day I also check to make sure fingernails are clean.

I was in medical school a long time ago.  It was rare for women doctors to talk about their children except in whispered tones.  Women doctors weren’t supposed to have children.  We weren’t even supposed to be doctors.  Many of the educational institutions were still influenced by Western European beliefs that we lacked the courage to be doctors, and that our brains were too weak.  Then, if we did have children, our mental activity would sap strength from our ovaries and thus we wouldn’t be able to reproduce well.  We were also told that we were taking the place of a man in medicine, so any time we might spend with our children represented society’s lost investment in our education.  We were symbols of change; we were also just young women trying to find our way, most of us wanting family and profession.

An older woman doctor advised us, "Have your children early when you are busy with training.  They don’t need you then.  Anyone can do those animal things."

So I think of that sometimes, as I am cutting nails, doing those "animal things" — and that I am happy doing those things.  The animal/mother part of me just likes it; it feels good.  It makes me feel grounded, useful, connected to all the children’s fingernails that have been in the past, and all that will come…. my stint on earth. 

As I write, it is a Saturday afternoon, and the children are in class upstairs.  Three of the handicapped children sit in with the others, seeming to understand though they can’t speak.

I struggle with the language of what to call the handicapped and the non-handicapped.  Because now that I am mother to handicapped, I have trouble differentiating the groups as handicapped and "normal."  What do you mean, that my handicapped children are not normal?  The opposite of normal is abnormal.  And my children are NOT abnormal!  They just can’t do what other kids can do, but they aren’t abnormal; they aren’t weird!  Fortunately in our situation there is an age difference, the older and younger.  So we refer to the two groups as "boro baccha" (big children) and "choto baccha" (small children) just like Boro Ma and Choto Ma.  The terms are descriptive, not pejorative.  Choto bacchas need to have their food mashed so they can swallow.  Boro bacchas eat their food un-mashed.  Choto bacchas get fish every day because they are weaker.  And their finger nails are smaller. 

As I go on writing today, the children come from class.  They crowd around, talk about the rest of the day and tomorrow.  They ask if the dance teacher will come (yes), and if they will visit Seema Aunty tomorrow (yes).  Then they wander into the big room playing Ludo, showing pictures to the choto bacchas.  The choto bacchas have an afternoon/evening teacher, and she is with them too… just a play time for 13 children, four staff, and as usual Choto Ma taking part in their games, teaching about sharing, about fairness, about counting the dots on dice and moving pieces along the board, and not cheating.  The girls ask to play carrom and set up the board.  They are missing a red disk, so I take a white one and color it with red crayon.  They are happy.

Two girls are being punished for the weekend.  They are standing in the corners, not allowed to participate in games or watch TV.  They were extremely rude and arrogant to the teachers yesterday, so they lost privileges.  A weekend of punishment is a long time, longer than usual.  I hope we can affect their behavior.  We will keep trying.  We have to.  One of the girls complained that the teacher didn’t help her as much as she helped others.  I said, "This is life.  When you are nasty, people don’t like to help you as much."  Our teachers try very hard, all the time.  They get fed up sometimes. This is life.  Our children need to understand this, as we all do.

I’ve put a dance DVD on the TV.  We don’t have outside TV at all, just VCDs and DVDs.  I have a huge library of Bengali and English discs.  I’ve been collecting these for years.  I also have a lot of nursery discs in Bengali and in English.  Everything is about education and culture, directly or indirectly.  And, of course, there are lots of animal stories, animal sounds, letters and animals, numbers and animals.  Our children love animals.

New Bonding

I had one serious worry about opening the orphanage.  How would i get them to sleep at night?  That really was a symbolic question, because it was about how we would discipline children who had already been beaten, abused, and hardened.  I also got mad at myself for worrying about this…  Some weeks after they came I stopped thinking that was an odd worry.  How DO you discipline children who have already had everything done to them, and who still are not compliant and ready to relinquish all the behaviors that allowed them to survive.

What a range of antics we have all participated in as they battled to cross boundaries and i battled to keep them contained.

On the first night I told them all to be quiet, and they GIGGLED!  This I had not anticipated!  They laughed at me.  They thought I was funny.  It made me double over laughing and they laughed some more.  What do you DO with a room full of giggling girls?  Eventually we all went to sleep.

The battle over vegetables:  Hand feeding of children, even older ones, is part of parenting here.  Most of the girls refused vegetables on principle.  it must be a worldwide phobia, because once confronted, most of them came to love vegetables.  But principle is principle, and this was a testing ground.  I would go around and "catch" whoever was trying to give hers away, or hiding it under the rice, or just being defiant.  One of the girls got desperate and she crawled under the beds to get away.  So, I crawled after her, with my sari sweeping up the floor, under one bed after another as they were all lined up.  And then I poked my head out just where she was.  Yes, everyone was laughing.. kids, Gibi, staff… but she ate her vegetables.

We have a range of "punishments" including restricting tv, games, time out, keeping out of dance class, or not letting them visit other homes.  Actually they dare us to hit them… trying to see if they can push us past our own controls.  They constantly threaten teachers and staff that they will say they were beaten.  But the two times it actually happened, they didn’t tell us because they were protecting the teachers. 

I am the only one they really listen to.  I punish them for not listening to others, but I’m really the only authority they recognize.  I have even pleaded with them to just be bad with me since others get so upset…

Hitting/beating is the big no-no.  I have fired two teachers for grabbing a child so hard her mouth bled.  When one of our girls drew blood in a fight, I had her head shaved. 

Head shaving… and thus the title of this post… A few of the girls have now had their heads shaved for serious offenses.  it’s had a range of good effects, and one unexpected one.  They have become closer to me.  My hair is very thin, a result of chemotherapy eight years ago.  It never really grew back well, and the medicine I continue to take continues to take its toll on my hair.  So, in a rare bit of vanity, I put special "hair growing" oil on my head — when I remember.  The oil was sitting on my table and the girls picked it up and asked about it.  I said it was for growing hair, and offered to put some on their scalps.  Of course they loved it.  And they hugged me, and now every morning before school the punished girls line up for their hair-growing oil.  They have also seen a photo of when I had a bald head, so we are another kind of group, another form of bonding, and a mothering activity each morning that draws us closer.

Ganga Turns a Page

Ganga turned a page today, literally.  We have been unable to find anything that motivates her enough to struggle to use her hands and arms.  She is quite willing to have us move her fingers to a button she presses to make a light go on, or to turn on the music from a toy.  But her heart isn’t in it.   In my head I imagine her whispering to me, "Mom, this is so stupid!"

About a month ago a special ed teacher started. I watched as she tried to get Ganga to hold a spoon to feed a doll.  I thought to myself, "Ganga doesn’t care about feeding a doll."  Actually she doesn’t care about feeding herself.  She lacks the "I’ll do it myself" drive. 

Ganga loves serious Bengali movies and Charlie Chaplin.  She hates Barney.  Last week I took her with me in the car for some errands.  She was fascinated by the vehicles, which I named for her, gharie (car), bus, taxi, lorry (truck).  At a traffic stop a hawker came by carrying balloons and toys with whirling lights, but she paid no attention to him.  She is too serious for toys.  She cries when we put on Barney for the other little ones.  But she has to learn to share too.

This morning I brought her to my office area in her chair, and I showed her a big picture book of India, and she was totally engrossed.  She reached out to touch the pictures.  She tried to stroke Buddha’s face!  We went through the whole book, page by page, and then I just left it open in front of her, hoping now to get a few moments at the computer.  Then I saw Ganga struggle and struggle to get her fingers to grasp and turn the page of the book.  On the fourth try the page turned.  It was a beginning.

I know a young woman who competes in wheelchair racing internationally.  She said to me once that her mother made her work at what she wanted, and she is grateful for that.  But I also know her drive, what pushed her, and still pushes her to overcome obstacles.

When Ganga first came to us she could not hold her head up.  We had to support her as you do with a newborn.  Both her arms just hung down, with no tone, no finger grasp.  I used to wonder if she even KNEW that she had arms and hands.  Then one evening we had the barber come to trim hair.  Ganga hated this!  While I tried to hold her still she screamed and flung her arms! I cheered for her!  Ganga found her arms.  Today she found a reason to use them, aside from fighting off barbers.

It all happens in small steps, but the processes are really the same for each of us.  We fight harder against obstacles when we care the most.  Sometimes we find strength we didn’t even know we had… like Ganga’s arms and hands, and now her reason to use them.

Boot Camp

Teacher’s Day, 5 September 2007 — We are guests at the school.  Children offer flowers and cards to their teachers.  Some recite poems; one little girl dances and sings.   She becomes lost in her sound and movement, and finally must be reminded to end.  Everyone laughs, but it is kind laughter.  Our girls perform twice, dancing with flair, still clearly beginners. 

For Teacher’s Day there is a handwriting contest for Class I and an art contest for Class IV.  One of our girls takes first place, and another third in the handwriting contest.  I am so proud of them. To me this is better than a thousand fine dances! 

Boot camp was the model in my mind, no time to feel sorry or "make up" for what they had lost.  They HAD to become literate, and it had to happen quickly as the school year was starting in only two months.   So boot camp it was… four hours of class in the morning and then three hours in the afternoon.  Three evenings a week they also had classical dance. I hired teachers and college students as the girls had no idea of what studying meant.  They had to be taught one on one.

Some people thought i was being too hard on the girls, expecting too much, not giving them any choices (how many of us really give our children a "choice" as to whether they want to learn?).  So i wrote on the blackboard one day, in big letters, "CANCER."  You don’t ask a child with cancer if they want chemotherapy.  For these children, illiteracy is a cancer.

I had another reason too for keeping this grueling pace.  What else was I to do with these girls?  We didn’t share language; in the absence of structure they bickered and whined. it’s not as if i could tell them to go read a book!

One day when they were all being particularly moody and difficult in class I had a talk with them — through Gibi of course.  I waved my arms a lot and jumped around to make my points.  I told them, "Before you came to the government home and then to us, your lives were very difficult and a lot of bad things happened.  But also, you mostly could do what you wanted.  If you didn’t like one train you hopped on another.  if you didn’t like one station you went to another.  No one told you when to sleep, or eat, or what to do."  Then waving my arms even more, I said, "But now you are on a train you can’t get off!!  And, you have to sit in the seats!!!!!" I paused, and stared intensely at each one of them, "No one is getting off this train, and this train is going to education and jobs and a better life.  You are STUCK!" 

it hasn’t been easy and still isn’t always easy.  Some teachers have not lasted.  Others have put all their energy into the effort, which is why the children can read.  In the beginning I did some of teaching of Bengali. I know the alphabet; I can count to ten and do simple math, but the kids have now totally surpassed me. The girls and i struggle to communicate with my limited Bengali and their beginning of English.  And when we get stuck we just say, "Babababababababa" which means just that… and shrug.  Or we hunt for Choto Ma or Bijoy to help us out.

As I write today, on a relaxed Sunday afternoon, the girls are watching a Bengali DVD of Thakurma Jolie, who recites children’s tales of talking animals and witches and people good and bad.   These days the girls DO come looking for books to read. They share coloring books and crayons.  They work on puzzles.  As i write two girls are helping to squeeze oranges for juice for the little ones.  Two are sitting on the floor next to my laptop, practicing handwriting.  Boot camp is over.

September 2007
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