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.

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September 2007
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