If we give the best to the worst….. how will it be?

What if I take the child I most worry about, the one with the worst prognosis, and give her the best available?  One girl worried me the most. In a year and a half she has not learned any alphabet, numbers, colors, etc.  She has learned to manage and control a pencil and can now do beautiful handwriting, but has no idea what it is.  She has learned to draw.  She is a very good dancer; she can sing and act.  But she is also naive and trusting and would easily follow a stranger anywhere.  She has no sense of danger.  She has limited impulse control… and more.  It's not that anything she does is terrible, but it's hard to imagine her being independent in any way, or even socialized to manage in a combined family marriage.  She is a caretaker by nature — but she can be very stubborn.  The usual track for such a girl is to put her into "vocational training" either in sewing (she puts her clothes on inside out half the time) or beautician — a quick path to prostitution for the vulnerable.

She was in school with the others but couldn't keep up.  So she was moved to nursery in the hope she would learn as she "helped" the teacher. But she was restless and the school never knew where she was or what she was doing.  On paper she is nine years old but is probably about 12.  I moved her out of our classes and had her assisting our special educator with the little ones.  One day the teacher told her to write her name ten times.  She refused, and said, "If you make me do this I will cry and then Mummy will fire you."

There were times I really wished she were not here, that she had not been among the others — which of course made me feel guilty but also forced me to confront the problem of what to do. I asked myself what I would have done if she had been mine by birth or adoption.  In a snap, even a normal child can have a head injury, lose knowledge, memory, lose impulse control…. Yes, I could have been faced with raising such a child, and now I was.


Then last week I saw a news story about a special school for mentally disabled children.  It had a big focus on dance, music, theater — social adjustment –and rehabilitation.  It looked like a place full of resources, and I assumed it would be very expensive.  Like an epiphany, I suddenly thought, "what if I take my most worriesome child and give her the best?"  This looked like a place I'd send my "own" to.  I went on line and found more info, and called the number given, which turned out to be the founder.  The school is 20 years old.  We had a good conversation and he said to visit this week. 


Yesterday I took my trouble child to visit the school.  She was such a perfect young lady.  I was so proud.  She wants so much to go to school.  The others want her to go too.  There was a happy send-off when we left for the interview, with our teacher telling her to make sure she answered everything right.  In the car I assured her that this wasn't a school where you had to answer right and there were other children who had trouble learning.  And this is exactly what it is!  This was the first time I'd heard the term dyslexia here.  These are educators.  They know the territory.  They work with a variety of problems, autism, retardation… more.. but they speak the language of education in its broadest sense. 

The day was also a chance to see how much she has changed in a year.  She was so sweet and graceful.  She clearly was the better functioning of the children, but reached out to each one.  She is used to children with handicaps.  In one class we visited, she drew a fish, and then a flower.  In another class a girl was trying to write letters of the alphabet — kaw, the one letter she knows.  The school has a physiotherapy room, with treadmill, trampoline, stat. bicycle, which she sat on — and I took a picture.  Back home at rest time she sat with a circle of the others around her, telling about the school. 


This child could never have made it through the day, the interview, the visit, without the intense teaching and guidance she has received from one of our teachers.  Helping, socializing this child has been a mission on the part of a teacher who sees good in everyone but knows it takes some doing at times to get there, to get them to that good, to be able to see that good.  She has taught the girls meditation, and yoga, and also sitting up straight in class, keeping hands on desk, asking to leave or enter the class — she is strict about handwriting.  These are all reasons I am happy to have her here.  At times the girls didn't like her, her discipline, strictness.  I told them this was life — that some teachers you like and some you don't — but you have to do the work.  They also threatened her that I'd fire her, which they have tried with everyone (it's never happened).  But I set up a system so that every time a girl complained about a teacher, the teacher got a ten rupee bonus.  

The major obstacle to this school is the distance, but having decided it was what I wanted for her, I looked for solutions.  For now actually, this teacher will take her every morning by public transportation.  This will be a chance for more learning, for learning how to behave on buses, how to cross streets, how to deal with peeking eyes and wandering hands.  Most important it will be a chance for talk about the past, about the change in her life from being on the street watching buses and autos to being on the bus, riding in the auto.  "What does she think about when she sees a child on the street, or a mother and child on the sidewalk, or beggars reaching in the windows?"


Shishur Sevay is about learning, about learning by the children, learning by us — I think about this girl.  How many people walked past her and did not see her, did not help her?  She doesn't remember where she is from or the names of her family.  Now she has us, and this is the question:  What happens if we give the best to the child who is the worst?   We will learn.  But it's not just about outcome.  Everyone here is excited!  Everyone is filled with hope because we are not abandoning or giving up on the child who is so difficult.  "Mummy is sending her to a good school!!!!"  Shishur Sevay is also about hope, which at times can be contagious.




“Mummy, We want to have a meeting.”

"Mummy, We want to have a meeting."  It was about seven last evening.  I was at the computer, several girls were doing homework in the room, on the couch, the floor… They whispered and I tried to find out what was going on.  They kept looking at one another, and then our oldest said quite determinedly, "Mummy, we want to have a meeting." 

"All of you?" I asked.  This was a first and I really was clueless, but I did know something important was happening.   The girls called the others, and then we all sat on the floor, eight girls and me.  I wished I could have gotten a picture.

Our oldest, Mother India, spoke for them all.  They had been afraid to tell me, but she convinced them we could all talk.  The gist is that a few of them have talked with the boy who lives in the house behind us.  I've written before about "Romeo" as I call him, because at one time staff was very upset that he watched them play in the garden, and there was an attempt to keep the girls inside all the time.  I had made light of it all, even putting on our picture wall a snapshot of him peeking out his window.  One afternoon last week he was blasting rock music when I was in the garden.  I called for him to turn it down, which he did right away.  This could have been anywhere in the world, except that in the US the music might have been turned higher in spite.

He has chatted with the girls, and they with him, and with his mother.  The boy and the mother both said our home is nice, that their mother (me)is good.  The girls said the boy was nice and he wanted them to refer to him as Dada, the term for brother.

I put them at ease immediately, telling them how happy I was that they came to me, and then telling them I thought they had done very well.  They want to call him Dada — so fine.  I told them what would worry me…. if he used bad language, if he tried to get them to come outside the gate, and if he tried to touch them.  Until their incarceration in the government orphanage they had always lived also among boys and men.  I want them to be safe, and the best way is to give them skills, not isolate them behind walls.  We also talked about politeness, being friendly to neighbors, all of which is part of the culture in which they grew up…

We used to need a translator, but we are really fine on our own now.  Reasons for past meetings?  The first I recall was to dispel fears that I would die and leave them having to beg.  They didn't come to this on their own, but they heard all sorts of predictions about my leaving, everything from cancer to my deciding to leave.  So I took care first of the practical and explained about Wills and that there would be money to take care of them.  Then I told them there was no reason to worry, that my health was fine, and that I was here because I love them. 

I told again the story of my walking along a street in NY and hearing them call to me for help and how I'd said, "OK, I'm coming to find you!"  I tell them about selling my house and coming to Kolkata and telling the government I was looking for my girls, and then standing outside the institution and waving to girls behind the grilles, and waiting and waiting, and going to the government over and over, and praying to Kali and Sarmu to bring my children home…. and then their coming home to Shishur Sevay.  They love the story, a piece of their histories, a thread of empowerment, that they called to me and I came to find them.


Another meeting was for us all to talk about one of the girls who was disruptive, took things from others, and fought.  We worked out a plan, with her participation, and it worked for a while…. then we had another meeting…. and now things are quiet.  When I run out of ideas I ask them for help.

Teaching discipline, and self discipline are major priorities, but I also recognize that most of the girls were in charge of their lives, and that of their siblings at times.  So I respect their sense of autonomy while insisting they learn self control and restraint.  It's all about "attending to them" in the various forms they present — much of it about cutting nails, helping with homework, admiring art work, watching them dance, settling disputes — which is easy because I rarely understand so I just say babababa and send them away. 


Bababa is a very important word here.  It's what I use to describe what goes on in their minds when they are angry, out of control, can't study, are "bad." They tell me about their bababa.  When my kids from the US visited and some of the tension spilled out at Shishur Sevay, I just told the girls we were having bababa.  I told them everyone has bababa, and we have to learn what to do with it, how to manage it.


Walking to school a few days ago one of the girls told me about her bababa.  She had been failing all her math work.  I asked about whether she had bababa in her head and learned that she was feeling terrible about her looks, her dark skin, her eyes… so we talked about skin color, and prejudice, and stupidity, and how others try to hurt people…. Some bad stuff had been going on among the girls.  But also, a month ago when we went to visit a temple, some beggars there were pointing her out and talking about how dark she is.


When we got to school SeemaDi took my hand and showed her, brown and white, two hands, friends… and I reminded her of her two older didis, brown and white, sisters — they love each other.


Truth?  She has not gotten a wrong math answer since!!!!!  I wish it were always so simple….  Her teacher is amazed… thinks she was holding back.  But no, it was bababa in her head.  That's the psychiatrist part of me here, as well as mother — knowing a lot about bababa in your head and how it can intercept good thinking and good work.  I know.  It's part of what I love about being here with these children.  I want this to be a bababa-free-zone.

September 2008
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