At School: Deer Caught in the Headlights*

“Deer in the Headlights.”  That’s how I think of the girls in school.  They are having a very hard time, in academics, and socially.  Academically they have switched to English, so it will take them time to catch up.  But I think even more, they are just terrified.  No one has misbehaved, even in the face of insults from teachers.  We have had tears, appropriate to the situations.

The educational world here is a cruel one, where too often teachers take out their anger, hate, frustrations, on the children.  In spite of national laws, hitting by teachers continues.  So does making them stand in positions of humiliation.  Our girls have not been beaten or made to hold their ears while squatting 50 times.  But they have been asked if they eat grass from the field, and they have been asked if our Shishur Sevay teachers were found on the road.  This was asked of them by a teacher we had already nicknamed “Donkey-Sir” as he calls all the kids Donkeys. Back at home we all had a good laugh because everyone comes from the road, no helicopters here, no flying elephants… just broken bumpy roads.

This is a private school, founded on high principles, but it all comes down to the teachers, like childcare comes down to who is actually taking care of the children.  “The devil is in the details.”  I’m writing because I’m at a crossroads again about their education.  I’m continually evaluating what is working, what isn’t, what needs to change, including in my own perspective.  The cultural differences and behaviors in education are far more alien to me than any other aspects of life here.  I just figured out that I have been a school parent for some 40 years now!  Over those years, I don’t think I ever felt demeaned by teachers or school officials.  I had disagreements along the way, many, but it always felt like we were on the same level, even when I was told that the school knew better than I did what my daughters needed.   I’m struggling as I write this because there have been exceptions, but that’s what they have been.  And there have been some good teachers along the way.  There have also been some “nice” teachers who unfortunately held the girls to such low standards, they are still behind.   But now that I’ve made my DISCLAIMER, that I’m not talking about ALL schools, let me tell you what it’s been like.  I need to.  Warning: this may be long. I’ve not done well with schools.

Special Education:  The first school where I sent our kids was one I had funded several years before in a program to help the orphans with disability who were “left over” when IMH closed.  Feeling some sense of responsibility for these children none of us took, I paid for their evaluations and the building of appropriate chairs and other furniture for them, and for training of staff as to how better to care for them.  So, when I came back a few years later, having founded Shishur Sevay, I expected to be treated as another professional, not “just a parent.”  We were off to a bad start when I sang, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap you hands…” to another crying child in the room.

I tried another school for kids with disabilities.    They wanted a special letter from the Director of Social Welfare giving them permission to take the four little ones.   We did last three weeks.  At that school the children were not given water for the four hours they were there.  We would pick them up and they would, all four, be thrusting out their tongues for water.  The bottle we sent with them was not used.  The Principal said, “we will look into it,” but nothing changed.  On the first day we had gone to pick them up and they were stuck to the chairs, which had been painted but not dried.  We had to peel them off the chairs, which meant they had not been moved in four hours.  (The school offered to pay for new uniforms for them.) But it was really the water that was the clincher, and my wondering, “What kind of people deny water to children who can’t speak or walk?”  I just didn’t want the kids with people like that.

Well, back to my older girls, the ones with the headlights in their eyes, I need to shift my assessment from, they WON’T study to they CAN’T study.  I’ve had some outside teachers, friends recently who have really helped me figuring this out.   The girls are smart, but what they know is not making it to the tests.  Some of it is just learning English, some is a wall of protection that keeps them from trying.   If I imagine a headlight in my eyes, then parts of speech or lowest common denominator are pretty irrelevant.  Yesterday I was looking at a test on of the girls took.  It was about a story her class had read in school.  The test was a series of questions and answers.  The questions were from the back of the chapter and the answers had been dictated by the teacher.  For the test she had to be able to write the answers word for word.  Her spelling was not good.  She didn’t do them all.  But even if she had, the question remained in my mind, “So what?”   Was she learning comprehension?  She didn’t even have to find the answers to the questions herself.  Back in their first school, the government school, teachers read out answers to the standardized tests.  We used to call that teacher “Answer-Aunty.”  In the next school we had “Caste-Aunty” the one who asked them their religion and Caste in order to place them in the Houses.  Last, I can’t resist adding “Gold-Aunty” who this year complained that I had not sent enough costume jewelry for the dance.  I had however sent enough saris for all the girls in the dance, as we had extras.  It wears me down.  I’m sure it wears the girls down.

I want them to be educated, to be able to think and write and express themselves.  But I also want them to have the necessary certificates to go on into academic or vocational fields.  The workload makes that near impossible.  I’m looking now at the National Institute for Open Schools, a government initiative for older students, with a board exam at Classes X and XII similar to other State and National Boards.  I had tried to do that earlier for one of the girls, but the lower grade program was run out of the same school where I’d withdrawn the children with disabilities, and they turned us away.  That’s what I mean, the vengeance… I don’t get it.

Why re-thinking now?  There is always a reason. For one of the girls we have been able to make contact with her relatives and we will be going to see them.  For privacy I’ll leave it at that.  You see, if she imagines she might be able to go back to her village, then when she is insulted at school she thinks, “I don’t have to take this.  I’d rather live in my village.”  When she told me this, I immediately thought of the others, and whether they take the abuse out of a sense of no choice.  That’s not OK either, not for any of them.  These discussions have brought us all closer.

I’ve looked at the times I’ve been grumpy with the girls and decided to cease and desist, immediately, and I did.  Last weekend we had a really relaxed time with some TV, some cooking, some hanging out, some studying.  I think after Rosalind Forber-Pratt’s visit and her work with the girls, I’m not so worried about them.  I have a better understanding of what keeps them from using their thinking abilities.  Also now that it’s all in English, I have an idea about what is going on, and no one is able to shut me out of their studies.

Well, I just stopped writing to check on how they were doing.  They all seemed really happy doing their work, talking with each other….  It’s REALLY hard being a mother.  You know, here in West Bengal, at exam time the mothers all go to the temple to pray for their children.  The children are happy to have their parents out of the house so they can watch some TV.  I know all about keeping one’s distance, equilibrium, all the theory.  But mothering is being in it with them, and at the same time trying to keep your periscope up so you can see the bigger picture and change course when necessary.

Mother with periscope.

p.s.  Ganga can dance now in a harness made for her.  Here is a video of her first try.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96I9HfpI7F4&feature=youtu.be    I sent a picture to the school and asked if she could dance with the others in the Independence Day Ceremonies, but they said no.  They said she could sing with the group, but she hates that because she just sits there in her wheelchair unable to make sounds come out of her mouth.  I’m upset.  Down periscope and I tell her the world is a tough place.  Up periscope and the seas look rough, the sun hiding behind gray clouds.  Down periscope and the kids are happy and the house is bright and pretty and full of good sounds.

*The term “Deer caught in the headlights” refers to the situation when a deer is crossing a road and a car is coming, and the sudden headlights cause the deer to freeze, unable to run.  It’s also been used as a method of hunting animals, shining a light in their eyes and when they freeze, to shoot them.

Ongoing Challenges in Learning

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I’m so behind in blogging, and I miss it.  I’ve been teaching the girls a lot.  Rather, I’ve been teaching them how to study.   We are making new starts, with English as their language of study.    We made this change from Bengali for many reasons.  One is that I was never able in five years to find anyone to take over the responsibility of managing their course work, homework, tests, study methods, etc.  And coming from the US, I had zero credibility with the Bengali teachers I hired.  As the girls get older, some of the fundamental weaknesses show up.

We have a strong teaching staff for the big girls now especially with Dr. Purba Rudra joining us, and with Maggie.   I hired a young man to be my assistant, Sudipendu Dutta as he has experience in admin.  But he turns out to be an incredible teacher also, so I get less help, but our teaching is stronger.  The part I bring is really more about how to study, how to learn, how to help each person learn her own way to get the information into her brain so she can use it, recall it, think about it.  In the pictures above the girls had put together lists of words they didn’t know, and then I had them put them on flash cards, different colors for each girl.  Then they alphabetized them.  It was just a way of getting them to actually examine the  words, letter by letter, and a way to think of them as groups related to a letter and a sound.

I’ve tried some of this before.  I’ve talked with them about how to find what a paragraph is about, the when where, why, how, who, etc., but they are listening more now.  They are taking me more seriously.  I believe that fundamentally they do not believe they can succeed, but they are beginning to realize their failure to convince me!  I just keep saying, “OK, so then we have to try harder, or a new way.”  The ones who really cannot learn are doing other things, including training as helpers to the special educators.  And they are helping with the little ones, giving them big sister care… and also getting special treats along the way.  Recently they have asked for some teaching and so they are getting some low stress teaching.  But my hard core smart kids who have tried and tried to convince me they cannot do the work, and now applying themselves more and asking questions more. It’s not a smooth process.

The early deprivation has taken its toll.  I’ve had to try to understand  how they are thinking, or not thinking.  They tend to compartmentalize as if each subject is a separate language.  My favorite recent problem was in physics, and Big Bang.  They didn’t connect Bang of Big Bang with bang as in, “Don’t let Rani bang her head.”    They thought it was a proper name.   In their early childhood, and also in their Bengali education, children and teachers didn’t engage in discussion.  It was only, lecture, memorize, repeat back.  The repeat back had to be exact, whether it was understood or not.

Well, this isn’t exciting stuff, but it’s the stuff of my days.

We are churning out (slowly) grant applications;  we are almost done with the website.  In fact our part is done but there are lots of little things to be fixed which aren’t getting fixed without many phone calls, Google chats, and emails.

I will write more, as it is, as it happens….

Michelle

September 2019
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