Zainab Sulaiman, the author of Simply Nanju, worked for a while as a volunteer in a school for kids with special needs. To order the book: http://amzn.to/1RvYvkq
We are all disabled in some sense. It might be physical for some, intellectual for others, social for another group – and I’m not talking about autism or the like, but of the set of prejudices, preconceived notions, ideas and fancies that we pick up and begin to live by: immediately suspect the maid when something goes missing, mothers-in-law are monsters (never mind, that most Indian ones really are), a woman who drinks and smokes is ‘loose’. And so on.
So how much harder for a set of people who cannot even hide behind the façade of ‘normalcy’; they look or speak or move differently, instantly making them the other. And they are kids.
A few years ago I was between jobs, a failed business tucked away under my belt, my biggest challenge juggling drops and pick-ups for my young children (I have great respect for all mothers who pass through this phase) and so I headed to a special school down the road and did what one does when there’s nothing else to do: volunteer.
At first, I treated the kids with kid gloves.
Pramukh was super small for his age and rather fragile (one of the teachers had hinted that such children didn’t live long), but he was also super smart. He sat in his wheelchair and rattled off all the answers before the rest of the class could even react. His notes were always up to date and he was consistently the class topper.
I praised him and fussed over him and slyly bought him Cadbury Dairy Milks and cried quiet tears into my pillow at night for his future (or lack of it). And then he began to be rude to me.
I’d ask him to stop talking; he’d tell an extra joke. I’d ask him to take down notes, and he’d look me in the eye and say he’d do it later. As there was no problem whatsoever with his comprehension, this was something else.
And that something else was me. I’d been treating Pramukh like he deserved a gold medal for being smart, despite his disability.
Pramukh was disabled. But he was clever. And he was also naughty, playful and manipulative – like every other one of his species.
And he’d realised what I felt, and he didn’t like it one little bit.
The next day I made Pramukh stay back in the snack break to finish his notes. He glowered at me and wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. But he began taking notes again. And after many more run-ins over classroom discipline – ‘Stop talking or go to the Principal’s office’ (as you can see my style of teaching was rather simplistic) – he turned back into the carefree little boy that he’d always been.
Now he once again began to shout out ‘Good morning Miss’ when I’d pass him scooting along the corridors in his wheelchair at full tilt: the wheelchair-racing brigade never missed an opportunity to hone their skills.
Life may be short, but it never stopped being wonderful.
And I had the gall to think I was teaching these kids.