My friend’s daughter, Aarti, is a brilliant dancer. She is six, but she picks up the rhythm of a song almost instantaneously, and innovates moves on her own that often leave the audience (mostly comprising family and friends) speechless. My friend did not think twice, therefore, before enrolling Aarti in a classical dance class where she could hone her talent and make her a better dancer.
Children, don’t stop dancing: Just laws won’t help. Our teachers need to be empathetic and our society needs to be open to understanding that there is life beyond making children robots. Representation Pic/Thinkstock
It took the dance teacher just three sessions before she called my friend and told her to not send her daughter any more. The teacher said Aarti is too young to learn dance. My friend knew what the real reason was: her daughter is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This makes her restless, less focused that other ‘normal’ kids her age and consequently, she comes across as indisciplined. I was dejected, but my friend took it in her stride. “I knew this would happen,” she told me when I met her earlier this week. “She is not the first teacher to reject her.”
When asked why, she told me that her school teachers, too, routinely ridiculed her for being ‘slow’, and often encouraged other children to laugh at her. In a curriculum that thrives on rote learning and turning children into robots in an assembly line, my friend and her child felt suffocated. Most other children and their parents adapted, but she could not. As a result, she is about a year behind in reading and writing skills. The school, too, made no attempt to treat her like an individual. Instead, she was a deviant child who would keep looking at walls or draw in her school book while the teacher kept writing on the blackboard and asking them to repeat the words. Every fortnight or so, my friend would be called to the school to be complained to about Aarti’s ‘abnormal’ behaviour.
My friend tried to reason with them and even told them about her occupational therapy routine. “You mean your child is mentally challenged,” they asked. “No, she isn’t,” my friend replied. “She has ADHD and she will eventually pick up concepts; just that she is slower than the rest of the class. It is not her, it is her brain.” The teachers could not understand. “You mean she will not be able to learn even the alphabet. How can she do her homework, then? How will she pass her SSC exams?” The questions were unrelenting. And demeaning. Even rationalisations like Albert Einstein was learning-disabled or that billionaire Richard Branson is dyslexic did not work.
The truth is, there are only a handful of schools in Mumbai (and the rest of India) where children with learning disorders are understood, and treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. If you have a chat with Aarti, you’d find that she knows more things about nature, about the observable world around us and about people than most children her age. Her social development is remarkable, and she is easily one of the kindest people you’d interact with. But when even some of the friends she looks up to ridicule her and call her names, she feels she wants to give up. Some of her classmates’ parents have stopped inviting Aarti to their homes because they feel she will destroy stuff and be a ‘bad influence’ on their kids. Life has become a string of discriminations for Aarti. And she is so used to it that she thinks it is natural to be treated that way by her peers or teachers.
And I wonder, what kind of person would Aarti grow up to be if she is always misunderstood?
That’s the trouble with most of our schools, even though one may cite oases of inclusiveness. No matter what legislation you might want to bring in (the severely flawed Right to Education being the prime example), things won’t change for children like Aarti because it is not just about laws, but about our teachers being empathetic and our society being open to understanding that there is life beyond making children robots.
My friend is confident, though, that Aarti will swim against the tide. But here’s the thing: Aarti’s parents know she is absolutely brilliant. What about the hundreds and thousands of parents who might wilt under pressure? What if they force their children to turn into robots? Who gives them the confidence that their children are perfectly fine?
These are scary thoughts, and I am afraid I don’t know many people who know the answer to these questions.
Sachin Kalbag is editor, mid-day. He is @sachinkalbag on Twitter