My Life In India
This one is for you, Jeanette.
This will probably be a short and sweet read for you, though I would like to one day possess enough talent in writing to serve this angel justice in my description. But for now, let me say my hope for this post is to help you fall in love with this wonderful little lady the way I totally have.
First, Jeanette is obviously not her real name. I know I have mentioned it before, but we have designated pseudonyms for each child at SCH to protect their privacy. (Side note: That is also why you will never see me post a picture of a child’s entire face publicly online unless they have been fully adopted or only attend ASB as a day student--like Deepa and Manasa, respectively.) I digress, so Jeanette is not her real name, and to me the name Jeanette absolutely does not match her, whatsoever, though it is a wonderful name in its own right. I can’t explain what I really think of when I think of Jeanette, but that girl is nothing like this sunflower twelve-year-old I am about to attempt to describe below.
Her voice is sandpaper. Her words bounce and reverberate over rocks and pebbles. The sound of her voice is thick with wind and rushing water. Her voice echoes her windness, her aliveness. Jeanette is always moving, fidgeting, dancing, running, exploring, climbing. Her moments are strung together with forceful energy and unrestrained joy. So much of Jeanette is what I think when I think of freedom.
Racing through the streets with Jeannette after class, headed home, have become some of the most cherished moments that I have collected in my life. Her unbounded intensity is breathtaking, sometimes—her intensity in all good and beautiful and heavenly things. Her urgency to laugh, to learn, to care for others, to assert her independence, to be kind, to be loving is something I pray to duplicate in my own life. Her fullness of personhood is unlike anyone I’ve ever met before—she is the most alive, wired, and overflowing human I’ve ever known.
I hope to live with the same fervency to be alive as she does.
About her vision:
As you all know, all of my students have visual impairments. Jeannette is functionally blind. She has anophthalmia of her left eye and opacity of her cornea in her right eye. Jeanette is a braille reader, and relies on tactile information to participate in activities and interact with her environment. Jeanette is very curious and eager to learn. She is a bit wild, excited, and enthusiastic, which is a gentler way of saying sometimes you can’t convince Jeannette to keep her hands to herself and her own materials. Her tactual sense is her primary sense for gaining new understanding about the world she lives in. And, boy, does she learn fast.
About her academic skills:
Jeanette and I are working on a few different skills, currently. First, we are working to apply phonetic understanding to reading. (From my observances of schools and tutoring in India, memorization is the primary way children are taught to read. So, when I gave my student Victoria the word “class” to read, she read the individual letters aloud and said… “school.” This example is just one of many which remind me of the importance to impart the sound-it-out mentality to all of my students, especially the braille readers who understand words through a part-to-whole processing, unlike print reading, which is typically whole-to-part processing. Bottom line, you have to know your letter sounds and how to string them together.) We are also working on mastering grade two braille contractions…, which I will hopefully describe later on. Finally, we are working on math, specifically addition and subtraction using the abacus. The abacus is nothing like a calculator, but can more easily be understood as the equivalent to using scratch paper and pencil for solving math problems in print.
Jeannette is so incredibly intelligent. Though her academic journey itself is has not always provided her with the necessary tools or experiences to achieve, it is evident that her mind is hard-wired for critical thinking, creativity, and exploration. Jeanette learns and adapts new concepts to novel problems adeptly, and it is a pleasure to be one of her educators. It is a pleasure to watch her steadily push on in every activity, with the overall goal to catch up to her grade-level peers.
About her academic journey:
This is a lengthy aside about Jeanette’s journey to appropriate education and services. I am always hesitant to comment on aspects of my students’ pasts because I hope to never sell their experiences as my own story. I fully believe that their unique histories should be told at their own discretion. However, I think her story is so similar to so many children around the globe who go without equality in their education because of their disability.
Jeanette is not attending a local school here in India. Before I came to India, approximately 9 months ago, she and my other two older students were pulled from a local school for the blind because they were so far behind. Not only did I find that the school was ineffective in their teaching style for those with visual impairments as a whole population, but I also found that this school was degrading and cold toward my students specifically. Early on in my time in India, we visited this school to see what could be done to catch the girls up. I vividly remember several faculty members commenting on my girls (while they were standing right there!) in such pessimistic tones.
My students were demeaned as uncontrollable and unteachable. This school deferred responsibility for the education of these students to the girls themselves. This experience of biting my lip and holding back choice words, reminds me that I most vehemently believe in the limitless potential of a child and that their success is reflective of effective teaching. When a child is not succeeding, I believe that the teaching methods, not the child herself, need to be reevaluated, reconsidered, and ultimately, changed.
Overall, her experiences remind me of a few important things. First, we need to remember that equality in education and treatment is not yet realized for so many people with visual impairments around the globe, and very arguably, even in the Western world. I hope that Jeanette’s experiences can help me communicate the need for us to get behind students, to support their education, to support changes in perception and to become passionate about equality for all.
Additionally, her experiences show me the importance of family. SCH is a great and loving family for Jeanette, but ultimately, family cultivates enriching environments in ways we are not able to duplicate because of the number of children we care for and their unique needs. I always think with thanksgiving on my early years of school, how intrinsic motivation and self-value was instilled by my parents who sat with me around the kitchen table as I learned my spelling words or fractions, read a book, or brainstormed over writing assignments. We have wonderful staff and wonderful teachers at SCH, but nothing quite competes with what parents and families are able to provide. We love her so deeply and so wonderfully and as best as we can, but there is no better place for a child to thrive than with a permanent family of their own.
The last thing I will mention is that, globally, we need to develop societies that nurture children simply by expressing their value to them. I am hopeful that we can become inclusive--not only for inclusivity’s sake, but for the simple truth that each child has unfathomable and overflowing value. We need to make sure that our actions and words demonstrate that children are not defined by circumstance (whether they are with their forever families or not) or by their uniformity to what we consider typical. It is a simple truth—but something we forget to practically apply to over day-to-day interactions with children, too easily—that they are important, smart, special, individual, loved, heard, and capable. When words and actions arise from frustrations, they can affect a child’s self-concept and become the construct by which she measures and ultimately views her value.
Since the girls are no longer going to that school, they attend one-on-one lessons at a local eye institute. The girls receive training in different areas that are chosen specifically for their needs. Here, Jeannette is getting orientation and mobility instruction, braille instruction, and assistive technology instruction.
After time at this eye institute, the girls come to Courage Home and Anjali School for the Blind with their primary teacher, Rajini. This is when I work with the, each day on further developing skills they need for when they eventually reenter school. Once school is finished, they return home for lunch, and in the afternoon have time with Rajini during which they continue skill development.
My dreams for her future:
My dreams for Jeanette are the same for all my girls. Family. Education. Independence.
Sometimes this is hard to further elaborate on these points. I think I have made it pretty clear that the most important opportunities in a child’s life are to be loved by their own permanent family, to be given equal access to appropriate education, and to have a life of their own choosing, which they can use to build into this world all the beauty that their heart uniquely possesses. I am hopeful and prayerful for these wonderful things in Jeanette’s life, knowing how she is more than deserving of each one and every beautiful experience that comes through them.
Well blog readers, this was longer than expected. Please pray for and love this girl with me. She is incredible. I know my writing was choppy and my thoughts not always complete or at times they can be nonsensical, but I hope to have provided a small glimpse into the blessing it is to know Jeanette.
Goodbye, goodbye. I know I promised this to be short, so please accept my apology: I am no good at gauging how much I have to say before I sit down and say it.