(Completed: April 3, 2011)
I was in a school with the mission of observing children’s activities in the classroom, and the mission had a focus on educational matters, including how children talked to one another, how far they were willing to speak to elders about their experiences, whether they were motivated in coming to school, etc. I had to spend three days in a school watching their activities. Only the children with the age of 4-5 years were to be observed in this way.
The school had a special library for children, established in a separate building, and there were playing materials for the children of the 3-5 years age group. In addition, the library had many books containing pictures and words, alphabets, puzzles, and various kinds of dolls. On the day of my arrival at the school, I explained the purpose of my visit to the Head Teacher, observed the library, and got permission to spend time with some children the following day.
On the second day, I selected the children and took them to that library. Ten children were selected in this way – all running in the 5th year of life. I told them, “We’ll go to the library today, OK?” Nine accepted my plan, but a boy named Kumar did not. His face was down; he looked nervous in a dirty, ragged shirt. I asked the class teacher, “Why is this child unwilling to join friends?” She said, “Sometimes he comes to school, sometimes not. I don’t know why he is unhappy.”
I went to the library room with the children who wanted to go with me, leaving Kumar in the usual class. There was another lady teacher taking charge of the library. It was only for children and was established with the support of a foreign agency. “When was it established? Has the school purchased any additional materials from the donor agency?” I asked the teacher. She said, “It was set up two years ago. We did not add anything more because they’ve said they’ll give everything again, even if these things are lost, damaged, broken down, or torn off anyway.”
I observed the materials kept on the shelves and rows of desks. Everything was neat and clean – pictures, puzzles, toys and dolls, wooden and plastic models, and some playing materials such as balls and rocking horses. They were all for the children of that age – who are pretty active, love playing, and even have mischievous behavior to some extent. The library in-charge said all the things were purchased two years ago. I thought – had these things ever been used and played by the children of this age, some of the items might have been damaged, at least partly, and nothing could be found in such a neat condition. If the school was assured to be provided with new materials in case the existing ones got damaged after use, did the school teachers need to worry even if the children had done anything wrong in the materials? The answer to this question would be ‘no.’ I understood that the school authority had accepted the donated materials to keep them as ‘showpieces’ rather than use them for children’s learning.
I asked the library in charge, “Do you open the library daily?” She answered hesitatingly, “Um……! Not…Not very often. Sometimes, I open when the Head Teacher instructs me to do so. I opened it yesterday, cleaned the room, and arranged everything orderly.” From her statements, there was no difficulty for me to understand that it was not the usual routine for the school to open that room. It was, perhaps, opened only because I, as an outsider ‘intellectual’, was visiting the place.
I asked some 3-4 children individually, whispering in the ear, “Did you come to this room any time before?” None of them said they had the experience of being in the library room previously.
Seeing the new things in the room, the children were delighted; some started leaping, clapping, and dancing. I left them free to observe the things for about half an hour. Then I instructed them, “Take anything you want, but not more than two items; then you can play using them as you like.”
They started playing. Some took small plastic-made car models and spent time pushing them on the floor. Some took pictures, observed, and even began speaking with the things in the picture. Some sat on the rocking horse and started singing and clapping. It was a joyful experience. I enjoyed watching the different ways of children’s engagement in a happy mood.
Finally, as I had to observe their activities the next day, I also told them to stand in line, gave them chocolates individually, and said, “You should come to school tomorrow also, and I’ll give you another chocolate, OK?” All the children said, “OK”.
When I went to the children’s usual class the next day, the boy who had not joined his friends the day before was ready to follow me to the library. Perhaps some of his friends had reported the things and events they experienced in the library, so Kumar was also excited to go with others. One boy asked me, “Sir, have you brought chocolates today?” I said, “Yes, you’ll get chocolate when the school ends.”
The building where the library was located was at a distance of 5 minutes’ walk from the children’s usual classroom. Leading the children towards the library, I asked Kumar some questions on the tit-bits of his personal matters. Some of them, asked one after the other, included: “Where is your house? How many people are in your family? Do you like eating chocolate?”
Kumar did not speak a single word in response, while most others were eager to talk with me. Some were asking, “Do you come to us tomorrow also?” Others asked, “Do you give us pencil?” Without hesitation, Roshan even inquired, “Have you got a son? Have you got a daughter? Don’t you bring them here?”
I was astonished to hear such curiosities, particularly those raised by Roshan. Anyway, I responded to their queries. Answering Roshan’s question, I said, “Roshan Babu, what a nice person you are! Listen. I’m from a place very far away. I don’t stay here forever. I have to go after three days. My children are already grown up. They don’t want to play sitting with you. They don’t come to this place. Do you want to go to them with me?” Roshan did not reply.
Children stayed in the library room for four hours – from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – sometimes playing with toys, singing and chanting, and sometimes drawing pictures. Kumar also played with friends, though he was not active in talking, singing or chanting. His activity indicated that he was interested in playing with toys, solving puzzles, and drawing simple pictures. He successfully drew circles, triangles, and squares and filled colors as instructed.
As time went on, since I was suggesting Kumar every time with soft and gentle words, he found me as a person who helps him when needed – mainly if he had difficulty solving the puzzles. It was not difficult for me to understand that he was involved in the day’s activities, which were totally new to him yet enjoyable after he got my help. And, his class teacher had not taught him to do these things – nor had he been exposed to such materials elsewhere. In the end, all the children including Kumar got chocolates. There was no sign of sadness in his face, yet he did not look as delighted as his friends.
The next day, I observed the same children differently – by keeping them in the usual classroom handled by their teacher. I went to the school and sat on the last bench for observation. The class was packed with some 40 children. When I entered the room, the class teacher instructed the children to stand up, and they all did the same. All the children, who had spent the previous day with me in the library, stared at me eagerly throughout the entire class period.
Moreover, two of them came to me one after the other leaving their places: one with a delighted face and the other in a disappointed mood. The boy with a happy face was Roshan, and the one with a sad mood was Kumar. The teacher did not care for their coming to me, as she kept herself busy writing on the blackboard “1, 2, 3, 4”, uttering the digits orally and instructing the children to repeat after her. But she was less concerned over who was adequately repeating after her and who was not.
Roshan asked, “Have you brought chocolates?” I answered, “No, I haven’t, Roshan. If you want, I’ll buy and give it to you after the school. Now you go to your place and sit there, OK?” Rosan went back to his place.
Kumar stood up after that. I observed his face; his eyes were full of tears! He had a small bag about two inches larger than the notebook size. He walked towards me; the teacher did not care for him, as if she did not notice.
He came straight forward carrying the bag and stood in front of me. I was thinking about why Kumar came to me; I was sure Kumar is coming to me for a different reason than Rosahn’s. He showed his bag but could not speak out. He started weeping, but the sound was not loud. The teacher did not hear him – she was 4-5 meters away from him!
I realized the change in Kumar’s perception of me within two days. Just two days back, he had refused to go to the library with me. But at that moment, to a surprise, he was coming to tell me his problem, expecting some help – perhaps with some degree of confidence that I could solve his problem and mitigate his trouble! Interestingly, he did not go to his class teacher to seek help. I had no difficulty understanding that it resulted from my one-day stay with him in the library.
He could not speak a word again! He just showed me the bag. I took it from him and examined the parts. There was a pocket on one side in proper condition, but the pocket on the other side was torn off. Immediately after I noticed the torn part, Kumar pointed at it with a finger and said softly, “Chyatiyo” (torn off).
I asked, “Who did it?” He replied weeping, “Aphai chyatiyo” (It got torn itself).
Then, I observed the bag again. It was made of cotton, not so old, but a bit dirty. Stitching was not done so strongly in all the parts; as a result, it could not last longer in the edge of the pocket. There was no sign of damage, except for the stitch on one side of the pocket gone off. “Perhaps the boy put it on someplace with a hook-shaped thing that took the pocket off”, I told myself. I asked Kumar gently, “Did you tell it to the teacher?” He shook his head and said, “Malai karaunu hunchha” (She shouts at me).
I understood. He could not report the event to the teacher for fear that she could scold him. What a terrified feeling he has! Questions arose in my mind one after another: How is this feeling developing in Kumar? Did it produce as a by-product of classroom proceedings? Or, as a result of the teacher’s actions and behavior? Or what else? Despite my curiosity, I couldnot inquire about these matters by asking the teacher or any other person in the school. I was watching whether the teacher would notice the boy’s situation. I opened Kumar’s bag. There was only one notebook. I turned the pages one by one. Half of it was covered with scrawled lines, rough figures, and some Nepali alphabets. There was no handwriting of the teacher, no instruction, not even the signature.
As part of my project task, I also needed to go to the children’s parents to seek information about the children observed in the school. I thought of visiting Kumar’s home for that purpose. Then I said to him, “Kumar, don’t worry. I’ll go to your house and mend your bag there.”
He again started weeping and said, “Amale karaunu hunchha” (My mother shouts at me).
Ha…..!! I remembered the day when I had dropped tears from my eyes. I was almost the same age as Kumar when my mother had scolded me so aggressively in the event of breaking a pencil that I could not stop the flow of tears from my eyes for many days. That event might have been one of the causes of my habit of hesitation in speaking that continued lifelong. Time has elapsed; people say there have been hundreds of thousands of societal changes. Yet, people’s habit of scolding children has remained the same!
The school’s bell rang, and the children came out of the room; I caught Kumar by his arm and walked towards his house. Three school teachers were also walking on their way home; I met them just after a few minutes’ walk from the school building. We were together for about 20 minutes; then the route forked and they followed their path. Walking with me, they talked about my home place, workplace, and profession but asked nothing about the purpose of visiting the boy’s home nor said anything about the boy who was with me.
It took me about half an hour to reach Kumar’s house. The house was small but decorated well. I had to interview his parent about the child’s behavior, habits, and hobbies. A woman was chopping firewood in the Agan (ground in front of the house). “She must be Kumar’s mother”, I guessed.
I told her the purpose of my visit, gave my short introduction, and asked her name. She said her name was Kamala. She was willing to talk to me hurriedly, but I did not want to stop her from work and said, “Could you finish your work before we begin talking?”
She said, “OK”. So, I waited till she finished chopping the firewood.
When I began talking with Kamala, Kumar did not want to be with me. He went inside instead. I asked, first of all, some questions related to the family. From her account, I learned that she was the second wife of Kumar’s father. He was in Qatar for about three years and planning to return home after some months. He had left home after three months of the second marriage. Kumar’s mother had lost her life during the crossfire in the civil war when Kumar was running in his 10th month after birth. Neither was Kumar’s mother a member of the rebellious force nor belonged to the government’s security force. She became the victim when there was a fierce fight between the Royal army and the guerillas in the forest nearby, where she was busy collecting grass-fodders for buffalo.
Knowing these things, I thought – since Kumar did not know anything about the past, Kumar’s mind could grasp only Kamala in the position of ‘mother’ because he had already said in school that his mother would scold him for any small misdeed.
Then I asked Kamala, “Does Kumar remember the event of his father’s going to the foreign country?”
She replied a bit rudely, “I don’t know. How do I know what he remembers and what he forgets? You can ask him.”
In a way, I realized my question had an obvious answer: he was less than two years old when his father left for Qatar. He surely could remember almost nothing about that time. Realizing there was no need to ask this question, I raised another curiosity – “How often do you visit Kumar’s school?”
“I went once for his admission, and then didn’t go next. I don’t even need to go”, she said, turning her head to the other side.
“Does the head teacher or other teachers call you sometimes to school?”
“No. Why should they call me? I have no time to go even if they call.”
“Do you have to consult Kumar’s teachers sometimes to know about his work, behavior and progress in the school?”
“Why should I know all these things? He has been admitted, that’s all. I did not want to admit him. Instead, he should start herding goats now. But I obeyed what the villagers said.”
“Do you recognize Kumar’s teachers in school?”
“No. I don’t go there, and don’t care who the teachers are.”
“Does Kumar wash his hands, face and legs regularly or you need to do his washing?”
“Sometimes he does, sometimes not. It is not my duty to serve him.”
“About his eating? How many times does he eat a day?”
“Ghichuwa moro[i]! He needs the morning meal at 9 o’clock. Sometimes I can prepare; sometimes it becomes late and he doesn’t go to school. He needs khaja (snacks) immediately after coming back home. Then he eats heavy meal before sleeping.”
“I see”, I said to myself. I remembered what the teacher in the school had said about Kumar the other day. She had told me that Kumar’s attendance in the class had not been so regular. From Kamala’s statement, I had no confusion to understand that she had not taken the matter of sending Kumar to school so seriously. This must have been an essential source of his unhappy appearance most of the time.
As most of her answers to my questions reflected her negative attitude toward the little boy, there was no need to interrogate Kamala further. Doing so could irritate her instead of doing anything good. However, I could not remain without giving her the notice of Kumar’s bag condition. Then I asked, “Have you got a needle and thread?”
“Yes, of course. But for what?” Kamala said.
“Kumar, can you come out with your bag?” I said. He rushed out immediately and handed the bag over to me. Then I showed the problem in the bag and said, “I saw Kumar weeping for a long time after this pocket was torn off in class. I don’t know how it happened. Can I help to mend it, madam?”
“Pocket torn off?” Kamala watched the bag with furious sight for a while; then she turned her eyes towards Kumar. His face was down; he could not focus on her face. He went inside in a bit scared temper.
I insisted on getting the needle and thread from Kamala. She refused. “Bajiyalej hola bigarechha” (This stupid boy damaged the bag), she scolded him.
I said, “He did not do it knowingly. I myself was present with him in the class. I’ll stitch it if you’re busy. I just need the needle and thread, madam.”
She denied the request even after my insistence several times. As it was late, I could not stay there longer, so I left the house, saying ‘goodbye’.
I met an older man on the way, within five minutes from Kamala’s house. He stopped me and asked why I was there. After I told him the purpose of my visit, he asked, “Sir, where are you coming from right now?” Though I did not have time to talk with him, I could not rush ahead without responding to his curiosity and then gave him a short account of my visit to Kumar’s home.
The man added, “She is like a devil; she scolds the poor boy every time and sometimes beats him violently. My God! I wish nobody get such a punishment in the universe!”
As he started talking about Kamala, I was further inspired to sit with the man, talk with him more, and explore the details about Kamala’s life, her behavior, and their family’s history. But it was already 6 p.m., and I had to walk for 45 minutes to reach the marketplace where I was residing. So, I could not stay longer. “Buba (father), I’m afraid it’s late. I must go”, I said to the man and rushed towards my destination. The man said, “Sir, could you come again sometime tomorrow?”
I understood how enthusiastic the man was to find me in that place again. I did not know why he became so impressed by me in the very first introduction. But, as I was on a tight schedule during my task, I had no time to revisit the place, so I said, “Ma pheri aauna bhyaudina buba” (I cannot return, father). Though I could remark like “I’ll come sometime”, I did the right thing by not telling that man a lie!
I was alone on the way. Thinking about the orphan boy repeatedly, the distance to the market became so short for me! Questions emerged in my mind: Should Kumar always remain in this condition? How can a positive attitude be injected into the minds of thousands of people, particularly the women who have motherless children at home? How is it possible to establish the feeling of love and affection among stepmothers towards their stepchildren? Can schools and teachers play any role in addressing this dangerous situation? If schools can handle this, why are they doing nothing, and why are teachers always neglecting such children?
Though I left the village, I felt like I also left my heart in Kumar’s house. I could not control tears from my eyes a single second on the way. The lodge was about to be locked when I reached there. My friend Bhawani was astonished to see my red eyes. He asked, “What happened, sir? You look sad, and your eyes are red. You must have been in some trouble.”
“Nothing.” I did not want to elaborate more, as I was tired mentally and physically. He did not believe me even then, so he said, “You must have faced some unusual situation, I know.”
I replied, “I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. Please don’t ask again. I’m not in a mood to talk anymore.”
I could not sleep properly that night.
[i] meaning ‘one with the habit of eating too much’ – having a negative connotation, used for scolding
( Author Luitel is a professor at Tribhuvan University)