By Chatura Rao
(Image by cmiper)
- Don’t wanna take sides
- Don’t wanna make sense
- Of pounds and pence.
- I want to be alone…
- Don’t want to hide
- Don’t want to be talked over
- Or walked upon.
- I want to think the heart is bigger than the head
- Wanna follow you, but not be led.
— Dido, “Girl Who Got Away”
My eight-year-old daughter and I watch the acoustic version of this song on YouTube. I find the lyrics online and we read through them, slowly. Then we sing with Dido, me running my finger along the lyrics on the monitor. My child, Nammu, chants along, stumbling on the irregular rhythm. But at the chorus, her voice gains height and depth, goes freely on.
A year ago, Nammu was ‘evaluated’, and found to have a learning disability. She takes time to understand, and sometimes can’t remember what was taught. Last year she could not catch a ball thrown to her, nor skip with a rope, nor even sit up straight for more than three seconds.
Now she can ride her bicycle (without training wheels) and anticipate meeting traffic around the corner of her building. She can skate and skip. She’s coping, has made good progress in the one year that she’s attended occupational therapy sessions. So say the various teachers who spend time trying new ways to explain simple mathematics and English comprehension to her.
In school, however, Nammu’s classmates, noticing her pauses, her inability to take the lead during group games or complete a page of writing in the time they can, call her “slowlearner”, “slowwriter”. They tease her, sometimes by emptying the contents of her bag on the floor of the classroom and hiding the bag in different places every day. She doesn’t protest, just takes it as her due, laughs like she’s in on the joke. Daily she comes home with her pencil box completely emptied, everything lost. I chide her, but she never reports her classmates’ teasing.
Last week, I happened to visit her class. I saw Nammu’s pencil box being snatched away, tossed between three other kids, and its pencils emptied into the waste bin. The kids enjoyed the game, while Nammu kept saying, “don’t”.
Looking around, I realised that the teacher hadn’t noticed. She has 38 students in her class, and every day’s lessons to complete. Or perhaps she knows about this teasing…but a child must learn to live in the ‘real world’, so she leaves her to cope.
I worry for Nammu, who is a friendly, mild-mannered girl. How do I teach her to respect herself, protect herself from bullying, to recognise and fence out potential abuse?
Nammu has sensitive hearing and is musical. I remember how I walked into her bedroom one morning when she was 11 months old and found her sitting up in her blanket, cooing with the pigeons outside. Replicating their music, softly, exactly.
It is a Sunday afternoon in December, and the sunlight’s gentle when we practise the song, keeping the beat with our fingers on the table. I hold her gaze and nod to indicate pauses. It’s an acoustic rendition – no keyboard or drum to keep the beat – just the singer’s strumming. Nammu understands the cadence after just a round of practise. We both enjoy singing the chorus, swaying, setting our voices free.
- If only for today,
- I wanna be
- The girl who got away.
- The lover who really loved,
- The dancer who danced
- To the last song…
So at bedtime, when we cuddle up in the dark, I try to explain.
Like the girl in the song, you have your own power. It is within you. I touch my palm to my child’s heart. Power? Nammu asks. Yes…your own goodness as well as the love we’ve put in, making you, feeding you, teaching you things and raising you thus far.
The child is quiet. Her long straight hair covers her face as she huddles close. I sense her listening, but don’t know if she understands. You must protect yourself. If anyone tries to snatch your power from you, stop them.
Should I try to hit them, like this? Nammu slaps my arm weakly.
If they try to hit you, yes. But say a loud no, even before that, to bullying. You have around you a circle of power, your own power. No one should be allowed to enter it and take your things away, say nasty words or trouble you in any way. You must protect yourself.
Nammu listens intently, and I really hope that I’m reaching her.
Shall we practise the song tomorrow again? Nammu asks. I smooth her hair back from her face and say okay. In silence, I send up a prayer for help with all this.
The warmth of the winter quilt eases us both into sleep, and perhaps readiness for another day in the real world.
Chatura Rao writes fiction for children and adults. ‘Amie and the Chawl of Colour’, ‘Meanwhile Upriver’, ‘Growing Up in Pandupur’, ‘Nabiya’, and short stories too, are published by Puffin, Scholastic, Penguin, Young Zubaan and Tulika Books. Her world, like Mumbai city, is always ‘under construction’…being adjusted and altered a little each day.