Hi, just thought I’d recap our first full day at the special needs schools.
Our plan is to spend Fridays at Anou Grandi (“We Grow”) and Amour Sans Frontieres (Love without Borders), two special needs schools here in northern Mauritius. Since this Friday we will be joining the kids from Etoile de Mer on a field trip to a botanical garden and a sugar museum (no, that’s not a euphamism for an American supermarket; it’s a museum where they tell you about sugar), we decided to go to the special needs schools on Thursday, instead. We started at Anou Grandi. I was initially struck by the size and pleasantness of the schoolyard, a broad sweep of grass, shaded by mango trees. As the director showed us around the school, some of the students walked up to us without any reservation and extended their hands to be shook. We complied gratefully. During the uncomfortable process of being shown through a new place as a group of foreign volunteers, ducking heads to fit through doorways and trying to smile away cultural dissonance, it is a great feeling to be greeted by a kid with nothing but excitement to get to know you better. Vedant proudly pointed out the walls onto which he and a group of volunteers from Dubai had painted murals during his term as vice chairman of finance (District Council North).
When we’d seen the school sufficiently, we were released into the school yard, which seethed with children at play. Experiences in Israel and Guatemala have taught me, “when in doubt, play soccer (call it football),” and this principle served me and Jordan well today. I was immediately appointed captian of my team, a position which I abdicated when I found myself facing conflicting claims being shouted my way in Kreol for adjudication. It was a good time, and, as always, the soccer pitch provided everyone with a neat common cause and common enemy to ease first-meeting discomfiture.
When recess ended, Vedant gave a quick speech about what we were up to at the school and how happy we were to be there, and the kids lined up and sang a welcome song to us. We then split up to join classes of different age groups. I was with the oldest group at first. They were between 13 and 15, very nice and well-behaved. They sang some songs for me, including “When you Wish upon a Star,” which brought back happy memories of Disney Pinocchio. One student, whose name escapes me, was particularly engaging, but become very stressed out when I could not understand his French. He asked me about my age, where I live, and my family.
When we went back outside, the students formed a circle and played with a ball to exercise their motor skills. What to us is a trivial physical task that we might carry out absent-mindedly with our minds elsewhere, to them is a challenge, meritting a proud smile when successfully accomplished. We played wonderball for while. In the first round, the music stopped while I had the ball, and I had to step into the middle of the circle and sing a song. I am very self-conscious about my singing, having been told regularly how bad it is and even kicked out of sixth grade chorus, but I belted out Happy Birthday, as far as I could tell to general approbation. One girl, wheel chair bound and severely physically disabled, sang beautifully with a smile on her beautiful face and so charismatically that the whole group clapped and danced. Seeing something like that puts all one’s stress and self-pity into perspective.
We went back inside, and I joined the youngest group. One of the boys is so full of energy that he can’t bear to be in class. When the teachers–saintly women; just think about what they do everyday–tried to put him in his chair, he cried and resisted and begged me and Jordan to take him outside. We shrugged and complied, not expecting how keeping this child occupied is like breaking an unbreakable horse. He is a force of nature and his stamina is straight out of the X-men. He loves to play on a spinning playground appliance and pushes it so fast that anyone charged with keeping him safe ends up having hold back his own vomit. Jordan fell to this unfortunate labor, and I went back inside. I spent some time drawing pictures and molding play-dough until I saw Jordan come up to the classroom window.
“Mike, Mike, come outside.”
“I can’t find the kid.”
Evidently the indefatigable wonder had run away from Jordan, and, as we found out after some searching, hid in the bushes. If I attempted to live a day at that intensity level, it would scorch my brain.
We left Anou Grandi at around 11:00. My next entry will be about Amour Sans Frontieres.
Spending time at the special needs schools reminds you that all the artificial standards society throws our way and that suck up our attention–grades, career, money–are curious outgrowths, far from the core of what defines a human. The smiles and stresses of handicapped children are primal parts of us all.