Walking Down the Hallway with Janet

By Maryanne Kooda

She walked out of the classroom as the lesson ended. I walked alongside her, but I did not reach out to help her when she stumbled and hit a low wall as she missed her turn towards the other corner of the hallway. I have known Janet for about six weeks now, and I learnt by instinct not to reach out to help her when she stumbles. I know her pride will be hurt and she might feel helpless, inadequate even.

I will never know how Janet became blind. I could never bring myself to ask her, it just seemed so inappropriate. So I did what I came there to do; follow her around as she went from one class to another and assist her in teaching English to blind teenagers.

As we walked on, a group of blind students holding each other came walking in the opposite direction. She slowed down and called out to them so that she would not bump into them. The challenge of walking in school premises where some teachers and all students are blind is that you run the risk of being stepped on or bumping into someone who, quite literally, did not see you.

“Did you just arrive”

“No, I came a little earlier but I didn’t want to interupt your lesson”

I had sat in a corner of the clasroom for over thirty minutes watching her work, neither she nor the students had known I was there; a surreal experience on its own.

“The O level results came out this week”

She began a light banter as we walked along the very long hallway to the other end of the school to reach her next class.

“Did some blind students write the exams?”

“Yes, they wrote it, but they couldnt make A levels, as they didnt make maths”

I didnt ask about English; the lack of English knowledge is the elephant in the room, we in Sri Lankan academia pretend we do not see.

“Waoh, so they write O Levels in Braille?” I gasped, enthralled!

“Yes, even A Levels”.

I was intrigued by the notion of  blind students managing to pass through the system and turn out prepared for the same exams as their sighted peers.

During the the weeks I sat beside her in the classroom, as she taught English and translated in Sinhala, I shared the nightmare of many class teachers:  trying to cover the syllabus when students have some sort of physical or intellectual disability.

The concept of trying to fill a square hole with a round peg has never felt so apt. These children, many of whom are suffering from mental retardation, are compelled to study English as a subject, and they have to learn higher grade level things even when they don’t know the basics.

In this context, Its almost as if covering the syllabus and actually teaching children is a mutually exclusive concept.

“I am not an english teacher, the english teacher has too much work to do so I was told to take up some classes”

Janet had said this to me on the very first day we met. I could see how difficult it was for her to teach the children, most of whom had learning difficulties, emotional problems and in some instances came from very poor homes.

It will be too trite to say that this is a case of the blind leading the blind, but I have seen her reaching out to the students beyond just teaching them. The fact that she is as blind as her students gives her a connection with the students. Almost as if in the dark world they inhibit, only they understand their own struggles.

During ‘interval’ I have seen her go over to the classrooms and try to coax students, who for one reason or the other don’t want to go out for lunch. One girl who just got blind last year, was a major source of concern for Janet. “I feel so sorry for her, she is like a baby” said Janet. I was in awe of her capacity to show compassion on one who could not deal with a recent blindness when she herself was a victim of the same dreadful reality of sightlessness. I admire her calmness tremendously and benefited a lot from working with her.

As my time with her came to an end, she expressed a lot of gratitude for my help.

“I heard you are leaving Sri Lanka soon” she said to me. Someone had ‘authoritatively’ shared the story that I was in the country only for a short while.

“No, I live here now. I am not going anywhere” I reassured her.

“Ahh, that is nice, come and visit us whenever you have free time.”

It was a complicated thing, trying to give her my contact, she had a phone, but she could not see the numbers so she couldn’t dial anyone without help.

She gave me her brother’s phone number. He picks her up and takes her home with him during the holidays as she lives in the school-hostel premises during the term. Eventually I saved my number on her phone.

“Get someone to find my number on your phone” I said as I left her.

“I saved my name as Maryanne Nigerian, so you can remember me”.

Gaya’s notes: Maryanne is not your ‘ordinary expat’, ‘foreigner’ (what a nice term)  nor is she your ordinary anything. She is a strong young woman who chooses to defend people who have been treated rough by fate. She resides in Sri Lanka and will be interviewed on Gaya’s People very soon. Stay tuned.

BIO

Maryanne Kooda was born and raised in Nigeria and did her graduate studies at the University of Abuja. She taught Business Communication to undergrads and is completing a post-grad qualification in special needs education.  She writes when her rushed mum-student-teacher schedule allows her to clutch at and pin down the many creative threads that spin around in her mind. She is a mother of two lively sons and lives in Sri Lanka.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this beautiful piece…told with such restraint and subtlety!

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