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  • She Says

Mrs. P. N. Kavoori: The Kids Call Me Badi Ma’am at Disha School

  • JWB Post
  •  June 27, 2015

Over my brief span of working on the Special Daddy Campaign, I have honed not only my art of writing, but also my perspective on relationships. I have had the chance to observe heart-wrenching emotions from different angles, and what has resulted from it, is a more insightful version of me.

As the final endeavor of this campaign, few days back I met a woman who is more than four times as old as me: Mrs. P. N. Kavoori, Founder, Disha School for Special Kids. Being able to chat with her was nothing less than a privilege in itself. Read on, my conversation with this epitome of inspiration!

How did you get inspired to establish a school for special kids?

Well I am writing a book about it, you can read in that. But it will take a few months to publish.

Artwork by Disha kids displayed in the reception

I am not a special educator. I am a developmental educator. I’ve been in mainstream education for 45 years or 50 years. Education administration was my forte. In all these years, Priya, a very heartbreaking sort of experience I used to have each year at the time of admissions. And even without admissions, in the middle of the year, parents of children with Learning Disabilities used to come to me. You see, if you have a disability which is very obvious, you get some attention. Children with learning disabilities are the most severely marginalized. They are intelligent and quick on the uptake. But when it comes to certain areas of learning like reading, writing or mathematics, then they are completely out of their depth. I knew they were brilliant children. I knew they deserved a very good school. But the norms of admission were so much in favor of children who were so called “normal”, that I could do nothing about it. It hurt me badly, I used to question my own conscience that is it alright what you’re doing?

I could see the remorse in her eyes as she continued speaking…

When Rajmata Sahiba sent me to Jaipur to open SMS School, I talked to her about children with learning disabilities. She said let us build up this school, and then we will think of that. 12-13 years passed, and this conscience of mine kept on troubling me. The parents of these kids were helpless, and these children were called naughty, rebellious, disturbing, lazy, useless, and what not! They were dubbed like anything which was wrong. So finally, I decided to leave SMS. I thought that I will start a centre but I had no money, no resources.

I asked on the phone, the jewellers and the rich people, that I wanted to start such a centre, please give me donation. Khaitans are a family of industrialists. They said that they would stand by me for everything. That is how I took the courageous step. We started in a small 2-bedroom house with a basement. When we opened, the rush for admission was for multiple disabilities, whereas I wanted to serve the learning disabled. The parents were absolutely desperate. I didn’t know what to do. I decided not to leave them out, and started a centre for multiple disabilities instead.

Was your family always supportive of your decision to serve the disabled children?

When I took this step, both of my sons had grown. They had fled the nest. My husband had also retired. Of course there were problems. They wondered how I would live without earning. But nobody told me “No”. On the contrary, my husband drafted the whole thing for me. He was an internationally well known Social Scientist. He told me, “I will draw the whole thing for you. You just put your heart in it.”

Back in that time what challenges did you face?

My whole motivation and objective was to love, to serve, to help. But for this you need money. Finances were one of my major challenges. The second major challenge was trained personnel. You cannot handle multiple disabilities unless you are trained. There was absolutely nobody.

So then how did you gather the faculty?

We began with volunteers only. We had just one person who knew something about learning disability. Then we started a training centre. We got affiliation and recognition from Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). We began with offering a diploma, and later introduced a B.Ed. degree for special education. That’s how we solved our problem by doing things all on our own.

What is the one special thing you tell the teachers who join this school?

Just yesterday I told my teachers that something special!

These kids are wonderful and very unique. The basic two things they need are love and patience. They cannot be handled like objects the way people are being handled now. So, if you are a commercial and totally heartless person, like the present system of MBAs, working at each other’s throat, then please don’t join. You must feel that you are special and are chosen for doing this. You are not working; you are going on a journey of self discovery and enhancement in your own life. This job is very spiritual. You can’t be a negative person and work here.

Do you often interact with the children? How do they address you?

Badi Ma’am! Her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree when she said this.

They know I can’t walk very well. They come when they wish to come; otherwise we are together here on the playground.

Tell us about a father’s role in the development of these kids.

The duration and effectiveness of the rehabilitation that is done here depends on cooperation of the home folks. Fathers play a very important role. Whatever they do, usually the mother and the children also approach in the same way; in the Indian context, that is.

We have two case studies here.

There is this girl, Ambika. We trained her for the library assistance for more than a year. She got a job at Clarks Amer. This girl, she was so excited, she would say “I will dress up nicely and go to Clarks.” But, her father didn’t let her take the job, worrying about how she would cross the road, how she would reach there. This has to be taught! He will have to take the trouble of travelling with her for some time. Even the parents of normal kids do that!

Then there was another child.

A very difficult child, with social problems, personality problems and very low learning levels. But his father is so cooperative, that you won’t believe this boy is a leader in Disha now. Very well adjusted, very important in class, and very precious for all of us! He dances beautifully, and is a swimming champion.

Just as she mentioned swimming, it rang a bell in my mind. I asked her if she was talking about Ankit, the swimming champ whose father I met a few days back. She confirmed.    

We need fathers who understand and support. They should help us in settling their children.

You have created better childhoods for so many children throughout your life. Do you recall any of your fond childhood memory?

My childhood? That is history! She laughed whole-heartedly.

Just then one of the teachers entered the room, and Kavoori Ma’am exclaimed: “Wow!”As I turned back, I realized that was a compliment for the teacher’s attire! The teacher keenly greeted Kavoori Ma’am and they indulged in some work-related conversation which bounced over my head.

If you were given a chance to go back in your life, what would you have done differently?

The kind of attention and the kind of quality time that I gave to my children, if I had the chance, I would like to go back and give them much more. My job took me away. So that is what I would like to do differently.

What are your dreams for yourself and for this school?

For myself? What is the time frame I am looking at! I am writing a book about the journey of Disha. 12000 words. She said excitedly!

I just hope such schools don’t become business centres.

Here, they are planning to start the learning disability centre, especially Mrs. Khaitan. She has stood by me all these years. She tells me before you go away from the world we better start that learning disability, otherwise you’ll come back.

So, you will be the initiator?

No, I won’t be. They will do it. I will only agree with what they do. I don’t interfere in the matters of Disha anymore. I am just an ornament.

From what I have noticed, I think you are much more than just an ornament. You are the one who is injecting all the support and motivation into the system.

To this, she laughs, and says, “I inject a lot of love in them; both the teachers and the children.”

What is the best compliment you have ever received from the children here?

There is a boy. Once, he was passing from here with his teacher. He cannot talk, so he struggled with his hands to come inside my office. Then he came and stood in front of me, and looked at me as if he had found the world. His teacher tried to take him, but he wouldn’t go unless he had seen me. That was a big compliment for me.

All the freckles on her face conjoined to reflect the happiness she felt when she spoke of this boy and his affectionate gesture!

I have a personal question that has been bothering me, and I believe a lot of people of my age. Can we indulge in social work and also earn at the same time?

Money is a problem here at Disha. What you can do is that you can devote some of your time. The kind of earning you will do in the outside world, in honest social work you will not be able to get. In dishonest social work, there are crores!

Just then our photographer Nupur dived in the conversation with a question: Disha being so popular today; do you still face problems with funds?

A donor will give only to a certain extent. Kab tak dete jayenge! Our children need to be supported; all of them do not pay fees. The parents who can afford pay an amount of rupees 1500, but that is just one-tenth of what we spend on each kid. Teaching aids, rehabilitation aids, latest gadgets, all this requires lots of funds, which is why finance is a constant problem.

What is the one thing you tell every special parent?

Accept your child. Be equal partners in the rehabilitation journey, no matter which institute it is.

What have you learnt from these kids?

They have taught me perseverance. These special children are much more beautiful than the normal children because their honesty and effort is incomparable. They are in so much pain, but they bear it. On the face of it, they will clap, they will dance, and they will laugh!  I have learnt from them the ability to remain happy in spite of all odds. They are special people.

Another teacher entered the office, and took Kavoori Madam’s blessings by touching her feet. She enquired about her health and Ma’am said,”Chal rahe hain,” to which the teacher replied, “Ma’am hum chalte chalte daud jayenge!”

Today when you look back, you must be very satisfied with your life, right? That you could act on your chance to serve.

I am grateful that I was given the chance, but I don’t ever feel that I have done anything. Because it has all been done through me, maybe I was a catalyst. If I say I have done all this that would make me a hypocrite.

Disha has given me so much. What have I given to Disha really? All the respect, all the love, and at this age the insistence for me being here, never allowing me to lie down! I am a cancer patient; I’ve fought it for 50 years. They know if I lie down alone I won’t get up. Somebody comes from Disha to get me if I don’t come.

Look what Disha has given me! Look what these children have given me! I cannot say I have given anything to them.

 Just as she said this, my respect for her quadrupled! This woman in front of me is a true figure of courage, strength, determination and humility, all weaved together in the thread of love! I left her office with a smile on my face and inspiration in my heart.

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