There was a girl in kindergarten class who was a little fey. But in a nice way. She was artless and quite naive. She did not have the skills for social cunning that other children had already started picking up. The girls would sometimes make fun of her and the boys would ignore her. This made her socially insecure and she would try harder to fit in. This mostly bore fruit and the girls would allow her to hang out with them and the boys accepted her during group situations. Suneeta showed no conspicuous struggle with academics. Only sometimes she was too busy getting peer approval to focus on class activities. Mostly all was well in a young primary life in just another kindergarten class in the city.

Till she got the attention of the class teacher. Almost all class teachers I have observed suffer from the German Shepherd syndrome. German shepherds were originally used to keep the flock together and could immediately notice if a sheep was out of line. Teachers too are given tasks to take the class towards a particular academic goal (even in progressive pedagogies) and they find it easier to do this by keeping the flock together. Their senses become trained, like a German Shepherd, to pick out the one not fitting in. And like the German Shepherd the teacher quickly swings into action.

During project times when the the class would break up into groups in all corners of the class the teacher would announce that she would work individually with Suneeta. All peer ears prickled at this piece of information and just a momentary flash of panic crossed Suneeta’s face. Every child in the class had noticed that she was singled out, therefore she was not one of them. After a while in the buzz of  project activity the tired exasperated voice of the teacher rang out. ‘ O but Suneeta, you can’t understand basic things.’

Very soon, over the weeks, there was a distance between her and where the other children sat. Her persona started shutting down, she looked dazed and lost. During project activities the teacher now would walk out with Suneeta, and would appear increasingly exasperated after the class was over. Suneeta looked increasingly confused and unhappy. She could not understand why even though she was receiving the teacher’s personal attention (so precious for a young child) things were not working out for her. The girls had started becoming nasty and the boys were actively avoiding her. She started becoming withdrawn and the sunny disposition turned to sullen. She started stammering in class and would freeze when the teacher asked her an academic question.

Soon the parents were summoned and were asked to get her tested. As if she was suffering from a disease. Nothing conclusive came out of the psychologist’s report but given that now there is a new fangled term for almost every human condition, she was fitted into some category. And that was it. That was all it took to throw her into the special needs shredder. Very soon she was being pulled out of general classes for individual special education classes. No one really knows what happens in these individual sessions, but I suspect this is where active shredding of the child’s confidence takes place. There are no records of these sessions, because there is no pressure of learning outcomes for children with special needs. The school however keeps a meticulous record of Individual Educational Plans that are never followed because either parents don’t question its redundancy or actively endorse it in full faith.

The Special Needs Department loves Suneeta, because she’s- neurotypical! She requires no work at all and special educators vie to take her classes. This results in her spending most of her time away from her peers and a growing distance from her academic goals. Meanwhile children with quantifiable special needs are forced to come to school with support facilitators who are not accountable to anybody. Special educators will not touch such children with a ten foot barge pole, and they wander through school as if it were a museum or a park. No one will speak to the child on the wheelchair except the attendant who has been assigned for the child’s self care. In the dining hall he eats alone. No one offers to wheel him to the dining hall, or have a conversation with him while he eats. The entire teaching staff eats in the dining hall, but no one stops to say hello, giving a strong message to every child who walks in for lunch, that such children should be left alone.

But special educators love Suneeta, and her day is full of individual classes with them. Her parents are grateful that the school is paying so much attention to her disabilities. In middle school she was diverted to the NIOS programme and her parents are probably grateful that she has been spared the pressures of formal board exams. Her curriculum is now completely separated from her peers, who unlike her, are the ones chosen to keep the academic reputation banner of the school flying.

She is in senior school now. She wanders the class corridors alone and rarely smiles.

I cannot but relate a comparison that comes to mind. When Vikram Seth was given the privilege to be the guest speaker during Founder’s Day in his alma mater Doon School he took this opportunity to condemn the school bullying he was subjected to by his teachers and peers. He was small built in a sports centric school, he was bright, lonely and a misfit. But he managed to get his back at a school that treated him badly when he was growing up. 

Would he have been able to do this if he was labelled with special needs? Does he even know what an excruciating privilege it is not to be labelled special needs? Would he have been able to write all his books and come back and dis his school if he was forced to take the NIOS?

Would Suneeta’s life be different if she had not been labelled when she was in pre-school? We will never know. All that we do know, is that her spirit is broken, and she is scarred for life.