27 February 2013

If no one is to be left behind…

My first experience with a ‘sports meet’ was in 1970 when my older brother, then in the first grade was readied for a fancy dress parade by our mother, her sister and the sister’s boyfriend.  There was a lot of fussing around which I didn’t understand.  He was dressed as a Berec battery.  ‘Berec’ then was a household name and he looked quite a battery.  It was when I entered school that I understood what the fuss was about.  When I was in Grade 1, a classmate, Gihan Wijeratne, dressed as a bride, won the first prize.  I remember that there were races, but that’s all a blur. 

Sports meets became less frill and more competition as the years went by.  I wasn’t an athlete, only an enthusiastic spectator.  I returned to ‘sports meets’ after a lapse of several decades when my daughters entered school.  They are enthusiastic and their enthusiasm outstrips ability for the most part.  It’s a parents-must-be-there thing and so every year I go to see them run and, as they grew older, cheer. 
Each year, I’ve silently rooted for the girl who seemed most unlikely to win, and I suppose like most spectators felt for the one who tripped and fell, the one whose lime fell off the spoon many times and yet finished the race and of course for the ‘Special Needs’ kids who took part, as competitive as any other girl. 

This year, I was late and I had to leave early too, but I was there long enough to take two strong impressions away.  There was a dance item performed by two groups, one Kandyan and one Karnatic.  There was laudable synchronicity.  The music, at least part of it, sounded ‘Western’.  ‘Seamless’ is the word that came to mind.  An earlier dance item had conditioned me to accept this ‘harmony’ as an integral part of the way Ladies’ College does things. 
That item was performed by the ‘special needs’ children.  Among the trainers, I later found out, was a young girl who herself had attended the ‘special needs’ program of the school.  They were as synchronized as those who performed the more stylized dance item a few minutes later.  They received the loudest applause.    

What touched me most was what happened as they walked-skipped off the ground.  The Principal, Nirmali Wickramasinghe took the microphone and called out their names, each one of them.  Some were still basking in the after-glow of performance and applause.  Some were looking for their parents. Some had to be taken by hand and led to the Principal who distributed special certificates to them.  She hugged each of them, demonstrating affection that I’ve only seen offered the very young. 
I’ve heard the line ‘no one should be left behind’ in discourses on education.  Easy to say, I’ve often told myself.  This is ‘inclusive education’.  Inclusive, most of all, because dignity is clearly considered a cornerstone of the entire process.  The school and the rest of the student population don’t treat these students as ‘special’ or objects of curiosity and by this very fact make the process extra special. 

Most importantly, by recruiting people who are impaired in some way to help these children who need very special instruction, the school has demonstrated that it is not enough to create a wholesome environment of learning but it is equally important to find ways of making post-school life meaningful.  It is time, Mrs. Wickramasinghe said, that the corporates get creative in finding ways that those who graduate from these programs can be useful to society in some manner.  Three of the instructors are themselves impaired.  They teach art, dance and handwork.  That’s a ‘yes we can’ story right there. 
The ‘houses’ were beautifully decorated, like in any sports meet of any school, way back in the 70s and right now.  There were breathtaking performances, come-from-behind wins and wonderful athleticism overall.  A few years from now it will all be a blur, the races and the cheering, the decorated houses and the cheers.  I don’t remember the faces of the kids who slipped a few years ago (they grow so fast!) and a few years from now I might not remember the names of the houses either.  But the expression on a teacher’s face and the joy evidenced by a student’s broad smile will take some forgetting. Hopefully ‘unforgettables’ such as this would prompt all of us to think more seriously about simple things like ‘no one should be left behind’ and of course what ‘inclusivity’ really means. 

It cannot be just a momentary embrace, a tear-jerker of a photograph and a nice story to write.   To leaving no one behind, we have to hold things closer to the heart, one another too.  It’s as simple as that. 


Dileeni said...

Malinda, this is the school I went to. I am happy to read this article and the way the Principal has conducted the event, so that all children are made to feel inclusive.

Mihiree said...

Hi Malinda, I am also an old girl of LC and this is my second sports meet after a long break. This inclusive spirit is not unique to this years meet, but something ingrained into the school itself. Raising kids in a day and age when school sports is a war to win celebrating moments like this makes my heart sing.

Mihiree said...

Hi Malinda, I too am an old girl raising children in an age where childhood is undermined and school sports has turned into a merciless battle to win. Moments like this make my heart sing...and the best thing is its not unique to this years sports meet either, but part of the spirit of the school.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i am happy that they are allowed to be children. that's a big plus.