In this series, ‘True Story’, under Insights, I bring out human stories that will help us pause and reflect, stories that are certain to give us insights.
This time, I bring you the story of Kavitha Sameer Angre.
Kavitha Sameer Angre’s personal experiences fueled her dreams. Today, not only are her dreams a reality, her approach has gone viral creating more dreamers and more realities.
I caught up with Kavitha over tea at her farm off Kanakapura Road, Bangalore.
I was a quiet child, afraid to go to school. I still remember an incident when I was 10 years old. There was too much noise in the class and I was sitting in the class with my palms over my ears, trying to shut out all the noise. Suddenly the teacher appeared. She was very angry with the class and she hit every one of us. I felt very bad because I was not at fault. I was probably the only one who was quiet. This incident left a deep impression on me.
My brother who was two years younger to me had difficulty in learning. We were in the same school. Our Kannada teacher was a terror. Once my brother came running to me. He was very anxious and had tears in his eyes. The Kannada teacher had caned him and had called for me. I could sense utter helplessness in him.
Our parents were veterinarians. My father’s dream was to see me as a psychiatrist but when I did not score well in academics, I could sense deep disappointment in him. My father passed away when I was 19 years old. His death changed everything.
I began working at a home for destitute children for some pocket money. I enjoyed teaching children who were struggling with academics in school. I would break down the lesson and help them understand bit by bit. In this journey, I saw children, who despite everything going for them, were not doing well at academics. I began focusing on them. As word got around, some students who had been diagnosed with some learning difficulty through an assessment conducted by a prominent organization, began approaching me.
By this time, I was already married and had had a baby. I was working out of my two-bedroom home at Jayanagar, Bangalore. More and more families who had children with learning difficulties began reaching out to me. The Assessment organization was also referring them to me. I had gotten good with teaching. By now, I was teaching students following ICSE, CBSE and the State Board formats. I was preparing them for the NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) examinations.
Life had become hectic. I was balancing my time between my teaching and my own family. I was teaching children from 6 to 9 in the morning and dropping off my own kids to school. My teaching would resume from 2 in the afternoon and go on till 10:30 in the night. It was getting very difficult to operate from my one-bedroom home. I decided to move to my farm on the outskirts of Bangalore. It was a major decision but it was to help me spend more time with my family.
Since the farm was on the outskirts and difficult for people to access, I decided to wind down my teaching role and took up a role as a Showroom Manager for one of the organizations selling furniture. But calls from the parents of the children that I had been teaching kept coming. They requested and pleaded with me to resume the classes. I could not say no and stole some time during the showroom’s lunch time to go over and teach the students. I had also realized that teaching is what I really loved.
Meanwhile, tragedy struck. My brother developed a tumor in his brain. He died out of medical complications. Sadly, the image of my brother that appears in front of me even now is that of a 3rd grader, wearing his spectacles with tears in his eyes. I can still recall his helplessness surviving in the mainstream school and I wonder if I could have done something about it.
I had found my life purpose.
I quit my job and pursued a course in Special Education. I started taking classes at a rented one-bedroom home in Jayanagar. Interestingly, my students came up with the name for my center. They would say, ‘chalo Paatashaala chalein’ (‘let’s go to school’ in Hindi). Paatashaala was born with 3 students and quickly went on to have 15 students. I then moved Paatashaala to a garage.
Over time, I was able to notice the gifts in children. I realized that this was happening because I was probably connecting with the inner child in them.
For instance, I saw one child who always wanted to be with Nature. He never wanted to be inside the classroom. He would stare at all things natural. While everyone outside thought he was weird, his mother was very happy leaving him with me – she said he was very comfortable with me. I realized that he was a child of Nature. With time, he was, virtually, a Nature encyclopedia, all self-taught.
Another child would be violently sick on Tuesdays and Fridays – I later realized that these were the days when he had his Sanskrit classes in school – he hated Sanskrit.
Yet another child weighed 110 kilograms due to a medical condition and she wrote in shaky handwriting, something she was ridiculed for. Her memory was very good. I found a scribe for her and the child passed both her 10th and 12th Grade exams.
By now, Paatashaala kids were getting into 10th and 12th Grade but they were reluctant to take these examinations. I knew how important it was to get these basic educational qualifications.
I knew that not having these basic qualifications, the world would shut the door of opportunities on their face. I had to think of something imaginative and this was the time I introduced the older children to having a ‘Big Dream’.
The dreams that the children came up with were audacious. One of them wanted to work with animals and open a pet sanctuary, another one wanted to educate children in rural areas using experiential education . There was a third who wanted to set up a Star hotel, and then there was one who wanted to explore therapy using pet dogs for children with special needs. I positioned the 10th and 12th Grade exams as necessary steps to pursue their Big Dream. It worked.
20 years and 300 children later, I have had some insights:
– Every child has tremendous potential to excel if provided the right environment for that particular child. For instance, a child fails Math in 7th Grade in a mainstream school but goes on to secure 3rd position in Psychology Masters. Another child fails in Math in Pre-University but secures 3 gold medals in her Masters in Environmental Sciences.
– It is not the academics but the trauma of the conventional school environment that is scaring these children – why is it that mainstream schooling is taking away the passion to learn?
– ‘Average’ is not acceptable today but the majority of the world is and will continue to be ‘average’.
– The issue is not with these children, the issue is with the parents’ and society’s expectations.
– A corporate culture is seeping into schools and in parents – a culture of stiff goals and deadlines. Some children are just not able to cope.
I am left wondering: is the real problem that a child’s infinite potential is being assessed by society’s (and/or parents’) narrow frame of reference?
Are adults the problem? I would think so.
To learn more about Paatashaala, please visit www.paatashaalafoundation.org.