Uma Udaykumar, who works for social causes, is a teacher who is also involved in organic terrace gardening. A mother of two boys, Uma discusses the shortcomings of the schooling system in the city. She spoke to our Bangalore-based interviewer Arun about how she was correct in trusting her instincts and not accepting when her son’s teachers suggested that he might have a learning disability.
Uma Udaykumar, 50, Teacher/ Terrace gardener, Bangalore
Interviewed By Arun Maharajan
Why did you decide to give us an interview on the schooling system?
I thought what happened to me and my sons was unique. However, the more I interact with other parents, I see that it’s quite common. We, as parents, assume things are going great when we see 200-300 students graduating from well-recognized schools every year, but a lot of kids are falling through. And not because they belong to dysfunctional families or have some special needs. I’ve noticed most students who can’t make it are grossly misunderstood by the schooling system or the teachers who’re handling them. Many of these kids, I’ve seen, have above average IQ which the school is unable to understand. Either because of large number of students in a class, where a teacher is unable to focus on every student…
Yes, it’s difficult. I was a teacher myself. There were 60 kids in front of me. It was so hard to give them that individual attention.
But there are issues in a smaller school also. Such schools are not able to fit those students in their structure. A student might have needs that are extremely different from what the school is offering. In the end, the student either stands out from the crowd or the schooling system is unable to engage him/her. Both my sons have issues with the schooling system.
Would you like to share with our readers about what happened with your sons?
One of my sons was doing very well. He showed an exceptional interest in creative writing so I put him in an alternative school for three years where he could pursue that. And then I put the younger one in the same school as well so that they both can focus on what they’re really good at. Eventually, both my sons had to go for ICSE board. It was not a bad thing but they did not fit into the existing rigorous system. They used to question everything and couldn’t handle it. My youngest was only 9 years old at that time. The teachers at the school would punish my son for not doing well in class. There was no violence, but the punishments affected him mentally. When I and my husband realized what was happening, we put him in a local day school where there were smaller groups of kids per class.
Did putting him in a different setup help?
We thought he would receive better attention from the teachers there, however, my son had started showing nervous mannerisms. He couldn’t join the clique and he wasn’t doing well academically either. And nowadays, teachers just call the parents and say, “Something is wrong with your son/daughter, get him/her analyzed. Maybe there’s a learning disability.” Back in my days, the teacher would sit with me and make me understand things if I was doing poorly in a subject.
How did you deal with what the teachers were saying about your son?
We ran from pillar to post to know what the issue with our son was. Luckily, we had good counsellors who said there’s no issue with his mental health, but the child has been treated badly. He had keen interests in a lot of things which were rare. Unfortunately, because it was only a group of 10 or so kids in his class, he didn’t like a setup where his interests were not being addressed.
Do you think such issues can be resolved only with some parental support?
Yes. My younger son scored badly in his 10th grade exam. And we knew he wasn’t going to do well and were just waiting for the results and move on with life. See, he wasn’t really exam-oriented. If there were 10 questions in the paper, and if he didn’t know all of them, he’d just answer two of them and leave. You’re not supposed to do that in the board exam. So, after 10th grade, he started studying for his 11th and 12th from an open school with the help of a tutor at home. And he’s coping really well. In spite of all that the schools said about him, that he can’t study science or is weak in math, he’s pursuing science right now. And with great interest! Typically, a parent would’ve put a child like him in humanities. But we saw he had a curiosity for life sciences, it was just that he thought he couldn’t do it. He was very keen about studying science though.
To me, this sounds like good parenting. What was running through your mind, as a mother, when all this was going on?
It’s not over yet. We don’t know what he’s going to do after studying life sciences. The story is not over yet.
I’m asking about your story.
Obviously, it’s tough. It’s very difficult when 10 highly educated people come and tell you that there’s a serious issue with my son, that he’s not able to get along with people at all. And there was a point when I actually believed it. It’s really tough to come out of that and set everything aside and look at him and understand him. I’ve gone through very low periods. But I’m surprised at myself about how I kept my calm during the process. I would call up my close friends or my sister and talk it out. Meditation and yoga also helps (laughs).
What was the driving force to keep everybody’s judgement aside and believe in your son again?
For instance, my son never read books like Harry Potter, but he read all of Kenneth Anderson’s books about forest and tigers, etc. When he was 8-9 years old, he would read Sanctuary magazine front to back. He was able to quote statistics about such high-level stuff. I could see some spark in him. But that’s not what the schools want. They just want kids to study chemistry, math, write classwork and homework.
What would your advice be for other parents?
Not to jump to conclusions because with children it’s like an ongoing journey. If your child says he/she doesn’t want to go to college, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to. Wait for the next day, they might say something else. Just wait and look at everything and then decide. It’s like sowing a seed and then waiting. Also, spend a lot of time with your children.
The last question is not related to the topic, but we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
Love is something that sustains for a long time, how you feel about the other person for a long time. Being in love doesn’t last that long, but just love itself is more about enduring.