What Wordsworth Knew...

—Rayla Noel

When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.
— Donald Miller

(Whrrr is my son's word for Joy). He, like the rest of us 7 billion, is also blessed with this amazing thing called the Human Mind. Johann is our third child, born blind, hyperactive and needed a home: when he came to us, joy walked through the door again, like it used to, when I was a little girl who played at school on an island off Paradip Port, with parents who made the most of the few choices we had in remote India, surrounded by sea and a simple life. *** I call it the Univesity of Life.

My first real job, at eighteen, was a part-time teaching assignment during college hours, thanks to my school principal who let me work with pre- and primary kids, talking about Tagore, Deserts and Wordsworth.

(I say ‘work’ because the word ‘teacher’ is worthy of people who already have the knowledge on the subject matter. I was, and am a learner. Learners lean on each other through the throes of learning. It is a form of education. Is this very confusing?)

So, the kids and I broke rules—we ploughed through the jungles of Amazon and long-winded scientific definitions, and you must remember I was no ace student. The only way I could cope with too much study was by mixing up books with music and dance; we drew silly pictures in the mud and tapped to multiplication tables. It would prepare me for three kids at home now, esp. Johann, our visually challenged, hyperactive son. During our hunt for the perfect school for him, I met Samarth (Samu), a twelve-year-old kid.

One day while waiting for my son Johann to finish his classes, the principal of Asha Kiran Special Needs School, Mrs Rita James, asked if I would team with her creative/editorial staff. I was delighted to and we turned out a one-hour musical—Just as I am—an 80 kids cast mime/choir, surrounded by blue sky and trees in this sanctuary at Horamavu, Bangalore, for Special Needs kids & parents. What stands out is my time with Samarth, and what I learnt about the human mind.

The Human Mind

***(Age 4-6, I was on an island off Paradip Port where dad made a small green desk for me, and we played School. My mom was a trained teacher and allowed me the joy of lecturing two kids from the neighbourhood, along with a cat, two pet dogs, some wild birds, a jungle and some lazy iguana. Very early, I was taught to ‘teach’, even though I stammered, and was an ambidextrous mess, writing with both hands in reverse. In a jungle there is no mocking, except the silly jackal and fussed-up crow pheasant. Even that is a riot of fun. You learn that your audience may not reply, you run barefooted through wild grass, unafraid. You appreciate dark nights, the silver moon, wild lilies in shallows. You discover your own creative enterprise through loneliness. And one can make poetry out of ‘daffodils’, or jump off a cliff. My parents were the creative directors any Wordsworth would love. They showed me how to respect life in any form, but this story is about Samu: life brought us together, as my own son adjusted to a world of sighted people.

Samu loved paints. However, my initial attempts to make him paint something seemed futile. It was more like I was painting on those square canvas sheets, he wasn't. So we played kick ball, walked around hand in hand, his arm used to be a little limp, and eyes intense, as if in deep thought. It was hard to believe anything like Autism could inhibit his life. On a big white board in the Library we would doodle, draw, name objects we saw on a walk. 'Garden', 'Bench', 'Sun' … there were either spurts of activity or silence.

In the days that followed, I was given the unusual opportunity of communicating with a child who could not talk verbally. We heard each others' voices in silence and little activities in the physiotherapy room, in play pens and jigsaw puzzles. Nothing happened in seconds—I had to wait till we had at least 30 seconds' eye contact and interaction. He had to follow my lead, agree when I called him to sit in a swing. It would happen within that first week, but first I had to learn to wait. Give myself room to discover his latent energy.

It began with a direct look as if asking, "So, aunt Ray, what do you do?"

I replied as if I had heard him audibly, "I paint, Samu. I also write, but I love to paint. It is a language without words, where you and I can create a world of images …"

With help, Samu could use a brush and paint rather well. It was abstract, the colours blended with their own stories. There were 'horses' and 'trees', 'water' and 'earths'. Not everyone appreciates Abstracts, but they allow us our own interpretations. He needed help with clean up, with finding the right brush for the next stroke. We did not speak, the words were the look in his eyes, a turn of the head, a nod, a shake, a flat refusal, vibes, touch: the language of the human mind. Its constant quest for peace—peace that eludes human understanding—a lesson on the spirits of human beings and on the invisible strengths of the mind. Human beings have this innate ability to allow one another comfort zones, freedom, business skills, acumen, if they are willing.

In that first week we had our first laugh. I tripped on my salwar and fell down a slope, my sandals after me. He hooted with joy, then looked directly at me, then at the art room. See? I had to tumble. Then he said, "Paint. Want paint."


We walked casually on, as if nothing unusual had happened. It is amazing how this twelve-year-old grew into an artist whose tiny acrylic abstracts were selling more than my own paintings! What amazes me more is how we connected with each other without words but with all other senses—sight, touch, sound, smell … uh, emotions as well … Well, are there more senses ? Perhaps …

[Beside a basic degree in Psychology and six years of broadcasting experience (human interest stories), a spell with slum schools in Mumbai, and freelance writing, I am far from being a super-mom. We have three kids aged eighteen, thirteen and twelve and I am often too tired to even comb my hair decently! The days with Samu would prepare me for a stint at Personality Development. I have worked with 85 blind kids (my son now studies at Jyoti Seva School for the blind), where I have used my skills in speech and fun therapy, in talking to kids and making them talk. Yes, a Down Syndrome teenager can talk, a paraplegic can dance, wheel chairs can waltz, if we have the right partners].

There are no printed options, no Quick fix Manual. ‘Fun-therapy’ is something that I learnt from my father, and we grew up without TV, iphone and American/Indian Idol. Our parents gave us humour. Dad would hide behind curtains and startle us to make us laugh, we dared cyclones and sometimes lived in the lonely stretches in these port-side villages with a lighthouse and tribals for company. They brought home PG Wodehouse and the BBC, we had picnics and swung hammocks in jungle terrain—these are dangerous fun on tiny budgets, disaster management with a cartwheel thrown in.

Life isn't a bed of roses, not even of dandelions. We have a lot of perspiration and grumble-clubs, but we have our silent heroes as well, our angels of Happy Feet and the songs in the valley. Last week a friend diagnosed my condition as an overdose of positivity—what can I say. I use my face muscles to smile, the kids help keep alive within me the child I really am—they are our Educators, our hopes in these hard times.

I hear Samu is well and happy—he has supportive parents and a good life. We have seen great people lose, we also see our problems reveal unusual options, and challenges. Sometimes we “wander lonely as a cloud …” (Wordsworth) ... “to see a host of golden” … wonders in each other.

The greatest university among all is called Life.

About the Author
Rayla Noel has worked with Broadcast for six years in Bengaluru before moving to Mumbai. She writes poetry and short stories; and has done street theatre with kids while residing in Mumbai for 16 years. She currently freelances at a special school for autistic children in Bengaluru where she helps out with activities that collect established creative persons, especially poets and artists, to interact with some of the kids who have exceptional talent.

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