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Updated: February 8, 2011 18:25 IST

A lesson in learning

SOMA BASU
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P. Hemalatha. Photo: Soma Basu
The Hindu P. Hemalatha. Photo: Soma Basu

Visually challenged Tamil Teacher P.Hemalatha demonstrates that having sight is not what makes a good teacher. Having vision is,writes Soma Basu

To the 50-odd teachers for 1,600 students at Government High School, Peraiyur, the school principal has assigned the task of taking turns in addressing the morning assembly daily.

But almost everyday, 32 years old P. Hemalatha takes centre stage talking to the students about discipline, self control and motivation, need to work hard, true value of good education and what it means in life and so on.

Every morning, she comes prepared with a new thought, just in case other teachers fail to show up. “I think they suffer stage fear. I don’t because I can’t see who is in front of me. I share what I feel is good and right for our students,” she smiles.

Hemalatha has minimum light perception sideways and only during the daytime. As it grows dark, her vision fails 100 per cent. Yet, she is perhaps the only teacher in her school unfailingly visiting every book exhibition at Tamukkam Grounds to pick up interesting books for her students.

“I just give them away randomly as prizes to students who perform best in any subject or activity. Rural schools always face dearth of money and good books. I am trying to contribute in my little way and help build a small school library too,” says this visually impaired Tamil teacher whose students have been doing her proud. For last three years, the Class X school topper in Tamil has been scoring more than 95 per cent.

“To teach or to learn, eyes are not so necessary. But unwavering will power, inclination and interest, self-drive and the killer’s instinct to prove yourself is,” she says.

Hemalatha’s ability to communicate is outstanding, vouch her friends from MKU and OCPM School.

"When students walk into my classroom, I want them to feel good regardless of their academic standing. I want them to feel that my classroom is a good place to be. I move around and talk to them a lot."

Surely there are certain tasks Hemalatha performs differently from other teachers. She rarely writes on the black board. Most of the time, this verbose teacher for class VIII to X, asks the students to take the chalk instead. She grades her students with the help of readers or friends. She relies on Braille textbooks and audio tapes for curriculum information.

"I need to know properly what my students are thinking, what they are learning or not learning. I also have my own system of evaluation.”

On what she would like to have the most: “Every visually challenged individual, and particularly those in the teaching profession, should have a computer with a scanner, speech synthesizer, and a good word processor.”

Till the age of 10, Hemalatha who went to a normal school, did not realise her deficient eye sight. Even when she did during a health camp, her father could do little for her treatment or cure. He was a daily worker in a textile shop in Chennai and later ran a tea kiosk. His death 12 years ago followed by her younger brother’s accidental loss of vision after a freak fall made things only worse.

But this State Second ranker among visually challenged students in High School exam, was not the one to give up so easily.

She did a double B.A in Home Science and Tamil, B.Ed and M.A Tamil (in First Class with distinction) from MKU.

“Though poor, my parents always encouraged me to study. My loss of vision never held me back from social activities like campus cleaning, village visits, blood donation and Scouts and NSS work,” she reels off.

Smart and soft-spoken, bold and vivacious, this multiple prize winner in music, chess and sport competitions, dreamt of becoming a doctor. “As a child I used to be afraid of injections and wondered how to introduce painless injections. But the practical examination in biology and other science subjects was not for me and I turned to history and language,” she says.

Recipient of Chief Minister Karunanidhi’s letter of appreciation, Hemalatha was initially posted at Government school in Kallupatti.

Her transfer to Peraiyur now means 90 minutes one way journey daily for which she has to change the public bus thrice.

But Hemalatha willingly undertakes every arduous task. She leaves home at 6 a.m. and returns at 7.30 p.m. “Everybody is nice to me. I also mingle with all freely. Bus drivers and conductors on my route know me well and help me,” she shares and follows quickly, “we are not disabled but talented people endowed with a Sixth sense. We should be treated on par with equal opportunities”.

When asked how she packs in so much, Hemalatha brims with confidence: “Good planning, organization and time management make my job easy. I am not a blind teacher but a teacher who happens to be blind. You don’t need perfect vision for classroom discipline and teaching. It is the teacher’s rapport with students, how he or she connects.”

And what she loves to do during her free time. “I enjoy visiting and shopping with my friends or am glued to the TV listening to news bulletins, religious discourses or music programmes,” she giggles. And yes, she is keen to enrol in M.Phil but for her job timings.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference).

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