Maida Benedicta sees no limits to living a full life, writes Soma Basu

One day, Maida Benedicta returned home from school with a high fever. By night she was unable to walk. Polio struck without warning, she hadn't even reached her third birthday then. But she did not allow her disability to come in the way of her leading a normal life. Today, Gonsalves Maida Benedicta is the Head of the French Department at Fatima College, Madurai. She says, “Initially I was gripped with fright and not sure how to cope. But my parents treated me no different than the other unaffected four siblings. They assigned me responsibilities and always encouraged me to do my best.”

A mother's battle

“My mother decided she would teach me to face the world. When she took me to the Railway School for admission and the headmaster denied me a seat, she fought for me. She argued that there was nothing wrong with my mind and I should attend regular school,” recalls Maida.

Seeing her mother fight her battle, young Maida decided to be independent. “I believe you can do anything in life that you put your mind to,” she says.

She completed her pre-university course in mathematics, graduated in English literature, completed a post-graduate course in French and a certificate course in German. She remained a first ranker throughout. She returned to her alma mater with her gold medals looking for a teaching job. The then Principal of Fatima College recognised her talent in communication skills and asked her to counsel students from different streams, besides teaching French.

“I was able to walk a little by then, holding on to the wall. And I always had a big smile on my face. It had an impact on people around me. They did not sympathise with me and at the same time found me approachable,” she says.

“My mother taught me never to feel sorry for myself and that there were people much worse off than me.” Though osteoporos forces her to remain strapped to a wheelchair now, her energy and exuberance have not waned.

After 35 years of teaching, Maida remains a role model and an inspiration to hundreds of girls. Students come to her with all kinds of problems besides academics. Maida always went beyond mere classroom teaching. “Many of my old students who are now professionals settled within or outside India have kept in touch with me and even today, if they have a problem related to any field, they consult me,” she smiles. Her greatest supporter and husband of eight years, Bobby Thomas, says, “Maida's zest for life is contagious. I learn a lot from her cheerfulness.”

Reaching out

“Even though I have physical constraints, I don't miss out on things I like to do. I involve myself in every college function. Disability does not diminish your talent. You just have to show that you can do it. And I guess that applies to even normal individuals.”

With a year to go before her retirement, Maida and Bobby have started an online consultancy service offering counselling in various fields . Her reputation and network has got clients coming in.

“Everything depends on how you speak, convince and care for the other person”. The right attitude and a smile can diffuse any crisis, believes Maida. “When you start at the bottom with a handicap, there is no other choice but to go up.”

(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)