Towards a Path Less Travelled
Gurpreet Nain (+Video)
From leaving a loving family and a fulfilling career in India, dragging my feet to come to Canada to seek a better future for my children, to relearning a new way of life and finding a new me, the last two years were tough ones for all of us.
Fortunately, for the first time, I got a full-time teaching job. I was both scared of the virus and grateful for the opportunity. In preparation for school, I bought myself a pair of sturdy leather shoes. I loved their understated colour, though they were a little snug on my feet.
Upon reaching school the first day, I was told my class was going to be online now. I walked despondently into my classroom. Empty chairs stared back at me. After all, it was 2020, and we were in the middle of a pandemic. This online thing was a slippery slope for me. A myriad of thoughts crossed my mind. The parents will be watching me while I teach. What if they find fault with my accent or my way of teaching? Then I reminded myself that if I could handle the pressure and workload of a class of 55 children in India, this was going to be a breeze. I proceeded to turn on my computer.
I was assigned a bubbly lot of 26 grade fours. Thirteen of them had special needs. Braeden was one of them, present on the screen but not quite there, with a faraway look in his eyes. As the weeks progressed, Braeden’s attendance started dwindling. He would submit only the assignments he liked and leave the rest. He would never communicate. The only assignments he submitted regularly were bright and cheerful pieces of art, each creation giving an insight into his beautiful mind.
Braeden is on the autism spectrum. He has very defined preferences. I noticed that he has a special liking for cats and Lego toys. Thomas the Tank engine and Harry Potter are his favourite characters. Our one-on-one sessions started with not much conversation. I would fill the silence by reading a book. Soon things started warming up.
I decided to work his preferred characters into his tasks—and voila! Braeden started taking interest. Work was duly completed and started showing up much before the due dates. The crowning glory of the school year was when I cajoled him into writing a story. It was no surprise that he chose Thomas the Tank Engine as the main character. And what an interesting story it was, replete with beautifully rendered illustrations. One book led to another until we had a set of five beautiful story books, each one more engaging than the other.
By the end of the year, a boy who had been unwilling to take part in any class activities was one of my best students. Working with Braeden has taught me that it is all about being open-minded and having a human to human connection. This little boy had unknowingly pointed my shoes in a new direction, giving wings to the hopes and aspirations of students with special needs and integrating them into the mainstream.
This year, I am teaching an online class of developmentally disabled students, all of whom are nonverbal. My shoes still accompany me on this journey, ready to explore and make sense of the silent world of my students—the “children of my heart”. Needless to say, this is the most fulfilling period of my career thus far. I have come a long way. The underconfident me of yesteryear has handed over the baton to a resilient, optimistic me, a proud Canadian, acknowledging the lands on which I stand and ready to give back to my community, in equal measure if not more.