‘Pratibha Hilim’s story inspired us’

By Banamali Barik, Biswajit Mohanta, Manasi Samal, Manoj Pagad and Soumyaranjan Sahu

We used Learning lessons from an un-amputated spirit to teach our students from Class 3 to 9 about gender, disability, incomes and more. As schools were shut during the lockdown, we travelled to their villages, in Jajapur district, Odisha to conduct our classes. The students noticed similarities between our teaching arrangement and Prathibha Hilim’s classroom, among other observations and take-aways. 

Manasi Samal, 26, Telibahali hamlet, Mangal Pur village, Danagadi block: “‘They learn like us?’ my students asked me, after noticing that Adivasi children in Maharashtra were also learning like them – in small groups during the lockdown. 

Both parents and students were curious about how Prathibha Hilim held a pen. So I made my hand into a fist and asked my students to tie a pen around it with tape. That is when we learned the difficulty she might face while writing on paper and on the board. 

I teach 50 students, from Class 3 to 7,  in Telibahali hamlet, Mangal Pur village. Most of them are from ST [Scheduled Tribe communities], mainly Kolha and Saora. Their parents are uneducated. Only if I go, do the children study. When stories like Prathibha Hilim’s come [into the classroom], then both the students and parents take interest. Many parents were happy to learn that she was Adivasi and even wanted to see how she looked! 

During the lockdown, at my home, we were thinking about how to help our mother in the kitchen and make different kinds of food. But Prathibha Hilim was observing how Adivasi children in her village were unable to study and started teaching them for free. This is what I liked about her. As a teacher, even in my mind there was a fear: Corona[virus] can happen to me too. After reading this story, I felt like I should do something, because if we stopped teaching, wherever the students came from, they would be stuck in that life. Child labour is common around here. 

On left: Sonali Nayak, Class – 5, Karishma Mohanty, Class 4 and Janaki Munda, Class 8, students of Gayadevi Nodal school, making a poster about what they learned from Prathibha Hilim

Despite everything that happened to her, Prathibha Hilim still thought of the good for other people. Kar dikhaane ka junoon tha unme [there was a passion that kept her driven]. If these children are able to study and be independent even when I am not around, I will feel like I have done my job as a teacher. Teaching these stories makes a change in the children’s minds. It makes them notice how they face even small problems in their lives and shows them to never give up.”

Banamali Barik, 34, Nachhipura village, Danagadi block: “Sometime towards the end of March, I narrated Prathibha Hilim’s story at a meeting with nearly 20 government school teachers and the Block Education Officer from Danagadi block. I told the teachers, ‘You’re in the government. She’s also in the government. But she didn’t leave her profession. If your village has no corona, then why can’t you go and teach?’

I really liked this story. During the lockdown, I have been traveling four to five kilometers from my village, Kharadabandi, to teach students in Nachhipura. There are around 50 students from Class 3 to 6 in my classes. When the monsoons come, this distance will become nearly 10 kilometers because of the quality of roads. Earlier I used to go by cycle, but more recently, I travel by scooty. 

When I read Prathibha Hilim’s story, the students listened in complete silence. They were inspired by how she did not give up. Even their parents spoke about it during our weekly meetings. Usually, we only discuss the student’s progress at these meetings. But the parents showed a positive response to this story, because it’s not book-related, it’s life-related. At the meeting, one mother and anganwadi worker said: ‘Because she’s a mother, she did not stop. It’s a big role in a woman’s life [to be a mother]. That’s why she is unstoppable.’

Left to right: Babuni Naik, Class 5, Swati Sahoo, Class 7, Priti Sahoo, Class 5, Maheswara Dalei, Class 6 and Chinmaya Barik, Class 6, students of Binapani NUPS school, holding a poster they made, inspired by Prathibha Hilim’s story

Manoj Pagad, 23, Dhabahali village, Danagadi block: “When I was in Class 8 or 9, one of my classmates was run over by a train. He survived, but lost both his legs and had to drop out of school in Class 10. My students know about him, as he also lives in Dhabahali village, and it is with his story that I began my class about Prathibha Hilim. By pairing these stories together, my students began to realise the challenges people with disabilities face to work and study.  

Ladki hoke bhi, woh piche nahi hati [Despite being a girl, she didn’t back down],’ was one student’s response to her story. They noticed how Prathibha chose to teach students no one was paying attention to during the lockdown. It also made them feel sad to see that neither the government nor a private [organisation] supported these children or Prathibha. Students asked me how she continued to teach without support and free of cost. I told them her family and students supported her, just like students support their teacher by learning well, keeping the class clean, wiping the board and putting their things away neatly.

I live in Fulajhar village, which is also in Danagadi block, but about four to six kilometres from Dhabahali village. I cycle to Dhabahali everyday and teach students from Class 3 to 8. When we do these lockdown classes, the children sit on a mat. Before, the students would not actively take responsibility to keep our class clean. After reading this story they have begun to do jhadoo-pocha (sweep and mop] even before I reach!

Students of Binapani NUPS school creating a poster inspired by Prathibha Hilim’s story (left). They have titled it, ‘The Unstoppable Teacher’

One of the questions I asked the students was: when we are unwell, or facing even a small problem, how do we respond?

With their observations, I explained how the health of our body is connected to how we feel. That is why we must take care of our body. Whatever god gives us or however we become later in life, we should not treat it as small. One of my students told me, ‘She [Prathibha] has overcome so much to move forward. Why can’t we? We are just children right now. But we can do anything!’

Even the student’s parents were happy to see them learn about how to make improvements in their lives. As their teacher, I noticed that they have become more helpful. They are more patient with children who are slower in their studies and help each other, even if it means sharing a pen.”

Soumyaranjan Sahu, 23, Nachhipura village, Danagadi block: “‘Why do you teach these stories if it won’t be tested in an exam?’ one parent asked me. I told them if their children face a major challenge, like Prathibha Hilim did, they will know how to handle it. That is why I liked teaching this story. Students asked many questions about gangrene and why there was no remedy to it. Even the younger ones, who are usually nat-khat [mischievous] during class, heard the full story silently. 

Personally, I realised how complex and challenging a single person’s life can be. One question that the students asked often was how Prathibha Hilim managed such big challenges. I responded by telling them the story of Arunima Sinha, who is a mountain climber and sportswoman. She had to have her left leg amputated in 2011. Giving her example also helped because the children were able to see that there are many stories of inspiring women. As a teacher, I felt it was important to be prepared with many examples before teaching stories like these.” 

Biswajit Mohanta, 24, Sulia village, Danagadi block: “This was the first time I taught a story about disabled people. I had not known about gangrene before reading it. For my students too, this was new information. One student asked me, ‘How do blind people work? Or learn in school?’ They began to think differently about people around them.

I stay in Sulia village and teach students from three other villages in Rasulpur block. Every week, I cycle between two to three kilometers to reach them. After reading this story, I noticed all my students felt more confident to face challenges on their own. They were inspired to do something, and stand with courage every day, just like Prathibha Hilim.’”

See their student’s art under ‘Inspired by an amputated spirit’, on the PARI Education website.

This initiative is by non-governmental organisation ASPIRE and Tata Steel Foundation to bring stories of inspiring women from rural India into the classroom. The story allowed the teachers to explore gender, disability, incomes and other issues with their students.

About the teacher

Manasi Samal, Banamali Barik, Manoj Pagad, Soumyaranjan Sahu and Biswajit Mohanta shared the PARI story 'Learning lessons from an un-amputated spirit' with their students in classes 3 to 9.

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