Marie Christine de Rochemonteix:A school with heart

By Sarika Jain Antony

Marie Christine de Rochemonteix, a French national living in Hyderabad, is determined to play an active part in India's literacy movement. Her schools, which take in disabled children as well, offer students a healthy mix of practical, innovative, all-round education

frenchwomanNarsing is just 10 years old; for eight years of his life he was left chained to a cot in his parents' hut, while they went to work. Born blind he was nothing more than a liability.

But things have changed for Narsing now. Today he sits behind a desk in Marica School in Hyderabad surrounded by other children. When he was discovered by Marie Christine, the founder of Marica School, the little boy could only makes some sounds because of a lack of motor coordination. "There was nothing human about him," says Christine. He is now being taught Braille and is happy for the first time in his life.

Narsing, however, is not the only child to be helped by Christine. Salman's parents pulled him out of school because they needed his daily wages. Christine stepped in and gave Salman a job as the school bus cleaner after school hours. Now Salman attends school and also manages to make some money.

Christine's approach has worked wonders for children in the city. She does not make an issue of child labour, but tries to work out a compromise. Keep your work, she says, but don't miss school.

Marie Christine de Rochemonteix, a French national, has learnt this approach after 10 years of hard work in Hyderabad -- a place she has made her home with her daughters, while her husband has moved to the US.

"To begin with there was very little money. You will not believe what all I have done in this country to survive," she says. Being a foreigner she faced a lot of resistance while setting up Marica School, which she started nearly 10 years ago.

To begin with, Marica School had only a dozen students. Now it has 170 children on its rolls. Over the years, Christine has spread her wings further and with the help of a student's father she has not only got a plot of land in Kismatpur, on the outskirts of the city, but has also started a school for villagers' children. Over four years old, this school has 200 students who pay a nominal monthly fee if they can afford it. Both the schools are recognised by the government.

To spread literacy further, Christine has also moved to the stone quarries, to reach the children of the workers. An auto-rickshaw takes two young teachers to the site, armed with slates and chalks, where classes are held in a hut. Christine also urges the older children to do chain teaching by teaching the adults at night. "Anyone who has time and the ability should teach someone else - support your friend," Christine tells the children terming this 'pulling up people from the inside'.

Christine's role, however, does not end with merely providing the infrastructure for these children to learn. She oversees everything herself, including stitching school uniforms for the students. A uniform and shoe bank help in their recycling. She also fights her way for getting books from the government -- not an easy task considering the bureaucracy and also the fact that Christine does not believe in giving bribes to get her work done.

Christine supports all her school activities with self-generated funds, from her family, friends and well-wishers. "Most of the support comes in kind, not cash -- all through friendship," she says.

Innovation is what Christine has extended even to the way in which she runs her schools. Before the bell rings for school to start, the students help clean the compound, which is followed by prayers and exercise. And then come the lessons.

Both the schools have a few disabled and visually impaired students. "They are no different for me, except that they need more care. A blind child may not have eyes but he has the fingers to see," says Christine. The city school has a Resource Room with facilities like a Braille printer and other special equipment. The children learn Braille and typing, they do their assignments on the typewriter and regular teachers have been taught how to correct these. "From here to the computer is easy with text recognition software; so when they are 20 years old they will enter the work market with the same skills as any one else," says Christine.

The Marica umbrella extends over others in unconventional ways too. A child with heart problems received a regular supply of eggs at home. Calipers have been given to children with polio and operations performed on those for whom it was not too late. Christine tries to see to the nutrition and medical needs of the children and is also helping rural women to set up livelihoods. A woman with polio was motivated to set up a papad-making business and tailoring classes are being held for village girls.

Christine lives in a part of the village school building, commuting to the city every day. Her spartan home is merely a pit stop for her, but she says contentedly, "There is a lot of love in the house. The air is clean, my children are healthy." The Marica home sees many visitors. "Very often there are eight or 10 people at my dining table," she says. Everyone is inspired to pitch in and help however they can.

Her college-going daughters have imbibed their mother's philosophy and help her in many different ways. The family now includes two little Indian girls, for whom Christine is "Mamma".

(Women's Feature Service)