The Jai Vakeel School
In 1999 I went to India to do a series of lectures and some consulting on the use of technology in classrooms to help students with learning difficulties. I made this trip with a good friend and colleague Bart Pisha who is also an expert on the use of technology in classrooms. Neither of us had been to India before so this was a very big trip and experience for both of us. One of the schools we visited in Bombay was the Jai Vakeel School for young people with severe cognitive disabilities. In this school students learned various skills: academic, social, and crafts like weaving, sewing, and other handicrafts.
Tehmi, Richard, and others at The Jai Vakeel School
We toured the school with it’s director, Tehmi Schroff and the head of their occupational therapy group who’s name I don’t remember. Tehmi explained not only what was going on in each classroom but what it meant in terms of the lives of these students. She also explained the research they were doing there.
Richard speaking with staff at The Jai Vakeel School
After touring the school Bart and I did a presentation for members of the faculty and administration, mostly about our own experiences growing up with learning disabilities and how we had managed to work through problems and find our individual ways but we also gave them an overview of what was going on back in the US in special education. Frankly, in retrospect, this relatively poor sheltered workshop was miles ahead of what might go on at an equivalent institution in the US.
Bart and I bid Tehmi and her school farewell and pushed on to many other schools in Bombay and Delhi over the next two weeks. We came home overwhelmed by the experience and to this day we both feel it was the best trip of our lives. We never heard from Tehmi again.
Note: These images are photos I took in India with my Olympus Stylus point and shoot film camera. They weren’t great images and they’re even worse as I shot them this morning with my 5D.
Fast Forward Ten Years
We live in the town of Warren, Connecticut, population 1300. About a year ago, some good friends of ours invited us for dinner and invited another couple who live in Warren who they had just met, Adil and Zarinna Mulla. The Mullas are wonderful, down to earth people who were born in Bombay but have lived in the US for most of their adult lives. Our conversation was wonderfully wide ranging, from US politics (we’re all Obama supporters) to my trip to India.
The view from the Mulla’s deck, Warren, Connecticut
When the Mulla’s found out I was a photographer they invited me over to check out the views at their place and ever since that first visit Zarinna has been calling me on mornings when there is fog on the Shepaug reservoir for me to photograph. We’ve become good friends of both Adil and Zarinna.
Zarinna Mulla at her daughter’s wedding
Knowing that I’d never shot a wedding before, Zarinna and Adil’s daughter and her fiance asked me to photograph their wedding. While I was flattered I was also quite nervous. They had 200 people come from all over the world and they wanted photographs of the event. Thank god the images turned out well and shooting the wedding was a lot of fun as was meeting such a diverse group of people.
The evening before the wedding I was at Zarinna’s house for a rehearsal and her immediate family who had flown in from India was there staying at the house. There was a lot of excitement in the air about the wedding but also a bit of jet lag and exhaustion.
I got myself out of the way and stood over by the kitchen sink next to an older woman who was washing dishes. We glanced at each other politely and she went back to work. A while later I asked her where she’d come from and she said Bombay and that she was Zarinna’s mother. She asked me where I lived and I said down the road in the same town and that I was a friend of her daughter’s. I asked her what she did in Bombay and she said she ran a school. I said that I’d been to Bombay and had been to some schools nine years ago, which school did she run.
She said: “I run the Jai Vakeel School.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right so I asked her to repeat it.
“I run the Jai Vakeel School. My name is Tehmi Schroff.”
My jaw dropped. This was the same woman I’d met almost ten years earlier in India. The same woman who did the research on sheltered workshops and occupational therapy for young people with mental retardation and the same woman I had the pictures of in an album at home.
Tehmi and Richard in Warren, Connecticut
She said I’d looked familiar; she asked me if I was “Richard” or “Bart” as time had conflated the names and we had a long look at one another as we realized the odds of this happening.
Later I drove home and picked up the album from my India trip just to make sure it was real and in fact it was: the mother of my good friend Zarinna Mulla is the same person who I’d met randomly in India while touring dozens of schools.
If that doesn’t make you believe the world is small, nothing will.
Postscript, 2013: Tehmi Schroff passed away this year. She affected the lives of thousands of children in India and I will remember the time we spent together, both in India and here in Warren, Connecticut fondly for the rest of my life.