All India Radio and what it did for me

When I was a child, Vividh Bharati was my everything. We didn’t have a TV then and we couldn’t afford many books (the school library just allowed you one per week). I woke up to Jharokha (a line up of the day’s program) and then had my coffee listening to Rasvanti (or was it Bhoolein Bisre Geet)? At 7.30, I rushed for my shower during Sangeet Sarita (was totally willing to skip the classical bit) and was back for Rangavali at 7.40, packing my bag, getting ready for school but not quite ready to leave home.

At 8 am, Appa wanted to switch to Radio Ceylon for a bit before he left for work, so I endured (and later learnt to appreciate K.L Saigal, Noorjahan and co. (But Wednesday nights, the entire family would be around the transistor, for Binaca Geetmala, tuning Radio Ceylon to a microfrequency that didn’t squish and gargle, especially for the aakhri paaydaan and the Sartaj Geet!)

At the dot of 8.30 every morning, as Appa left for work, humming a Talat Mahmood song, I would switch back to Vividh Bharati for it was time for Chitralok (the only time of day when they played the latest songs). At 8.45, no matter what song was playing, I had to leave for school. I hated it. Some days, I was late for assembly on account of song greed, but thankfully there were no PTMs in those days (I don’t think my parents would have bothered even if there were)

Evenings were for Amma – there was a total line up of South Indian songs -Tamil, Malayalam and also Telugu and Kannada, some of which she hummed to and the rest of which (the modern ones) she found distasteful. Sometimes I hummed along as I did my homework and Amma was happy I was imbibing some “south Indian culture”

Post dinner and the rituals, I reclaimed my radio back with Hawa Mahal on which I heard some of the most intriguing radio plays and then bed time was Chhaya Geet with golden oldies at 10 pm. Some days, I couldn’t have enough, and sneaked in Bela ke phool at 11 pm, after all the lights in the house were out (I would hide the transistor under my pillow)

There was also the hour-long Jaimala (song requests by soldiers) and once a week, a celebrity anchored this (Vishesh Jaimala)

Years later, post an M.Pharm from UDCT, when I didn’t know what to do with my life, AIR saved me again. I used to moonlight as an interviewer for their Science channel and got paid 275 rupees per interview (I think it may have been my first income). My family would sit around the radio on the day of the telecast, listening to me quiz doctors and scientists on acupuncture, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, effluent treatment, power generation, pesticides, bacteria, viruses and other such.

Today as I entered the local radio station to arrange a tour for our school kids, so many memories came flashing back and I felt grateful for having grown up in simpler times, when all it took to fill your world with joy was sounds from a transistor. Sometimes it wasn’t even yours.

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Thoughts on Teacher’s Day: What I learnt from my students

BY INDU HARIKUMAR

When I think of my school teachers, I think most were real ‘halkats’ ,(colloquial for meanie; has more gravitas) to the point of scarring young minds. Comparing, telling children off, telling them how to bend to authority –these were common. As a mini person, what you said, thought and wanted didn’t matter because you had to mold to fit into the world. You were shown the way to get that job, learn English at the cost of never knowing to write in your mother tongue.

And if you brought any part of who you were to school, like a language or flowers in your hair, you’d be shamed. A remark would appear in your diary: “Please don’t put flowers in your child’s hair. This is a school.”

Any sort of anomaly would be questioned. My sister’s class teacher actually called my mother to find out if we had a father because we all have my mother’s name.(So I was Indu Lalitha  but at some point, I dropped my mother’s name and chose to go with my father’s.) Dissent would be shouted at, called out, made fun of, so that you find the holy route to the right marks, to learn what your text books teach, never question and be a cog in the wheel.

Despite the adults who ran school, I really enjoyed school. But most of my life, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, maybe I just didn’t want to fit in and yet wanted acceptance. I did many things: studied fashion, worked on the web, studied animation, got my bachelor’s degree, enrolled for my master’s, looked at schools abroad. And desperately  tried to fit in. Then one of my web jobs took me to Chandamama where I started drawing again and did a lot of craft. From there to a publishing house, as assistant editor – children’s books then to freelancing.

While freelancing, I signed up to volunteer with Mumbai Mobile Creches. I was to teach a class on a construction site. Mostly craft. We had no budget and very eager children. For the first class I picked up leaves, I was nervous, the children were very well behaved. Over the next few classes, I asked them what they wanted to do. Mostly because I was so clueless, some would say – “Didi, Aeroplane banate hein.” We’d go with popular choice, the materials were all picked up on walks.

Since, there was no agenda except to have fun, new ideas were always welcome. The children came from different parts of India and spoke various languages. Most  could not read but they would pick up  books, look at pictures and tell stories. One of the stories:

Ek Tote ko bhook lagi thi. Woh Udh kar ek mirchi ke pedh ki taraf gaya. hai, kitni saari mirchi! phir usne teekhi teekhi mirchi khayi. bahut saari mirchi khayee. phir jungli janwaar neeche aaye. unhone kaha humko bhi thoda mirchi do. tota bola, yeh mera hein, mein kyun doon. Janwaron ko gussa aaya. unhone Haathi ko bulaya. Haathi ne pedh ko jadh se ukhaad diya. Saari Mirchi neche aa gayee. Sab ko Mirchi mili aur Tota bhi Udh gaya.

(story of a parrot who ate too many chillies and got the whole animal kingdom into a tizzy)

Often the adult in me would want to intervene and correct the child. Slowly, I learned to let go of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and how tos, had to tell myself, the children will pick their own lessons, learn what they were ready to.

My next big teaching experience was in 2012 in a village school in Haryana. Around the time I was really depressed and we had  a new child in school. Six years old, a runaway. She’d walk with her head held high and do what she pleased with the confidence of knowing that she would get her own way.

She couldn’t be cajoled, she couldn’t be bribed, she couldn’t be threatened.

Once, fed up with trying to get her to listen, I asked her what she’d do if we punished her with no lunch. She looked me straight in the eye and announced, “I will eat mud.”

That look she gave me was the turning point. I was willing to bend so much in my personal life, beg and plead to get some love in return. But with that something started to change. 

To go back to her, when she learned the ABC, it would be “H for hen, I for ice cream,” and then with great seriousness, “J for Jai Prabhu”, no matter how much I tried showing her “J for Jug”. I could only laugh and accept and say, “Yes, J for Jai Prabhu.” 

Another very unique teaching experience was at the German school in New Delhi in 2013 – 14. We were culturally so different, we didn’t speak a common language and I didn’t know the dynamics which made me a little nervous. It took us a few classes  to warm up. I often paid extra attention to see what was happening, to find out if any one was being mean. And my questions were very direct, often I would ask, “Is someone being mean to you?” In no time, someone would come sobbing, telling their part of the story, looking for comfort. And soon the next person  would complain saying, “I was being partial” and start crying.

I would look forward to Wednesdays when I took class. It was relaxing, engaging and very entertaining. We read stories, made drawings, celebrated festivals, they told me about their travels and would be sure I could recreate their vacations on paper.

For Christmas, I took colored handmade pendants for the children. I anticipated them fighting and complaining saying – Oh you gave the best one to her. And to avoid such a situation, I told them – “Look, I have something for you, I don’t know who is going to get which color but I can only give you these if you agree not to fight.” They’d usually keep their promises.

On my last day of class there, the youngest boy who’d keep making rockets, gave a me a book of his drawings. He said, “Mrs Indue, do you know why I like you?” I said I didn’t. “Because you never ask me sit down all the time, you let me run, I like that.” I just smiled, I didn’t how to get him to stop so I never tried.

This year, I haven’t worked with children much but it is something I love going back to. Working with children has taught me that if you don’t ask, you will never receive. 

It taught me a way to distance myself from the negativity of social media.

It taught me to step out of the moulds that we use to define ourselves with – things we like and dislike, what’s wrong and right, dirty, clean, beautiful.

It taught me that it is possible for someone to spend the whole day giggling and saying nothing but “poop poop POOP poop” over and over and over. It taught me that a tight hug and encouraging word  can change many things. 

The art of the matter the language of childhood

About the author: 

Indu Harikumar is an Indian children’s writer, illustrator and art teacher. She likes to turn everyday things into objects of art. She’s recently done a colouring book for adults – Beauty needs space https://www.facebook.com/Induviduality

On phonics, bullying, art and why Neil Gaiman always has the answers

Scene 1:

The other day, I was at the library with Re and I saw another mother and child, sitting beside each other. Libraries always make me think of this piece by Neil Gaiman and smile. So here, a mother was reading to her child. Correction: Child was reading and mother was facilitating. Correction: Child was trying to read and mother was interrupting him every second with, “Tell the sound of the word!”

Normally I have a warm, fuzzy feeling about libraries. Especially children’s libraries, like MCubed, which we are members of.The feeling gets even warmer and fuzzier when parents and children are reading together.

But I am intrigued and confused by phonics for kids. Ever since Re came home and said sh- am- poo one day. A word he surely knew before, but now was saying it in a weird way, I thought. How can breaking something that is whole help in making it a new whole?

Something happened between my childhood and Re’s childhood. Phonics happened. What was this strange way kids were learning these days, I wondered. I looked at his books for the first time. I felt dizzy. I called Maria. She said, “Stay out of it. You will thank me one day.”

I took her advice. She is one of those people I always listen to. No questions asked.

These days, Re and I are best friends. I never ask him about homework or school work or sounds of words. But we talk about everything and discover new words every day. I am just the cool mom who takes him swimming and to the library every week.  Sometimes we go on rainbow hunts and make cards for people and post them.

I am a new kind of hands-on and I love it.

Scene 2:

Re came home with a note one day. It said he had been chosen for an inter-school art competition. I jumped so high, I almost hit the fan. I immediately got on to the Whataspp mommy group that I had muted (for a year) and shared the news. Who else is in, I asked, excited, plotting future art play dates with artsy mommies.

Stunned silence. No reply. I rebooted my phone. Still no reply.

When I checked for the third time, the other conscientious mommies on the group were busy discussing Olympiad and Hindi homework and other such ‘more important’ stuff.

I felt like a badass who was excited about art. I suddenly felt like a bit of an activist about art being considered a ‘co-curricular’ activity and vented on social media.

Many moms and dads jumped in saying, “Of course they do art in school; they also do plays and sing songs and what not. What are you saying?” A mother of a toddler informed me it is part of ICSE. (No less, mind you)

They obviously hadn’t heard me screaming, “But why is it called co-curricular?” And yes, I know that bit about art being the choice for sixth subject in class nine, because I taught in a school. It still doesn’t say much about the state of our curricula.

It’s very hard to make parents think about why they do what they do. So I give up, and celebrate the child and his art and we draw ten more ‘wainbows’

Scene 3:

Re tells me about being hit regularly by a boy in his class. This is not new. It is not the first time he has been hit/bullied and I am a bit depressed and sad.  I tell him to say he doesn’t like it the next time it happens or inform the teacher. What else is one to do, I wonder. Hitting back has never been an option for Re and I don’t want to be the one to suggest it. 

I peep once again into the (still muted) Whatsapp mommy group conversations so see if I can pick up a thread from there. Perhaps they are also discussing behaviour and other issues? No. They are busy sending cheesy Raksha Bandhan forwards or discussing lost and found Math books. And more homework. I run. 

Scene 4:

Re tells me once again about being hit by the same boy and now my maternal instinct takes over strongly. I track down the mother of the boy who starts out being all understanding although intrigued by my concern, because “no one has ever complained about Y before”. I mumble something about how there is always a first time which doesn’t make sense even to me. A few minutes later, she texts to say her son has denied doing any such thing. I then do the unmentionable of saying perhaps he is not speaking the truth because he has been cornered. All hell breaks loose. She then sends me a long list of things I am doing wrong (thankfully encouraging my child to make art is not one of them). I shudder. I write a note to the teacher asking her to change Re’s place of seating, and she obliges. I have learned the art of “this will do for now.” Re teaches me how to make dresses from playdoh. 

make good art

Art is the answer

Scene 5:

My first PTM meeting at Re’s big school and I don’t have a list of question or concerns as I wait my turn and overhear another mother going over the progress of her daughter subject by subject and thinking about how little I know about what he is ‘learning’ in school. Then I think about the art we made and the laps we swam and the books we read and castles and rainbows we drew and feel better.

When my turn comes, I quickly rush through the interaction, while mentioning concerns of the alleged bullying. The teacher explains that Re is an extremely ‘well-behaved” child and the other child is a very “vibrant and expressive” child and so there is a clash of personalities.

It makes sense to me for 30 seconds and then I wonder. Is a well-behaved child really a cause for concern? When did it start being the exception and not the norm? And when did ‘vibrant’ become a euphemism for ‘aggressive’?

I don’t seek answers to these questions. Instead I quickly ask for directions to the art room so I can meet the art teacher.

As Neil Gaiman would say, when everything fails, Make Good Art.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 31st August, 2015)

An English teacher’s ode to Bollywood

I am just back from a class excursion with 50 adolescents. We went rappelling, rock-climbing, jungle cooking, bird watching, star-gazing, zip lining, trust-walking, obstacle clearing, bonfire singing and dancing, tree-climbing and strawberry picking, among other things. It was my first excursion as a teacher. The kids’ hormones were on overdrive, their responses to everything was hugely exaggerated and their ability to talk endlessly often tired me out. But what was interesting is despite our age gap, we had plenty of common ground.

On the onward bus journey which lasted five hours, there were the usually medley of jokes, knock- knocks and smart one liners doing the rounds. I watched, curious, not knowing how entertainment in today’s generation would unfold. Eventually they began singing, and in a few minutes, the verdict was clear. Bollywood won. They were singing my songs, although they were singing the remix versions. I was warned about the power of One Direction in today’s adolescents, but I am sorry to report, you-cute-in-a-monochromatic-way-boys, that you are nothing in comparison to Bollywood. Within minutes, One Direction was out and “Badtameez dil” was in.

I felt a sense of excitement when I sang the lyrics of the original “Bachna ae haseeno” with Rishi Kapoor while they belted the opening bars of the Ranbir Kapoor version. I thought back and realised our excursions were the same. It’s just that our songs were different, our stars were different. It’s Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, Arjun, Deepika, Alia, Priyanka, Katrina (they only refer to their ikons by their first name) for them. It was Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Rekha, Hema Malini, Reena Roy and the gang for us.

But I was overwhelmed that Bollywood music has the same power to unify, irrespective of how the world has changed and how technology has taken over. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I thought to myself, and smiled.

When I was in grade 4, my English teacher, Mrs Ferns asked us to make sentences with a few words she wrote on the board. One of the words was ‘favourite’. I had just watched Chupke Chupke (or was it Charas?) and I wrote, “Dharmendra is my favourite actor.” I knew it was considered ballsy in my time, but I liked him so much, I had to immortalize him on paper. Some of my classmates saw what I was writing and rolled their eyes. “They seemed to say, “I hope you are not going to turn this in!” They were the “good girls” and “good boys”, the ones who were not tarnished by Bollywood. I was the outsider who went for matinees with my dad.

Thankfully, Mrs Ferns didn’t judge me. “Oh, Dharmendra?” she said. “I prefer Vinod Khanna.” It was the first time I realised that liking the movies had nothing to do with doing well at the exams. I always cracked exams, especially English and Math.

For the music vocal exams in grade 4, while most of my class sang bhajans and patriotic songs, I sang “Na jaane kyun” from Chhoti si baat. Thankfully, there was a boy who sang “Maine tere liye” from Anand and so we sort of neutralized each other. I still remember thinking it was cool of him to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the funny thing is, I still like boys who do.

Now I teach kids of grade 7 and 8, and one of my students is high on Bollywood. She told me her role model was Alia Bhat and the only reason she wants to get through school and college is so that she can be more articulate in interviews later in life when she becomes a movie star. To that end, she really wants to get her English right and so that makes her one of my most committed students. I loved her clarity of thought. And thanks to Mrs Ferns, I didn’t judge her.

When I moved to Filmfare magazine as Managing Editor a few years ago, I could sense much speculation about my ‘shocking’ career move among my peers. “Are you sure? Bollywood?”, a few asked. I of course shrugged and said that I would try anything. Now I am a teacher, but my students never wonder about my non-linear career path. They love backstories, and the more I tell them, the more boundaries dissolve in their heads. To them, it’s a big deal that an English teacher comes from a Bollywood lineage, who thinks conversations about the movies and movie stars are also learning. It ups my cool quotient significantly, added to the fact that I have met some of their crushes, even interviewed some.

I think Bollywood is as much a part of our growing up as is Science and Math and the reason it connects with the youth is the possibility that if you are willing to put yourself out, anything can happen. And of course there are other things that Bollywood  teaches you:

  1.  You are only as old as you feel. So yes, you can be in your fifties and shimmy away (and contrary to what you may think, Madhuri Dixit is still a huge hit with the kids as is Shahrukh) if you dare enough.
  2. If there are hobbies or interests that you’ve dismissed as unattainable, it’s time to tackle them head on.
  3. If you can dream big, there is nothing that is truly challenging, scary, or nerve-wracking.
  4. If the boy or the girl rejects you, there is always a song to celebrate your pain.
  5. Thinking out of your league (boy, girl, career, profession, destination) is a risk we must all take.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a great dialog.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on Feb 23, 2015)

Next time you push your children, push yourself a little bit too

So this is going to hurt a little. But often, I find that the most problematic thing about teaching children is their parents.

They come in all shades. The over-protective parent. The helicopter parent. The pushy parent. The lazy but ambitious parent. They may request special attention, feel their children need to be challenged more, give teachers pointers on their teaching, make excuses for their children not completing their assignments, advise house parents on communication skills, want their children to be more competitive, expect school staff to respond to e-mails within the hour, the list goes on.

It’s as though parents send their kids to alternate schools for the right reasons, and then start expecting the wrong things. They think about success. They think in comparisons. They think about milestones, achievements and shiny trophies. It’s like they have already scripted their children’s lives and whatever the child says or feels is irrelevant. Needless to say, children are confused.

I meet them every weekend. I can smell them from a distance.

“Can you give me a list of phrases he can use so his language can become better?” asks one mother. The father is busy looking at the sky, as if to say, “I don’t know how I got here.”

“I am still looking for those,” I say. “Besides, it’s not Math. There is no formula to good writing.”

“But his spellings are so bad! I read his emails and he makes so many mistakes.” She seems flustered by now. She turns to the father.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as he is still writing you long emails and telling you what he feels,” I reply.

They stare at me. “An English teacher who doesn’t care about spellings! That’s weird,” they seem to be thinking.

Another one asks, “So how’s K doing?”

“He’s having fun,” I say. Another stare.

“Give him more work. Tell him what to read. Make him read,” she tells me.

I often wonder, would you tell a doctor or a chef how to do her job? Then why does it become okay to tell teachers?

A third says, “She doesn’t read!  During the holidays, she watches TV all the time or is on Facebook!

“Oh! What do you read?” I ask him.

“Me?”

“Yes. Do you read?”

“Well, I want to, but I hardly get the time with my work,” he says. He seems offended. I have my answer though.

It goes on.

“How’s H doing?”, asks his father.

“I think he has really opened up, and is writing without inhibitions these days. He used to shy from putting words on paper, so this is big,” I say, beaming.

“But his grammar is bad, no?”

When I moved to be an English teacher at a residential school, I came to a bunch of students, even the best of who didn’t know the difference between its and it’s and to whom, books were either fiction or non-fiction.

I could choose to do one of two things: tell them all that was wrong with them, their spellings, their punctuation, their grammar, their sentence construction. Or I could teach them to find their voice, to write without inhibitions, to express their thoughts without the fear of making mistakes.

I chose the latter. I chose well. There was a time when a paragraph would make them groan. Now I give them 500 words and they go, “What? That’s it?”

Here’s the thing. We read words visually. If a child has put a word out there, he/she knows what it means and how to use it. If children are corrected or reprimanded each time they use a wrong spelling, they may fall out of love with words very soon.

To every parent that is constantly dissatisfied with their child, I want to ask this: When was the last time you tried something that scared you? When was the last time you taught yourself how to make a Dragon’s Egg? When did you last read a genre that intimidated you? When did you last tell yourself, ‘I am not very good at X or Y, so let me take an online course.’? When did you last do something knowing fully well that you would get it wrong?

So take some risks. Break some barriers. And don’t tell your children what to do. The best thing you can do for your child is to set them free. Allow them some control over their lives. Ask them what classes they want to take. Give them the opportunity to make some decisions and watch them smile in return.

And above all, listen. Listen when your children speak. When kids feel like their parents truly listen to them (about spotting a nightjar near the art room to the 100 metre race they almost won), they feel more connected. This increases their self-confidence and increases their overall happiness. They are more likely to take healthy risks. They are confident and secure in their decisions. They learn that sometimes people make mistakes, but there is always a chance to right a wrong.

I know that in the age of social media, conversations are old fashioned. But have them. They will last longer than your smartphone.

 (This first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 2nd February, 2015. If you have something to share, mail me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

Is anyone teaching kindness?

I have been there before. I am at the play area watching Re bake a fresh mudcake, lace it with leaves and petals, when in marches a tiny bully. I almost see an evil gleam in his eye as he stomps all over Re’s creation, kicking some sand in his face. Re doesn’t know whether he is crying because of the sand in his eyes or the fact that his creation has been destroyed. The meltdown that ensues is entirely my problem of course, because the other child’s parent is just looking blank-faced, as if to suggest this is what children do.

Re has always been a softie, he never attacks or hits back, and perhaps his innate gentleness has something to do with growing up around animals. He has however regularly got bullied, from as early as nine months. His kindness seems old-fashioned when I see other kids around him, and I am supposedly living in what one could call utopia. I often feel tempted to ask Re to fight back, but then I realize he would really wonder what was wrong with me.

I have often wondered whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little kids mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment? I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.

However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is by observing. I realize I need to pay special attention to how I interact with family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large. Re is quick to point at my “angry voice” or “shouty voice” from time to time. I guess I am the shrew he was born to tame.

If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around. It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Preschool, the stage where Re is at, is a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When I watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation. If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.

Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, I often see parents monitoring their kids’ moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something? This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not about that new kid in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.

When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behavior towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over others’ and that is a dangerous situation.

There has been a steady but palpable bullying movement in the school where I teach. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Whenever I meet student parents, they are all eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much have they progressed, what can they do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour. I recently met the mother of a bully who was in complete denial that her son could even be one. It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.

Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter. But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.

Last week, Re came to me with yet another dilemma:

“Mamma, sometimes M hugs me so tight, I feel I am going to fall.”

“So tell her not to.”

“I did, but she doesn’t listen.”

“So try and push her away gently.”

“But pushing is not a nice thing, no?”

The beautiful thing about parenting is that sometimes, your children show you how to be the person you wish you were.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th January, 2015. You can email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you wish to share your thoughts)

When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus

photo(5)

“What’s my spelling mamma?” Re asked me a few weeks ago. I remember him asking me the same thing last year, but I didn’t want him to think of letters as mere symbols; besides I didn’t think there was any rush for him to learn the alphabet (and I still don’t). I was enjoying him being a child –singing, dancing, doing things with his hands, painting, pretend-cooking, building stuff.

School made me nervous. It still does. Of course, children love numbers and letters, but we don’t know what they are thinking when they play with them. We are all too eager to box them as “Knows 1-100” or “Can read five-letter words” or some such. We love it when we outsource our kids to the ‘big yellow bus’ or the ‘big school’. It’s as though we are eager to homogenize our kids.

Re eventually learnt to write his name on his own, perhaps from his teacher, and every once in a while, he writes and shows it to me. Now he can count numbers, recognize letters and each time he does it, he looks at me for approval. Slowly, but insidiously, he was becoming part of the system. The system that trains kids to look for affirmation and productizes children, pretending to teach them, so that they all fit into neat little boxes and stay like that until they fit into society.

Coincidentally, Re’s first year of formal ‘learning’ also coincided with my first year of formal ‘teaching’. Much as I love working with my teenaged kids and treating them to new literary experiences, words and ideas, I still flinch when I am asked what I teach.  Every time I enter a class, I wonder, “Am I really teaching them something? Or am I just holding their hand while they are learning?” I prefer to think it’s the latter, and I hope my students think the same too. A few were concerned that I wasn’t talking about ‘important’ things like ‘grammar’ and ‘tenses’ and various terms they thought they needed to know about. At the end of the term, I asked them how they felt. “Awesome, Akka, we had fun!” they said. My heart was full.

Once a week, I also take a class with the preschoolers and it’s a whole different experience from the older kids I work with. They are more open to telling me what they want to do and directing me to do it. Last week, they wanted to fly. We spoke about wings and flying and soon, they wanted to make their own planes. I asked them to draw theirs on the board. The drawings were amazing, but what startled me was that each child wrote their name correctly in the plane they drew. They were almost proud of it.

Perhaps writing one’s name is a signifier of the fact that you are on the road to education, that you are climbing the first steps of literacy, that you are trying to fit into the world of grown-ups,  that you are trying to belong. It made me sad. I could see the natural child in them diminishing already. And this was not even a mainstream school!

I thought I was going cuckoo, but I found the articulation for what I felt when I started reading The Happy Child: Changing The Heart Of Education. In this thought-provoking  book,  Steve Harrison ventures outside the box of traditional thinking about education. His idea is: Children naturally want to learn, so let them direct their own education in democratic learning communities where they can interact seamlessly with their neighborhoods, their towns, and the world at large. ‘The Happy Child’ suggests that a self-motivated child who is interdependent within a community can develop the full human potential to live a creative and fulfilling life.

I was recently on a parenting talk show on television where one mother proudly declared that she had enrolled her son in playgroup at 10 months; another said learning the alphabet was the most natural thing that happened to her children.  I felt out of place for crying hoarse that children have no business to learn the alphabet at age 4. Something was seriously wrong with the world, I thought.

I asked my students what they would really want to learn if they could choose. I got some delicious answers. Life-hacking. Doodling. Carpentry. Water-color. Origami. Ballet. Ventriloquism.  Cooking. Astronomy. Designing a room. Being a performance artist. Stand-up comedy. Story-telling. Writing (ah, at least I am somewhat relevant, I thought)

One of the necessary evils of teaching is that sooner or later, you have to put children in boxes and label them. Writing reports makes me uncomfortable. Putting a child in one box just ensures that unless they do something drastic, they are stuck there, and even when they do, it is always for the parents or their teachers, never for themselves. I wonder why aren’t children ever asked to rate teachers? If learning is a direct result of all teaching, why are we rating the learners and not the teachers? It’s the same feeling I used to have whenever some prospective employer asked me for my resume. I used to think, “Well, you want me to work for you, so may I have your resume too?”

But in the end, if children truly want to learn, there is no teaching, as Steve Harrison points out. When there are enough questions, the answers are not important.  If only we as adults learn how not to choreograph our child’s learning. Because every child, if left to explore can discover his/her passion May be that’s the only way to create a happy child.

Please email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you’d like to share your thoughts.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th January, 2015)