When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus

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“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)

 

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I’m a hands-on mamma but I keep my hands off homework

Re is learning how to count. And add. And write. From a parent’s point of view, these are too many milestones too soon. I knew it would happen one day or another, but I wasn’t really prepared or ready for it. There are all these schools of thought of when a child should write, and frankly I have no opinion on them. I think there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m in no hurry to find answers.

This might seem like a dichotomy, but I think I am a hands-on parent with very little interest on academic milestones. When the teacher tells me that Re has a great vocabulary and loves working with his hands, creating and telling stories and sharing knowledge, I go oh! And then she quickly goes on to add that he has little interest in written work. I continue gazing at her, unflustered.

People often asked me why I don’t home-school, since I am “doing such a good job” of him otherwise and I feel like saying, yes I am a good mother, but I’m certainly not suicidal. Given that I’m a teacher, that seems to be a very inappropriate thing to say, but that’s how it is. I don’t like mixing mommyhood with teacherhood.

Re has been given 10-12 worksheets which I am supposed to help him “solve” and after putting it off for days, I finally got down to it and shuddered. Wait a minute, I don’t remember my parents ever sitting with me and ‘helping me study’. What just happened here?

I tried. I did egg him on and facilitated a few worksheets (on a train trip, no less) and I lost interest faster than him. There’s a reason we are a team.

We think we are ready to grow down with our children but it’s harder than we think. A part of us is so adult and programmed that we cannot imagine taking ten minutes for what should have taken one. It’s easy to know a seven times table, but much hard explaining it to a child. I know parents who “take their kids’ lessons”, who practically study with their kids, take days off when they have exams and whatnot. I have no such intentions. When it comes to it, I will run. In that regard, I am quite like my parents. I can be your leisure, but I can’t be your school or your work, I will tell Re when the time comes. There’s only so much of me and I’d rather give you the good parts.

When did school become an insufficient place for education and things had to be carried forward to the home front? When did parents start doing holiday homework, projects and whatnot for their kids? Thank god it was different in our times. Knowing my mother, she would have probably said something like I wasn’t paying attention and knowing my father, he would have said don’t you have better things to do in holidays than studies?

This whole thing of parents meeting teachers was also quite alien to my childhood.  My father could barely keep track of which class we were in, and mom’s PTAs always clashed with our PTAs, so in the end, I went for my own PTA and also those of my siblings. When parents meet me now and want to know how their child is doing, I often wonder what they are going to do with the information.

People found my mother’s hands-offness from our studies hard to believe, because she was a teacher; it was assumed that she would replicate at home what she did at school. She did no such thing, because she was busy nurturing herself. She was learning to sew, emboss, paint on fabric, bake and sing in her leisure time. And I’m glad she did. We had so many textures of mom to choose from. Dad was the same. He would potter endlessly in the garden, planting, replanting, collecting seeds, reading up on new species, making files of his numerous paper-cuttings. He was always happy to have conversations about words, places and people, but often, these couldn’t be contained in lessons. He had far too much gravitas to fit into a book.When it came to studies or schoolwork, we were on our own. Guess that’s why we could do life on our own quite early.

So teachers, if you are sending homework my way, I ain’t doing it. I have better things to do.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 10th November, 2014)

English Vinglish

 In a recent turn of events, I traded an over-cluttered life in Bombay for a school on a hill to teach English to grade seven and eight students. I was as untrained as they come, but I knew one thing. I had always been thrilled about words coming alive on paper. I figured teaching would involve spreading a bit of that disease.

On day one, in an attempt to “know my audience”, I asked the students to share their favourite word and say why they liked it. They quickly came up with words like music, joy, peace, love, happy and others. My heart sank. It felt frugal. This is not going to be fun, I thought. Was this what they meant by the economy of language, I wondered.

Then I told them I was making word soup and needed something chunkier – words with more gravitas, more texture, more back-stories. I sent them off shopping for words and asked them to come back the next day with words that would make for a hearty word soup.

The results were delectable. On day two, we had words like askew, malevolent, punctilious, extol, prevaricate, misanthrope, apoplectic, inexorable, formidable, recalcitrant and more. My initial fears of dealing with an auto-correct, tweet-ready generation were soon dispelled.

On day five, they were using formidable in a sentence. A month later, they are itching to use inexorable.

A recent Wall Street journal article blames technology largely for the fade out of big words. The article points out that we are being conditioned to communicate faster and in shorter bursts. There isn’t room for big words in a text or a tweet or even a quickly dashed-off email. We’re communicating across so many different channels that, by sheer necessity, our language is becoming abbreviated.

I wonder if this frugality with words makes us frugal in other places too. In our senses, our feelings, the way we live and love. Words are to make friends with. When we have enough words, we have company. Words are a way of making a little seem like a lot. If we always take the easy way out, big words will never find the love they deserve. As long as we shield ourselves from big words, we will never make the next move on them. All they need is a little bit of demystifying and they are reduced to their smaller, less intimidating forms, the familiar, the known.

Parenting is a big word too. I still don’t know what it means. But when you get it right, it’s like using a nice word in a sentence. You can go into tricky areas, follow your heart, take the road less travelled. Or you can play safe, live by the book and do what everyone does and no one will really know the difference. Except you.

My dad used to constantly quiz me on spellings when I was little. The words had nothing to do with what I was learning in school, but it was always a thrill when I got them right. “Spell exorbitant,” he would say. Or entrepreneur. Itinerary. Years after I chose writing as a career, he continued to throw word challenges at me. He still does.

My son Re, who just turned five, has graduated from his hippopotis-rhinopotis days to use words like emergency, disaster, soggy, ridiculous, permission, impossible and incorrigible with nonchalance. I miss his babble and the growing up bit hurt a little, but I love the fact that soon, I will be able to share chunkier, more delicious words with him.

Last week, we returned home to find that our cat Bravo had yet again wandered off into the wilderness while we were at school. Re knows his hideouts, and I asked him to look for Bravo.

Bravo is your responsibility. You have to ensure he is safe all the time,” I said.

Whatity mamma?”

I mean job,” I replied, quickly realising that it was a mouthful.

No, what did you say?” I could sense he was hungry for the word.

RESPONSIBILITY.”

Oh. REPONSIBITY!” he said, tasting, savoring a new word.

I know he’ll get there sooner than I imagine. We are just richer by another word. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 21st July 2014)

Diary of a 4.5 yo and his mamma

Mamma, I did a funny fart!
What’s a funny fart?
The fart was singing a song!

 **

Let’s eat.
No I want to play with my toys for some time.
Ok then let’s eat at 8 o’clock.
No, let’s eat at 20 o’clock.
Perfect!

 **

Is it holaday today?
No it’s school day.
But I want it to be holaday.
But it’s school day.
Then I’m going to turn my teacher into an alligator.

 **

Waiting for school bus.
Re: Mamma, lets play dance dance. I will hold you and you must twirl like a pwincess.
Me: But I am not a princess.
Re: It’s okay, you can twirl.

 **

Re: Is today Saturday?
Me: No, it’s Thursday.
Re: Then I’m going to call it Saturday!

 **

So I get home after two days at the Hyderabad Lit Fest to find that the boy hasn’t been bathed. I ask him, “So, why haven’t you had a bath?”
“Because you was apsent.”

 **

Fridge had six macaroons.
And then there were two.
Me to Re: Did you eat the macaroons?
Re: No, I didn’t eat them. My mouth eated them.

 **

Can I watch some Floating Palace?
But you have to eat.
I can eat and watch.
Ok.
But when Sofia dances, then I want to dance with her.
Hmm.
Don’t say hmmm, say okay.

 **

Mamma, I want to be a mermaid.
But yesterday you wanted to be a butterfly!
Yes, but today is holaday.
Whatever.

 **

“Look, a full moon,” I point to Re, excitedly.
“That’s not the moon. That’s a moon monster.”

 **

Me to Re: You look worried. What happened?
Re: Pwincess Vivienne has turned into a butterfly!
Me: Oh, don’t worry, she’ll turn back into a princess.
Re: I don’t want her to turn into a pwincess. I also want to be a butterfly.

 **

Missed the bus.
Me dropping Re.
“What are you going to tell the teacher?’
‘You say mamma.’
‘No, you say. It’s your teacher.’
‘We missed the bus because we were watching Jake and the Neverland pirates!’

Satyamev Jayate.

 **

“I can’t go to school because I have turned into a fairy!”

Welcome to my week!

 **

8 am fruit politics:
Re: This is not a watermelon.
Me: There’s only yellow melon today.
Re: I don’t want to eat this. I ony want red watermelon.
Me: Then don’t eat.
Re: Okay. I will eat. But I’m going to call it papaya. I’m telling you now ony.

 **

Re and I walking down the stairs, me in front. I’m wearing a maxi-dress that’s trailing behind.
Re: Mamma, your dwess is doing jhadoo to the steps.
Me: Oh, ok, I will walk properly.
Re: You can also lift your dwess and walk. Like a pwincess.

So I walked like a pwincess and felt really good.

 **

Today is teleshunal day.
What’s that?
We haffto wear dhoti-kutta.
Oh! Traditional day?
Yes, that onwy.

 **

Boy poured some of his Bournvita into my tea. Here mamma, have teavita!

 **

Boy points to poster of ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ and says, “That didi is so happy with that bhaiyya!”
Yes, she is, I say. “I must tell Yashraj.”
Who is Yashraj, he asks. “Is it her dadda?”
“Yashraj is everyone’s dadda!”

We are talking movies! This is the day I’ve been waiting for:)

 **

Boy and I in doughnut shop. Boy gets his regular ‘chocolate with speckles’.
Older boy walks in with his dad, and elaborately chooses five ( and gets a sixth free). Decides to show off.
‘I got six and you only got one, he he he he.’
Boy thinks of appropriate retort. Descends from the bar-stool and stands full length in front of older boy ( who is roughly half a foot taller) and says, ” I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your doughnuts down.”
Thank you, Three Little Pigs!

 **

Why are you sad mamma?
I’m not sad. I’m pensive.
But you are not a pencil. You are a mamma.

Whatsappmommydom and some gory details

Two days ago, I was invited to join a whatsapp mommy group in Re’s school. I figured it might be useful to get updates on flash holidays (we had three of them last week) and other such, so I promptly typed “Hello, I am Lalita and I’m Re’s mom” and thought I’ll just stay back and relax. Although I was quite irked by the fact that as usual, the daddies were conspicuous by their absence (ask any daddy when the Diwali holidays begin and watch their face and you will know why)

There was an avalanche of messages in the next few hours. Finally, when I could bear it no more, I muted it and wrote a facebook post about it here:

After a momentous 40 likes and equal number of comments, I realised it was an affliction borne silently by many.

On Day 2, this is my loot so far:
Ganpati piggybacking on shiva – a poster
Stay calm, stay happy – a poster
Award winning photo of girl holding mirror
Flowers as girls ( photo play)
Flowers as boys ( photo play)
Emoticons for every emotion, known and unknown
How to make a candle from an orange (this was sought after on twitter by a food blogger friend who plans to execute it!)
Empty audio file
Phone number of a dentist
Suggestion that rainy days are for bunking school (grrrrr…..)
Stay calm. Have faith in god – A poster.
Exclamations to last a lifetime
Have a nice day. Be happy – A poster.

There are many things that are a part and parcel of parenting, but I think this was a new low for me.

Will try and hang in there.

Love letter to a school

lovelettertoschoolphotoI did a little jig when Re started school a year ago. There was no separation anxiety. There was the settling in of course, but I was more than happy to take it slow.  “The smoother the transition, the more long-term it is” they told me. Yes, there were tears — sometimes his, sometimes mine, but I knew it would pass, because I so badly wanted it to.

When I left him and got out the gate after a week of hand-holding, I smiled to myself and walked out, not turning back. I had to celebrate. I had got a child school-ready. To me, that was big. I went out and got myself a coffee and a doughnut. I read 53 pages of a book at a stretch. I watched a movie alone. It was like a part of me had made a comeback.

And then one day, just when I thought it was all sorted, he woke up and told me, “I don’t want to go to school. I want to be with you.” I was putty all over again. And that’s the trouble with parenting. It doesn’t have an expiry date.

Being a stay-at-home mommy is often lonely. But being alone is still a luxury. Sometimes you wish the child would sleep, so you could read. Or write. Or that the child would be quiet so you could talk. Or just listen to something other than his voice. Or that the child would not ask you to supervise every bit of artwork he did. Or read every book in the shelf. Or ask you to push his jhoola in the park. Over and over again (for me that is still a low point).

The thing about love is that too much of it can be claustrophobic. People need to go away so they can come back. We need to not talk for a while so we still have enough for a conversation later. We need silence so that there is room for words.

School absolves you of some of the dirty work. It makes me look like less of a bad guy. “We must not eat lollipop, othewise our teeth will get dirtttty,” Re said one day. I smiled. Someone else had taken over, even if it was for a short time.

There are rituals of course. The thing about the uniform. “I want to wear clothes,” Re would say. “I don’t want to wear unaaaform.” The thing about hair. And grooming. The thing about shoes. The thing about regimentation.

School talks about germs, habits, manners and cleanliness, the importance of order and repetition and discipline and all those dark, dingy areas. The importance of “No.”

School also addresses issues of jurisdiction, which are too black and white for me. It makes the trivial look important. Like putting stuff away, getting in line, listening. It is about finiteness, beginnings and endings. It is like something that fits into a box. A box I so badly needed when I was struggling to be my own person again.

Teachers have a peek into a universe that perhaps you don’t. When you are too close, your universe collides and sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the intersection. My mother was a school teacher for 36 years before he retired. She would talk fondly about her students, they would discuss recipes, trees and fantasies – things perhaps the children never discussed with their parents.  She never had a dull day in her job. But as a mother, I would be debilitated if I had to do everything the teachers have to do. I am not brave enough to homeschool.

Every hour you spend away from your child is an hour for self-renewal. You need to deconstruct. Reconstruct. Reclaim your space. You need to become whole again, because motherhood sometimes makes you fall to pieces. There is also marriage, which suddenly, is not as invisible as it used to be.

When he started taking the school bus six months ago, I did an even bigger jig. No more hanging out with sad mommies always complaining about maids and other demons in their life. I began to get good at incentives. First there was the bus cookie. A cookie that only children who make it on time to the bus got. Then there was Sheroo and Sher Khan, the local resident strays, one or both of whom would hang around Re, waiting for the bus. There were leaves to be picked up, autos to count, birds to spot.

The last time we missed the bus and I dropped him to school, I found his hand loosen in my grip the minute we entered the gate. Two seconds later, he was gone. “Please turn, please turn,” I said to myself. He did, and blew me a kiss. And that’s when I realised that he was just not in school. School was in him. And so yes, I don’t miss him when he is away, and I do look forward to seeing him go away every day.

 

This piece first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 10th February 2013. For older columns, click here

Conversations with a three-year old: Part 4

Oct 9: 7.30 am

Mamma, yesterday there was thundering and lightning.
Oh.
And the rain was pouring and pouring.
And…?
And then mamma’s car is getting wet, and her t-shirt is getting wet and her pajamas also getting wet and her shoes are getting wet and her hair is getting wet.
Oh no.
And the moon was not there.
Oh, then did the moon come back?

No it will come tomorrow. But I have a surprise for you!
What surprise?
The sun is come back!!!! *draws open curtain* See? See?
***
So I wore a short dress after ages and am busy checking out my legs in the mirror.
Re: Mamma, why you are being nangu? Wear your pajama!
***
The bath saga continues:Me: Have a bath!
Re: Mamma, then I am not going to be proud of you.
Me: Is that a yes or a no? Are you going to have a bath or should I make you?
Re: Then I am going to call dadda!
Me: Are you threatening me? For the last time, are you going to have a bath or no?
Re: Then I am not going to be your friend and I am NOT COMING TO YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY!
***
Re is back from school. “Mamma, the lion boke my gween pajama.””But you didn’t wear a green pajama.
The lion boke it. The lion also bit Shaurya and he didn’t come today.”
Oh no, why did he bite him?
Because the dadda lion was not listening to the mamma lion. He was not paying-a-tention to the mamma lion also and he was not listening to my friend also. I am going to beat him with my tie! I am going to shoo him away!”So saying, the tie is flung on the floor, and the uniform shirt is popped open like hanuman’s chest.Okay, lion, be afraid. Be very afraid now.
***
Re just back from school.
Mamma, there was two continents.
(*Continents? already? wtf??!!*)Then?
Then there was boys and girls.
Then?
Then the boys went to the market and the girls went to the dance party.
Then?

Then they had so much fun.
Then?
Then their mammas was so proud of them.And another eventful afternoon unfolds!
***
Early morning conversation:Why is Chhota Bheem nangu?
Because he has to cross a river to meet his friend, so he doesn’t want to get his t-shirt wet.
Why is Alex and Marty nangu? (we are referring to the friends from Madagascar)
They are not nangu. They are wearing skin-fit clothes, so you cannot see them.
Why Nadia is nangu? (points to the resident feline goddess)
Re, animals don’t haffto wear clothes. Only boys and girls haffto wear clothes.
But Nadia is a girl no?