Letting go and other April reflections

April is usually a time to take stock. No, I’m neither financially savvy nor does my life revolve around KRAs and other analyses, but April is the month before May – the month I was born, and I always feel a sense of closure around this time, so it helps me to write things down. More so because I realize that the older I get, the more chances I take, so it perhaps is a good idea to see how things are adding up.

I know it’s perhaps too early to make resolutions or too late, depending on how you look at it, but this is just a way of doing some math on my life.

On the face of it, this has been a year of letting go. Of freedom, of stability, of home-delivery menus and happy hours, of cable television and other notions of freedom.

But it has also been a year of acquisitions. Of letters, postcards, hand-written cards and notes and a lot of paper to touch and feel.

This was a year of teaching. Okay, let me correct that. This was a year of trying to be a teacher, and being hand-held by 75 children in getting there.

It has been a year of realizations, some happy, others sad, but all important. I am sharing them because this is usually the time of year when you ‘find’ your kids, the time when they are ‘yours’ again, and not the school’s, and you may have some trouble breaking the ice at least in the first few weeks. Here they are in no particular order:

  1.  There are no alternative schools. There are only alternative parents. You will only be an alternate parent when you recognize who you truly are.
  2.  As long as there is teaching, no one is learning. Children start learning only when you stop teaching. Let it go.
  3. Your home is as much a school as school is. Know that. Nourish your spaces. Become them.
  4. Your child is not you. He/she is a separate person. Nurture that separateness.
  5. Freedom is not about space. It’s the ability to see things as they are and with grace. Your children have that ability, while you are still holding on to a notion of freedom. Let it go.
  6. If you are constantly telling a child what he/she cannot do, may be you should never have been a parent. Or a teacher. Perhaps bouncer is more like it. Turn off your auto-correct mode for a day and see how it feels. Let it go.
  7.  If you can allow your child the freedom to ‘do nothing’ once in a while, it would be the greatest gift. Some day, you will be thanked for it. Let it go.
  8. If you expect your child to play, but expect him to also learn while doing so, you are destroying the purpose of play. One of the greatest manipulations of learning is play-way. Let it go.
  9. Just because you have been a curly haired girl all your life, it doesn’t mean the world can’t think of you in a different way. The past year, I have been able to do what I never dreamt I could ever have done. It’s time for me to raise the bar. So I lost my locks, since they were coming in the way of the person I want to be next. I let it go.
  10. If you want the truth, your child will give it to you. Question is, do you want it? Are you ready for it?
  11. The only thing that comes between your child and you is the adult in you. Let it go.
  12. Today you might complain that your child talks too much and you are so tired and overworked that you have no time to listen. Tomorrow you might wonder why your child is not sharing anything with you.
  13. And finally. When your five-going-on-six year-old wants to perform ‘Let it go’ from Frozen for you, the world can wait.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 6th April, 2015) 

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)

 

Notes from a teacher to a child

The hardest thing about parenting is deciding at what age a child stops being a child. Perhaps children too are always under pressure to “grow up” or “act their age”. Yes, there are reams written about milestones and what a child should know by the time he/she is three, five, ten and twelve. I still get emails on baby milestones from websites years after I stopped reading them. But for lack of a better term, here is a list of what I think every child or student should know:

1. If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t right. Your instincts are more valuable than you think. Grown-ups may look like they have thought things through, but they are mostly relying on instinct.

2. Coloring within the lines is overrated. It is usually the beginning of boundaries. It is usually a trap for other things. Looking like everyone else, talking like everyone else, also thinking like everyone else. Soon they will say, “You can’t do this” or “you can’t do that”. Soon they will say, “you are this” or “you are that”.

3. They may tell you that the sky is the limit, but they may still frown if you paint it purple. The fact is, the sky is whatever color you want it to be. There is enough of blue in our lives anyway. Go paint it orange!

4. Adults can control how you speak or what you wear or what you eat or read, but they cannot control who you are.

5. Books are not fiction, non-fiction, thrillers, fantasies or mysteries. They are things that let you inhabit a world and stay there as long as you want. Don’t label books, let them mark you.

6. There is something about you that is uniquely different from anyone else in this world. Keep it. Cherish it. Learn to love it. And don’t let go of it easily.

7. Happy is not a default state to be. Feeling sad, angry, lonely, jealous is as natural as feeling happy, elated, generous or chirpy. Although people will seldom ask you why you are happy, they will always ask you why you are sad.

8. It’s okay not to have an opinion when everyone else seems to have one. It just means you are still making up your mind on it. Take your time.

9. The teacher is as intrigued by the quiet ones as by the talkative ones. So may be it’s a good idea to conserve your energy sometimes.

10. Adults are people who have been in the universe longer than you. It doesn’t necessarily mean they know more. They are still fumbling around with many things, but they won’t tell you.

11. It is important to laugh, or act silly sometimes.

12. It is totally okay to not love numbers.

13. Or poetry.

14. If you were read to as a child, you probably are luckier than most people in this world.

15. Every time you ask a question an adult laughs at, they probably haven’t had the guts to ask it themselves. Or perhaps they have been caught off guard and never really thought of it and don’t know the answer. Or it perhaps takes them to places they don’t want to go to.

16. The world is a magical, amazing place and there are a lot of secrets you will uncover. Some will make you happy, others will make you sad or angry, but you will always be happier when you find this out on your own.

17. Very often, the things you think you love will not be the things you love when you are 18. That’s what growing up is all about. Finding new things to love.

18. More often, the things your parents think are good for you may not be the things you like. But you don’t have to dislike them just because they came up with the idea.

19. It’s seldom an either/or. Sometimes there is more than one answer to a question. That is how it’s going to be in life.

20. Zero has gravitas. Wear your zeroes proudly. But help them take you someplace you like to belong.

21. You are more powerful than you know.

22. You are going to create more long term memories in people than you possibly imagine.

23. There will always be someone who doesn’t understand your point of view. There will always be someone who does.

24. There will be times when your questions will remain unanswered. That doesn’t mean you stop asking questions.

25. Sometimes, you may touch someone’s life, but they may forget to tell you. But it still happened.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 8th September 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)