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)

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