Leave Education to the Schools

July 30, 2010

It’s all very well when you don’t have kids and you think: “Oh, when I have kids, I’ll teach them this and I’ll show them that, and I’ll share the other with them, and I’ll always do this and (especially) I’ll never do that,” and so on.

When the kids are there growing up in front of your eyes, you really have to pin down and put in words practically your entire belief system – and that’s not so easy.

One thing I’ve realized I do believe – if for no other reason than out of sheer laziness – is that it’s best to leave teaching to the schools. I’m a lousy teacher anyway. They, hopefully, know what they’re doing.

My mother was probably a good teacher. At least, I hope she was, because she taught tiny tots in school for a while. She likes to talk about her unconventional – for that time – approach to teaching. I remember her sitting with me while I painstakingly learnt to read. As one of the most impatient people I have ever known, the thing that stands out most is her patience while I struggled to piece the words together. (According to her, I was mildly dyslexic.) The other thing that stands out now, in retrospect, is that she didn’t try to teach me to read; she just sat there and let me learn it on my own.

Once I’d mastered reading, I don’t remember my mother ever working with me on any school-related task – from homework through projects, and, later on, even to issues with teachers or other students. She never glanced at my homework to see whether I had done it or even to know what it was that I had to do. She never tutored me for tests and exams and she never questioned me on the outcome. She never even told me to go study. But somehow I knew that I must do the work I was given to do, in the time I was given to do it, and I must do it myself, without help from parents, sister, or classmates. I knew that if I had questions, I should ask the teachers and no-one else (and from that I eventually learned that most teachers didn’t like to be questioned and often, especially in higher classes, didn’t actually have the answers.) I learned to be disciplined and conscientious and independent, qualities I now – strangely enough – value highly.

But how did this approach help me? Did it help me excel in school, or in life? Not really.

In school, I was a good student. I was not great; I was never top of the class; I was not even good enough to get a seat in an engineering college – or at least, the only engineering college I did get into was the one my parents didn’t want to send me to (Thapar, in Patiala); and I wound up doing English Honours (which was probably really the best choice for me anyway)… So I was not a great student, but whatever I did, I did well enough.

But is “well enough” good enough? Is, for instance, English Honours good enough?

Now the question is, of course, what do you want for your children. For some people, it might be a difficult question to answer. They might be torn between “doctor” “engineer” and (hopefully) “artist” (either creative or performing). For me, the answer is none of those. I don’t care whether they become doctors or engineers; writers or violinists; Wimbledon finalists or movie stars. I don’t care whether they ever achieve greatness in any field or not. I don’t care whether they have a job and a career or they are destined to penury as struggling artists or activists. I don’t even, really, care whether they make themselves rich or not. What I want for them is something more difficult to define. I want them to be balanced, determined, confident, secure, and independent people. I want them to have the foundations for strength, peace, and contentment. I want them to have integrity, at every level. I want them to be able to take on the world without blinking.

I want them to be people I can look up to in respect, even in awe – not for what they might achieve, but simply for who they are.

How am I going to help make them that way? I have no idea – but certainly not by helping them to learn whatever their school wants them to learn. Not by holding their hands to teach them to write. Not by pinning them to a study table while they struggle with numbers and letters. Not by pushing them to learn faster or better than others in their class or school or neighborhood. But maybe, just maybe, by letting them be whatever they want to be.

When they went on stage a few weeks ago, I was so proud of both of them. Mrini, for obvious reasons – she was unfazed by the lights, the sound, the audience, the strangeness of everything, and she stood in her place and did her part and enjoyed it. She can hardly wait to get back on stage. (I probably should get her into a music and/or dance class soon – she so loves to sing!) She had courage and elan. But Tara – Tara was bewildered by the set-up. The too-loud music troubled her. So she covered both her ears with her hands and just stood there, looking bemused. She didn’t cry. She didn’t run away. She didn’t even look scared; just puzzled. She stood her ground and did what felt right to her and she was not in the least bit embarrassed or upset by her performance.  That takes a kind of courage and confidence too.

Academic performance, good or bad, is not going to turn them into the people I want them to be. Excellence at academics will of course give them confidence, but that is a confidence limited to only that sphere, and based on only that success. I want them to have the confidence to go against the flow, to not excel if they choose not to. To take their own time and do their own thing.

And that’s why I’m so happy with the Montessori system and with their school in particular. They let children learn at their own pace, and they have confidence in kids’ ability to learn (as much as in their own ability to teach). At the end of last year, their teacher said, “Well, they should know the number symbols from zero to nine by now, but they haven’t completely got it yet. You can work with them on it over the summer holidays if you want to. Otherwise don’t worry, we’ll do it when school resumes in June.”

That, exactly, is what I want to hear. I want to know where they stand, what they need to work on, and I want to know that there is absolutely no need for me to “work” on it with them. I did talk and play with numbers a bit with them during the holidays, but I didn’t “work” on it. And they seem to have got it now anyway. Ok, they are a couple of months late. Should I be worried? I don’t think so.

I have little enough time with my girls as it is. What time I do have, I want to spend enjoying them. I want to watch them play, and talk to them and engage them in all the things they don’t learn in school – making cake, listening to music (as opposed to nursery rhymes), watching (and playing) tennis, telling stories… And in all of this, if I can somehow impart to them some bits of my desired philosophy, my preferred outlook on life, so much the better.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s all very well to say this now, when they are not yet four years old and they don’t have tests and exams to pass. Can I stand by this when they are 8, 10, 14 years old and studies become more challenging and the rat race becomes more competitive? I don’t know – but I intend to try. And if their school means to continue along the path it has started out on, I imagine I might have some chance of success.

So here’s my plan: as school continues and they learn to read and write and then go on to arithemtic, geography, history and all that other stuff, I’m not going to be studying with them. I won’t “go over” what they’ve learnt in school each day or each week. I won’t be checking that they’ve done their homework or studied for a test. And I’m not going to stop them if they want to spend their time playing games instead of working. I spent the day before my Xth Standard English Board exam reading Tolkein (which was, sadly, not part of the curriculum) and my parents weren’t in the least bit perturbed by that. They trusted that I’d done my work for the exam – and I want to pass on that trust to my daughters, starting, oh say, a year or so ago. If they don’t do well academically, that’s ok – in the long run, they will learn that they are responsible for their own lives and that is a lesson well worth learning.

Some day, in their own way, they will take on the world. And I’ll watch from the audience and say with pride, “that’s my girl!”

For me, that’s good enough.


Twinnings 8

July 28, 2010

Kids! They drive you mad! For instance (and this conversation could happen with either child speaking any line and not necessarily in turn):

“I want the blue mat.”

“No I want the blue mat!” (It doesn’t matter that there are two blue mats; they will fight over one blue mat anyway, and outright reject the other.)

“If you don’t give me the blue mat then I’ll be sad.”

“If you don’t give me the blue mat I’ll tell mama. Then mama will scold you.” (Truly terrifying, I don’t think.)

“No, if you don’t give me the blue mat, then I won’t give you chocolate. (Not that she has chocolate to give anyway.)”

And finally, the ultimate weapon…

“If you don’t give me the blue mat then I won’t be your friend!”

At this point, if nothing works, physical violence usually ensues, which usually requires some adult intervention. If my hands are full with food and dishes, as they usually are, my preferred strategy is to scream at the top of my voice, sending shivers down spines as far as 300 m away. Amit says all the kids within half a km radius of our house instantly stop whatever they are doing, even those who can’t actually hear me but just feel the shock waves. Maybe even some of the weaker adults freeze for a couple of minutes. Thankfully, it’s not completely ineffective at home either – maybe because I only do this when biting or other forms of grievous bodily injury are imminent. In any case, I always confiscate the blue mat – or whatever prized possession they happen to be fighting over.

The aggrieved parties retire, sobbing pitifully, and trying tearfully to convince me of their utter innocence, the justness of their cause, and the dastardliness of the acts committed upon them by the other.

One-and-a-half minutes later, resigned to using the red mats, they are best of friends again, sharing food, spilling milk, and bubbling over with mischievous (maddening) giggles. While I nurse a sore throat.

————–

Then, on the other hand, they can be such fun…

I took them to the play area yesterday. They don’t have any friends there – just a bunch of other kids who seem to change every day. That doesn’t bother them at all. The other day there were only three other kids in the play area. One kid had his dad hanging around. A few minutes later, the boy was completely avoiding his dad and running around with Mrini and Tara like he’d known them all his life. He looked a little older than the girls, but was less used to the play area. The girls ran rings around him – especially since there were two of them to do the running, and he probably couldn’t keep trak of which one went where – but he did his best to tag along as fast as he could. It was entertaining and cute to the nth degree. By the time he got home that evening, he must have been exhausted!

Yesterday, there were plenty of kids. The girls ran around doing their stuff. Then a somewhat older boy found a kite. He must have about 8 or 9. He didn’t have a reel for the kite, just a short string, which, in the inexorable wind that’s been blowing the last several days, was enough to get the kite up in the air, but not very high. Anyway, a girl went up to this boy and the boy ran away taking his kite with him. The girl chased him, making him run faster. The girl looked about 6 or so, and might have been a sibling. The two of them raced around the playground, up the steps, down the slides, around other kids and in and out of the octopus-like tentacles of the playscape. Naturally, this was irresistible. In seconds,Mrini and Tara joined the chase. I don’t think they knew that they were running after the kite. They were just running because the other two kids were running. But it was great to watch!

—————

And they are just SO smart!

Tara: That is the train.

Me: Yes.

Tara: It’s moving slowly.

Me: Yes.

Tara: It has so many people.

Me: That’s right. In our car there’s only one person. (I don’t know why I said this; I wasn’t really concentrating on the conversation.)

Mrini (quickly): No, there’s three persons.

Me: That’s true. And when Baba is here, there are four of us.

Tara: Now what is the train doing?

Me: it’s going away.

Mrini: It will say, watch out everyone here I come.

(The train obligingly toots its horn.)

Tara: The train is at the station?

Me: It was at the station, now it’s leaving the station.

Tara: Why?

Mrini (knowledgeably): Because that is what trains do! Cars take people home because that is what cars do, and trains go to the station because that is what trains do.

Ok – so this is why I still want to drive them to school instead of putting them in the school van.

————–

And then, they are just so forward! What is going to happen when they turn teenagers I shudder to think.

Mrini (coyly): I gave Navneet kissie today.

Me: Really!? Then what happened!?

Mrini: Then Navneet gave me kissie.

Groan! They are not even four years old yet! Granted “kissie” is not the same as “kiss” (hopefully!) – but still!

(At least she’s loyal – Navneet has been her “special” friend since she joined school a year ago.)


Fernando

July 27, 2010

This morning Mrini wanted “I have a dream” by Abba on the way to school. So we turned on Abba. By the time I’d dropped the kids to school and reached office, we’d gone through a lot of lovely old songs and Fernando came up right after SOS. I always thought of Fernando and SOS as very similar songs; I always thought of both of them as love songs. Today, humming along as I drove alone in the car, I suddenly heard the words of the song and realized it was not a love song at all:

Can you hear the drums fernando?
I remember long ago another starry night like this
In the firelight fernando
You were humming to yourself and softly strumming your guitar
I could hear the distant drums
And sounds of bugle calls were coming from afar

They were closer now fernando
Every hour every minute seemed to last eternally
I was so afraid fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I’m not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry

Now we’re old and grey fernando
And since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand
Can you hear the drums fernando?
Do you still recall the frightful night we crossed the rio grande?
I can see it in your eyes
How proud you were to fight for freedom in this land

For some reason, the revelation came as a complete shock to me. And I’m thoroughly embarrassed to say that it suddenly brought tears to my eyes! Just as I drove into office! It was ridiculous, but the words were just so touching…

Do they do that to you?

Though maybe you have to hear the song for it to have that effect – written words are a bit more bald.


Strife

July 24, 2010

Gawd! It’s been such a horribly aggressive weekend and we’re not even halfway through yet!

I woke up to find that the water I’d put into the top half our of Tata Swach water filter last night was just sitting there. It should have been in the bottom half  by midnight! After all the drinking water crises we’ve already weathered, this was just too much! This thing is supposed to just work. It’s nothing so fancy, it’s not supposed to cause any problems. Least of all when it’s not even one month old!

I called the 1-800 number at 8 a.m., only to be told they wouldn’t open till 10. I called again a little after 10. They walked me through a basic cleaning session, to no effect. Then they gave me the number of the service technician. I called the fellow, he told me to take the “bulb” back to the shop I bought it from and he’d have a new bulb ready for me to pick up by Monday.

Naturally, I completely lost it with him. I told him in no uncertain terms that I’d sooner go to consumer court than go back to the shop.

“We don’t do home visits,” he said.

“Let me speak to your manager and I’ll see how you don’t do home visits,” I screamed.

In India, unfortunately, screaming works. He could have just hung up on me; instead, reluctantly, he gave me his manager’s number. By the time I got through to the manager, he had already briefed him. Though I was very polite and soft-spoken (I usually start off that way!), the manager agreed to send someone home to fix it even before I had finished reciting my litany of woes and asking for an exception to the “no home visits” rule.

Service technician called me back and I was quite civil to him as we fixed up the modalities of the home visit. Somewhat to my surprise, the visit went off alright. The person was to come before 4 and he came at 2.45; he called on the way; he brought a spare bulb; he spoke sufficient English; he replaced the bulb and went on his way without even charging me for the home visit. Phew. We’ve got drinking water again – we were down to the last half litre or so!

Meanwhile, cockroaches have been making their presence felt in the last week or so. It’s time for another round of disinpestation, so I called the pest control guys. After various calls back and forth (mostly back), it’s fixed up for Wednesday afternoon. That means I get to work from home on Wednesday. Yay!

Then  I followed up with Epson for ink cartridges for our printer. We’ve been hunting for these high and low all over Bangalore for the last couple of months, with a complete lack of success. Finally I got in touch with the Epson marketing office (as opposed to the dealer) here and said I needed about Rs 15,000 worth of ink cartridges and were they going to do business or not? You know what they said? “Email me, I’ll have it delivered to you.” Sounds too good to be true, so I’ll believe it when I see it.

Since it was turning into that kind of a day, I called Electrolux too. Our microwave lost its wave (or maybe its micro, for all I know) when we moved to this place and clearly hasn’t got it back yet. It’s well out off the Warranty period, so I have to pay for the home visit as well as the repair, but at least they didn’t say, “Go back to the shop you bought it from; we don’t do home visits.” My word, would they have been in trouble if they’d gone anywhere near that line of thought!

So for the coming week, I have cockroach-killers, microwave zappers, and cartridge carriers lined up. And there is a lemon and raisin cake sharing counter space with four chocolate cup cakes. (Two chocolate cupcakes went down the hatch pretty fast between the three of us.)

And it’s not even tea time yet.

Pretty productive day, don’t you think?


Beef

July 23, 2010

Like I said in my last post, I’d be happier not saying anything about current affairs, but this is one I’m too worked up to keep quiet about.

How can they ban beef?

Clearly, this has nothing to do with the state of the slaughter-houses. They’ve banned trade, transportation, even possession of beef. How can this not be an infringement of basic freedom? In a country like India, I mean, which claims to have people of all faiths etc etc etc.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I eat beef. I’ve given beef to my kids. I don’t care if that makes me a sinner or a bad Hindu, because I don’t believe in that stuff and I don’t live my life by those rules. But I think that even if I didn’t eat beef – and it’s not like we eat it all that often; maybe once in two months, or less – I’d still be horrified by this law. Because there are so many people whose religion (or absence of religion) does allow them to eat beef and by banning beef, we’re trying to impose our Hindu ethics on them. This is just plain wrong. If we do this, how can we call ourselves a secular state?

I’m actually ashamed, right now, to be part of this state, this society. Where is that freedom and equality that we tout so proudly at every opportunity?

I’m realistic enough and honest enough to know that I’m not the one who’s going to challenge this law in court. I’m angry enough to want to, but… there’s the rest of my life to be getting on with. And I’ve had it up to here with our judicial system too! But, if there’s anyone filing a PIL out there, sign me right up, please.


Why Aren’t We Doing Anything About Water?*

July 21, 2010

Water, water everywhere, said the man. Coleridge,that was. He might have been right in his day… and in a way he’s right today as well. With global warming, there’s going to be enough water in the world all right, only, “not a drop to drink”.

Everyone says the next world war is going to be about water. But I’m actually not even talking about a global scale. Let’s just take Bangalore. I heard a while ago that the state government has given up even attempting to provide Cauvery water to whoever it is supposed to provide water to – I mean, areas where the Cauvery water is supposed to reach. It has given up and it has said, in effect, “let them eat cake”.

In this context, that means two things. One, if you aren’t getting Cauvery water, buy it from the tankers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that means. It means more and more Cauvery water gets siphoned off to the tanker businessmen, who then split the proceeds with the water supply guys. It also means that the water supply guys figure out that they might as well start charging residents a little something extra to supply the water which they are supposed to supply. Because, if they don’t supply water, then residents will have to pay the tanker fellows anyway, so why should only the tanker businessmen get rich?

The other thing it means is – if possible – even worse! It means, the state government is going to encourage people to sink borewells. This is truly horrible. Just when the government should be thinking about managing the ground water in a half-way sensible and organized way, they’re saying, oh what the heck, go ahead and rape it.

I’ve heard many a time of borewells going dry and people digging deeper and deeper to find water. The other day someone mentioned that water was found at a depth of 4000 ft. To be honest, I know nothing about what depth water should be found at and how bad, exactly, 4000 ft is. What I do know is that this kind of “every man for himself” policy is the worst thing the government can do when it comes to managing a scarce natural resource.

It’s easy to criticize and not so easy to come up with answers, I know. And I know I don’t have the answers. But I do have a question or two.

Why, why, why, are we doing nothing about conserving and recycling water? Why is there no awareness campaign. Surely people are feeling the pinch – I’ve seen people queueing up for water at neighbourhood taps; I’ve seen people pushing water through the streets on carts and cycles; I’ve seen the terrible proliferation of dirty, noisy, diesel-fume-pumping tankers in our neighbourhood, where people used to wash their driveways in Cauvery water. So it’s not as if there is no crisis, or as if the crisis is not right now. It is here and it is now. Why is nobody taking any notice of it?

Leh, for instance, has an acute water shortage all the time – mostly due to its geography. Practically the first thing I became aware of when I got off the plane, was posters plastered all over town telling people to conserve water. When your message is stamped on the bleary consciousness of a newly-arrived, oxygen-starved tourist, you know your message is getting across loud and clear.

In Bangalore? Nothing. No notices, no campaigns, no noise at all. There was a feeble drive towards rainwater harvesting, but that seems to have petered out as well. As for conservation – people behave as if they’ve never heard of the term. There is wanton, criminal volumes of water spent on washing driveways, to say nothing of cars. I know of people who bathe – proudly – two, three, four times a day. People encourage their kids to play with water. People run the washing machine when it has only two-and-a-half items in it. If there’s a tap running, nobody turns it off. If a pipe springs a leak, nobody cares. This, even in my own office, where there are people employed to deal with that sort of thing, and where water comes in tankers and is charged by the drop.

But then what about the tankers? They spill water so liberally on the way that by the time they reach their destination, they probably have only half a tankful. They still charge for the whole load, so they don’t care. The sooner it runs out, the sooner they get called in for the next load. And what are the state authorities doing about water shortage. Well, in our own backyard, practically, they’ve seen fit to tear up all the grass from the park and replace it with newly-planted grass, which they now water for hours on end, even though this is the monsoon season and anything green that can grow, grows – thrives – without needing any extra watering. Ok, I’m no horticulturist, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong and there’s a very good reason for planting and watering grass in this season, but still… people are queueing up for water, people are drinking muddy water! Do we really need to tear up grass in a park and plant new grass right now?

Sometimes I feel so impotent – there’s so much to be done, and all I do is write. Sigh.

*In this blog, I have mostly made a conscious decision not to comment on current affairs. But once in a while, on certain issues, I feel I must say something.


Grammar, Syntax, Counting, Repartee, and Strategy

July 19, 2010

I’ve been collecting these little snippets of conversation for quite a while. They are not so much fun when you write them down, of course, but for whatever it’s worth, here they are.

—————–

The other day I was telling the girls about a small little girl I’d seen at the tennis court who was really swinging her racket with elan. She must have been about six years old. I told Mrini and Tara about her and Mrini said, “what was her name?”

Tara supplied the answer: “Sharapova.”

Hmmmmmm… they’ve been watching too much tennis on TV. Apart from Roger (whom they can recognize a mile off in any newspaper or magazine photo) they know Rafa, are on nodding terms with Andy (Murray) and Novak, and are almost best friends with “Jelena Jelena Jankovic” and Sharapova.

————-

Tara: Baba scolded me because I’m so sad.

She means, I’m so sad because Baba scolded me. She often gets her “because” mixed up with her “that’s why” (to great effect!) when she’s composing a sentence, though she uses it ok when she’s answering a question that starts with “why”.

————-

At the playground, the girls decided to play running games. Mrini ran, and Tara ran behind her, trying to catch her. They completed an entire circuit, twice, and each time Mrini came running up to me at the end (I was the starting pole as well) and collapsed in my arms, and Tara ran up a couple of steps behind her, grabbed her shirt and said, “Mini, I caught you.”

Me: Now Mrini, you go catch Tara.

Tara: No.

Mrini: Ok.

Tara ran off with Mrini in hot pursuit. Then Mrini overtook Tara and the round ended much the same way that the previous two rounds had ended! They just forgot that Mrini was out to catch Tara!

————-

In the car:

Tara: See, so many cows. One, two, three, four, five cows. (There were three cows. Tara is never going to be a mathematical genius at this rate.)

Me: How many wheels does a car have?

Tara (sitting in the car and counting on her fingers): One two three four five six wheels.

Mrini (getting out of the car and walking around to count): One, two, three, four. Four wheels.

The next morning, they were showing me a sheet of paper on which the outline of a car had been drawn and they had each painted it in, red for the car and black for the wheels.

Me: How many wheels does your car have?

Tara: Two wheels. (It was a side view of the car, so it had only two wheels, of course.)

Mrini (to me): Your car has four wheels.

Me: And how many wheels does your car have?

Mrini: Two wheels.

Me: Then how will it go, with only two wheels?
Mrini:  One, two, three, four. Four wheels. (She counted the two wheels that were visible and the two that would have been on the far side of the car.)

Me: That’s good – you counted the wheels you can see as well as the wheels that you can’t see.

Mrini (turning over the paper): Where are the other two wheels?

————-

Tara: I want to open the car.

Mrini: No, I want to open the car! You can lock the car when we get home!

This went back and forth for quite a while, with escalating decibel level, pitch, and frenzy. Finally…

Mrini: Tara, I have a good idea. Shall I tell you a good idea, Tara?
Tara: nodding

Mrini: Today I’ll open the car. When we get home then you lock the car, ok Tara? Is that a good idea?

Tara (nodding happily and smiling): Ok.

Hmmmmmmmmm …. Mrini is the one to watch out for – she just sugar-coated her words and sold the deal to Tara! And Tara bought it lock, stock, and barrel!

————-

Prior to go on any kind of outing, I make the girls use the toilet at home. Typically, this is how the conversation goes:

Me: Girls, go do sussu.

Tara: I already done sussu.

Me (suspiciously): When?

Tara (with conviction): Today!

I should hope so! This could be at 6 p.m.!


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