Too Good To Be True

June 10, 2011

So you remember how our last expedition to the passport office ended, right? We had to get letters from the agency with the kids’ photos pasted on them, which we’d got very quickly – by Monday, in fact. But it was Thursday evening before I managed to really make up my mind to go to the Passport office the next morning. And that meant, on Thursday night at 9.30, Amit was out visiting our neighbours and getting their consent to put their names and addresses on the Personal Particulars Forms. We filled up the forms – two per child – and even managed to find out their height without waking them up from sleep. As to eye colour, we weren’t very certain. Amit said brown, but I thought black. The other particulars weren’t too difficult, with one minor exception – Applicant’s signature.

Four year olds, even if they are close to five than to four, can’t sign. So presumably we would need to put thumb prints. This posed two problems. First, neither one of us knew which thumb (or finger, for that matter) needed to be printed. I was under the impression that it was the left thumb, but I couldn’t swear on it.

In any case, it was irrelevant, because the other problem was that we didn’t happen to have an ink pad handy. When it’s 10 p.m. and the kids are going to go to school at 7 a.m., taking their thumbs along with them, the chances of getting one’s hands on an ink pad are rather slim, and so are the chances of getting the required thumb prints.

It’s most frustrating when you have firmly made up your mind to undertake a tedious chore, to find that you will not be able to do it. So when I had packed the kids off the school this morning, and Amit had found his way home after tennis, we wondered whether we should to ahead anyway, without the thumb prints. The Personal Particulars forms didn’t actually mention anything about a thumb print. Amit checked the online version of the form and found that it did mention thumbprints – left for males and right for females – but the forms we had had been given to us by the Policy Section of the passport office, and they didn’t mention thumb prints. Could we just sign for the Applicant and be done with it?

Amit called the 1-800 number, but we had to wait till 8 a.m. to get a person on the other end. The person said, of course, that thumb prints were required. I had picked up my laptop case and was almost out of the door heading for office when Amit called me back. “Let’s try anyway,” he said.

So off I went, expecting a long drive, a long wait, and not much joy at the end of it.

The first two parts were as expected. I waited in queue from 9 till 10. I got token number 139 and 140 – quite a bit worse than last time. I entered and whizzed past the waiting hordes straight to the Policy section, where there were only two people ahead of me. I showed the letter, and was told to go to Counter 10 on the first floor and get it uploaded. That took a quick five minutes. By the time I got back to the Policy section, there was a queue of 20 people. The security officer took my form and pushed it through ahead of whoever was at the window. Then I spent half an hour or so sitting at the edge of my seat, waiting. At last, the name “Nayantara” was called. I jumped up.

“The particulars for both applicants are the same,” said the woman at the counter. “Are they twins?”

I confirmed that they were twins and sat down again. Five minutes later, “Nayantara” was called again. I jumped up again.

At this point, there were four people at the window. Two or three had been called, and one was the person who was actually being served at the time. Security was trying to get some people to clear away, but the women behind the window wanted all of us there. One woman looked at me and said, “The passport is sent for printing. It will be delivered to you.”

I gaped at her. Was she really talking to me? They hadn’t seen the originals of the letters yet. They hadn’t asked for the Personal Particulars form. They hadn’t pointed out a hundred problems in the forms, including the lack of the thumb impression. They hadn’t said Police Verification would be required in Pondicherry and Bangalore.

“Um… it’s gone for printing?” I asked, stupidly.

“Yes,” said the woman shortly. I could see that she was mentally moving on to the next person.

“How long will it take?” – I needed to keep her talking while I thought of what else I should ask.

“Two weeks.” Still thinking of the next person.

“I don’t have to do anything else?”

This time she actually looked at me, as if to say, “What are you, stupid?” “No,” she said.

As I stumbled off, still in a daze, it occurred to me to wonder if they had processed Mrinalinee’s passport as well. They hadn’t mentioned her name even once. But that, of course, could be because they didn’t know how to say it – they saw the M and the R and they got worried and went on to the next name, which has nicely alternating consonants and vowels and which, moreover, is the name of a Tamilian actress, or so I have been informed, and therefore perhaps not such a strange concoction to them.

A couple of hours later, Amit checked the status on the Net. Both passports were shown as approved today and sent for printing. If all goes well, we’ll have them in hand in a couple of weeks. It’s hard to believe, what with the missing thumb prints and everything, but this might just become a reality sometime soon.

Still,  we’re not celebrating just yet. You never know – another trip to the Passport Office could very well be written into our future.

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Seniors (Already)

June 3, 2011

So the kids went back to school on Wednesday. They’ve started their third year now; this year, they are “Seniors”. Cliched though it is, I must say it: How time flies! Wasn’t it just the other day that I put them into the nearby playschool so I could enjoy a brief respite from the constant state of high-alert they kept me on?

They are old enough to get the idea of summer holidays now – at least, they get that summer holidays will end at some point and they will go back to school. It’s nice that in the Montessori system, the class and the teachers remain the same. The “babies” (M0 and M1 kids) are new, and the “seniors” from last year (M3 kids) have moved on to First standard, but the M1 and M2 kids from last year stay on in the same class, so two-thirds of the kids are the same every time school reopens. (Albeit a different two-thirds, if you know what I mean.)

So far, the kids were taking a school van to get from school to daycare. This year, we’ve started to send them by school van for the morning drop from home to school as well. Hats off to the kids that they’ve accepted this step with their usual elan and wait eagerly and impatiently for the school bus every morning. It’s a different van from the one they take to daycare, different driver, attendant, and kids, and this one ferries older kids as well as tiny kids. But they never batted an eyelash at the newness of it, and were thrilled to discover that two of their classmates are on the same van.

School is five whole hours this year – 8.30 to 1.30. They leave home at 7.15 and get to daycare only at 2.15! They get two snack breaks, but no proper lunch break at school, which means lunch gets pushed out to 2.30 or so, which is pretty late. Breakfast is basically a glass of milk, so the snacks will have to be fairly substantial to keep them going till 2.30. Yesterday we packed two snacks in one box for each girl and apparently they ate both the snacks in the first break and had nothing for the second break. What’s more, Mrini was so tired by the time she got to daycare that she ate very little lunch and went to sleep! Sorting out their meal content and schedule is going to take some work. Already I’m terrified each day that I’ll forget to pack some crucial element of their school bag or their lunch bag which will lead to them being hungry, thirsty, or under-dressed some day. And I’m really worried about how I’m going to come up with ideas for two healthy and substantial snacks per child, per week day (20 snacks per week!) and still keep it interesting.

And there’s another thing that’s worrying me in a “back of the mind” kind of way. Their teacher told me at the end of the first day that I should make Tara do some writing work at home.

This teacher of theirs is an experienced and balanced kind of teacher. She’s not the overly pushy kind. And the nice thing about her in particular and the Montessori system in general is that there is a real effort to understand each child and work with them as individuals. This is as far removed from cookie-cutter education as it is possible to be at least in the Indian context. At the end of the first year, she told me, “They should be able to count to ten by now, but it’s ok. We can work on it next year.” She also said, “Let them eat with their hands and let them do a lot of drawing and colouring. It will improve their fine motor skills and help them to learn to write.” This kind of advice I can work with – anything that is a general recommendation and that, moreover, tends to work around a problem, sounds good to me.

At the end of last year, the teacher said, “Let them do some clay modeling over the holidays. It’s good exercise for their hands.” Well, we didn’t get around to doing clay modeling, but I didn’t worry about it. They did a lot of colouring and crafts at daycare, but I didn’t “work” with them on writing or anything else during the holidays. I’m the irresponsible type of parent who believes that “working” with them is the school’s job and my job is to do lots of other stuff. But when their teacher told me that Tara needs to work on her writing at home (“a little bit, if you can – don’t force her or anything”) I was worried.

The thing is, since this is a generally balanced teacher who has given sensible recommendations in the past, I can’t dismiss this advice out of hand. On the other hand, “working” with Tara at home is not, in my opinion, the right approach. Given that I’m not going to be the kind of mother who holds her child’s hand (literally or otherwise) throughout school, working on handwriting at the tender age of less-than-five is not something I’m going to do. In my opinion, Tara’s handwriting is not the problem. The problem is her attitude. I want her to learn to focus, to learn to take her work seriously, and for her to believe that she can do well and then to want to do well. If I have to teach her anything, it’s motivation first, then discipline, focus, and plain hard work.

I’ve seen other people teaching kids to write – by holding their hands. That’s easy enough – anyone can do that. But how long will you keep holding their hands and teaching them? How long will you, the parent, be responsible for what your child learns? I do want to teach my kids, but what I want is to teach them to teach themselves. That’s not so easy. Some would say that it’s too early for that lesson, but I don’t think so. It’s never too early. The problem is to find the right way to do it.

Motivation, for instance. It’s easy – “Write ten lines, I’ll give you a chocolate.” But that, again, is not the right kind of motivation. The motivation must be to do a thing well, not the rewards that come along with it. Can this kind of external motivation lead to some kind of internal motivation? I think not – why would you need any other source of motivation if your motivation is a chocolate, a book, a cycle or whatever? The motivation I want to see in Tara – Mrini already has it to a surprising extent – is “Write ten lines because you can.” Or “Write ten lines because you want to learn.” Or, what would be best, “Write ten lines because it’s so much fun.” In the absence of that, I’ll even settle for “Write ten lines because you have been told to and then you can go play.” There’s nothing wrong with obedience and plain old discipline if all else fails.

One thing I used to see quite a bit of, but it’s been less evident of late, was a kind of negative competition between the girls. Mrini always wanted to do her work and she got a lot of praise for it. Tara didn’t want to do the work, but she would try to just because she saw Mrini getting attention and praise. Then she would lose interest and start messing around. I think she had begun to feel that “Oh, Mrini is so good at all this, I’m hopeless, there’s no point in even trying.” Nowadays, this has changed a bit. Tara has been uncharacteristically helpful around the house, while Mrini has been irritatingly uncooperative. So Tara gets the brownie points, for now. Amit and I are both consciously trying to notice and praise her when she’s focusing on something, anything. We’re trying to tell her that she can do well at things, if she tries. Trouble is, essentially their personalities are different – Mrini is all eager to please and Tara is devil-may-care. This makes motivation that much more of a challenge for Tara – she will only focus on and work on something for her own sake, not for anybody else’s. And if she’s cut out that way, I don’t think it’s too early to start telling her that she has to focus on her work for the sake of the work itself.

The question is: How can I get her to understand and accept that?


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