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?


Numbers are Fun!

February 8, 2011

We went for yet another observation today. (An observation is when the kids’ school asks us if we would like to sit in class and watch our girls do stuff. Of course we would – which parent wouldn’t? Observations are one of the reasons I love this school.)

Actually, we were supposed to go for the observation on Friday. Consequently, Mrini has been eagerly enquiring every day whether it is Friday yet. But last Friday school was closed, so when I went to school on Monday I checked with their teachers and they said we could go on Tuesday. So this morning, I broke it to Mrini that no, it wasn’t Friday yet, but if she was waiting for us to go for observation, then would she mind very much if we went today?

It was about 8.25 when we entered the class and we were there for over an hour. It was, as always, an absolute eye-opener.

Tara started by taking a very prolonged activity. It was a set of flat, smooth, different-coloured cardboard pieces of different sizes. The sizes increased from a small 1×1 square to a large 10×10. Each series was colour coded: 1×1, 1×2, 1,3… 1×10; 2×1, 2×2, 2×3… 2×10; and so on. The idea was to arrange the cards in a neat grid, and once you got done with that, to take it apart and stack the pieces back in the box. Stacking them back was a tricky business. If you were working on the 10×1, 10×2, 10×3… set of cards, you had to put 10×5 and 10×5 together side-by-side, to make one 10×10 square. Then you had to put 10×8 with 10×2; 10×7 with 10×3 and so on, so that each layer was of 10×10 size. It was complex and required a lot of patience, focus, and, of course, a good understanding of size. Tara did it perfectly and with only a minimum of distraction.

The teacher did concede, though, that Tara was “in her own world” most of the time and did the activities almost as if she was doing you a favour. That sounds like Tara alright.

Mrini did a counting/number-recognition activity, and named an impressive set of shapes (I learned the difference between an oval, ovaloid, and ellipse) then switched to spellings. This activity, called “Folders Work” used to be an absolute favourite for several weeks when she first learnt it. Tara, as usual, enjoyed it only because Mrini did. But for both of them, a month or two ago it was a source of great pride and joy to do the dog folder or the flag folder. Folders are a small set of pictures of similar-sounding words: dog, mop, pond, pot; or mug, hut, bud, sun – mostly three-letter-words with a common vowel and similar-ish consonants. Mrini has apparently had enough of the set of folders that she’s allowed to do and is itching to get her hands on the more advanced folders. Still, she quickly and largely accurately worked her way through a couple of folders. Then, at last, it was time to show us addition.

Addition is the new love of their lives. The day they first did addition, they could hardly wait to tell me they did it. All I knew about it was that they did it in groups of three. Addition sounded like a fairly complex procedure for our two little girls to be undertaking. They still routinely skip 15 when counting, and they are still very confused about how to turn around from 27, 28, 29… to 31, 32, 33. They used to use twenty-ten to achieve this (which is conceptually spot-on, of course) but have now graduated to using “twenty” (instead of the more-appropriate “thirty”). Apart from these minor glitches, Mrini can count to hundred, something she practices with gusto whenever she gets a chance. Tara can, but of course mostly doesn’t deign to. Mrini has been promising (or maybe threatening) to count to thousand, but mercifully she hasn’t been able to carry this out yet.

So I didn’t know what to expect from “addition”. Knowing their school, the one thing I could be sure of was that it would not be an abstract form of counting that relied on paper and pencil.

What it involved, it turned out, was an enormous array of tools. First, each of the three kids got a selection of cards (a bit like Monopoly money) of 1 through 10, 100, 200, 300… through to 900, and 1000, 2000, 3000 printed on them. The cards for the thousands were longest, and the cards for units were shortest. When you selected one card of each and stacked them up, you could see a single four-digit number. After each kid had picked out their four-digit number, they had to pick out a visual representation of this number. There were beads for units, strings of ten beads for tens, mats representing ten strings of ten beads each for hundreds, and cubes representing a stack of ten mats for thousands. Each kid took the correct number of each to represent the number they had put together using the cards.

Now for the addition. They pooled all the beads, strings, mats, and cubes together and each kid got the task of counting up one of the items. A collection of ten of the beads, strings, and mats were exchanged for one of the bigger objects. Less than ten were kept as-is. Counting up the cubes, mats, strings and beads gave the result of the addition.

Phew! It was a long but very involving activity and a lovely one. Why did nobody ever try to visualize arithmetic for us this way when we were kids? Of course the good old abacus has been around for millennia, but on its own without much help and with no further aids, it never spoke to me.

One of the boys near us had decided to set himself sums to do. He wrote out a problem in his notebook, then took down some counters that would help him count up the numbers and write down the answer. His teacher said he got them all right! Mrini showed us her notebook too. She had started to do written sums yesterday: 7+8 and things like that. Her writing was terribly bad, but she’d done her math correctly. Even when the answer was 15, a number she verbally refused to acknowledge!

As I’ve said many a time, in school I loved arithmetic and I was good at it. But there were so many kids who didn’t understand it at all and who hated it and were terribly bad at it. My one great hope has been that our girls would love numbers and take to them as easily as I did. It’s much too early to say whether they will or not, but what I can say is that with a foundation of this sort, there’s a very good chance that they will.


Home Visit

November 19, 2010

Another nice thing that the kids’ school has, is this concept of a home visit. Once a year (I think) the Montessori kids get to drop in to a classmate’s home. I don’t think the youngest kids (M1) get to go – at least, I don’t remember Mrini and Tara going for this last year – but this year their home visit happened yesterday.

I must admit it gave me a bit of a heartattack to start with. I’d just driven in to my office parking lot and was walking to the elevator when my phone rang. It was their class teacher. I immediately stopped in my tracks and started thinking how long it would take to get to their school and also wondering what could possibly have gone wrong in the ten minutes or so since Amit dropped them in school. It was such a relief to know that I was just being informed that they would be going on a home visit and that the teacher and forgotten to tell Amit, so she decided to call me! At that point, I would have agreed to a home visit at the ends of the earth. (When did I become such a panicky mom? But, in my defense, an unexpected call from the class teacher can only ever be bad news, right?)

As it happened, I’d made chocolate cake on Wednesday and the kids were carrying the remains of it in their snack boxes that day. That was a pity. We usually give them such terribly boring (I mean, healthy) snacks that I can only imagine they are not exactly the cynosure of all eyes when they open their snack boxes in school. I routinely took two biscuits – and the same two biscuits – to school for almost my entire school life. Even back then, Krackjack was not something kids got excited about. There was usually a crowd around those kids who brought parathas, sometimes smothered in jam and sugar. So I’ve had plenty of experience of being the kid with the least exciting snack box. While I can’t give my girls exciting (sugary, fried, or otherwise unhealthy) snacks everyday, I can at least give them a bit of cake once a year or so. I’d even give them homemade cake more often, except I usually bake on the weekend so there’s nothing left by the time school comes around again.

Amit told me that when he went to drop them at school yesterday evening, there was a boy standing at the door of their class. Apparently Tara went straight to him and said, “I brought cake. I won’t give you.” To which the boy, without missing a beat, replied, “I got sauce. I won’t give you.”

I wonder what eventually came of that little verbal exchange!

When I met the girls at daycare yesterday evening, another entertaining exchange took place.

T: I finished my snack! I ate it in the van.

Me: Did you share it with your friends?

T: I only shared it with Ayodhana (it must be Arodhana, or maybe even Aradhana, but Ayodhana is what both the kids say).

M: I didn’t eat my snack. I’ll eat it when I get home.

At this point, Mrini, who had been in my arms, gave an indignant shout and jumped out of my arms. Tara had made a beeline for Mrini’s school bag and was now quickly opening Mrini’s snack box! Mrini raced over, grabbed her snack box, went and showed off the cake to the daycare coordinator, offered her a piece, then packed it up quickly before she could take any. Tara pulled a small box of shiny stuff out of her school bag.

T: I got toys! You didn’t get toys! Sivam threw your toys out of the window.

M: I got cake. I won’t share with you.

T: I don’t want! I got toys.

At this point, I have to explain that my girls are not really as selfish as these verbal duets make them seem. Tara usually happily gives away upto 80% of her kingdom, even if it is chocolate cake and even if it is to Mrini (and Amit and me) and even if her recipients have already finished their own share of the cake. Mrini is a little more measured in the quantities she gives, but, with a little persuasion, she does give almost as cheerfully as Tara. But of course, nothing beats the sheer childish delight of the chant: “I got cake. I won’t give you.”

A little later, we managed to all get in the car and start the drive home. Slowly, they disclosed various disjointed bits of information about their home visit.

  • We went in a yellow van. There were lots of kids. (They proceeded to name several classmates. They also told me which teachers accompanied them.)
  • The seniors didn’t come. They went to (another kid’s) home. (Seniors refers to M3 kids.)
  • Na didn’t come. He was absent.
  • Ni didn’t come, she’s a baby. (Baby refers to the M1 kids; so apparently M1 kids don’t get to go.)

I asked if they went to a house or an apartment. Unsurprisingly, the girls didn’t know the difference. I asked if there was a garden, like we had. Tara said, “We have a garden? Where?” So then I asked if they went in a lift.

  • T: No.
  • M: Yes, we went in a lift. The number was 8. (I presume this means that R’s home is on the eighth floor.)
  • R’s sister was home. She opened the door.
  • T: Then R said a big Hiiiiiiiiiiiii. Like that.
  • R’s Mama and Papa and Didi were there.

(I tried to ask about R’s home – living room, dining room, verandah, the furniture and so on, but I didn’t get much. Tara made a funny face and asked “What’s that?” when I asked about a dining room! I gather R has a TV, which was off, and there was a pink cycle and a multicoloured car in the veranda, which Mrini drove “of course”.)

  • We had juice!
  • And there was pani puri.
  • And bread and Maggi.
  • And halwa. (But maybe not sooji halwa.)
  • So many plates were on the floor.
  • T: I picked up a plate because somebody dropped her halwa. But I didn’t help to clean up the halwa.
  • We didn’t eat anything.
  • T: I didn’t take a plate because Na didn’t have a plate also.
  • When we got back to school, we took our bags and went in the blue van (to daycare).

Well, they seem to have had fun. I’m sure they ate something, despite their loud disclaimers. And we all got a bite of the surviving chocolate cake at home yesterday evening, despite Mrini’s loud protestations earlier. And they both played with Tara’s toy for all of five minutes before losing interest in it completely and totally. And I got something to write about, albeit vicariously.


Observation 2

August 18, 2010

We were invited by the kids’ school to go for an observation this week. This is an aspect of their school that I can’t praise enough. I’m sure all parents are itching to know what stuff their kids do in school. Kids are, typically, less than forthcoming. The Montessori system does not require notebooks or textbooks in the first two years, so we know even less than we might in the kindergarten system. An observation is our opportunity to find out what our kids are doing in the three-plus hours that they spend in school. We had been for it last year as well, and came away enlightened and delighted in equal measures.

Mriini-Tara were quite thrilled when we told them we’d be going to sit in their class with them. They led us into class somewhat shyly and spread their mats out in a corner next to each other. Their teacher told us they don’t normally sit next to each other and Mrini had already told us in the car, “Nandu and Nirupama and Vaishnavi are Tara’s friends. Navneet is my friend. Only Navneet.” She was very firm about it. (Yes, Navneet is the same boy she kissed a couple of weeks ago – at least she’s constant. And yes, the teacher confirmed that the kiss did, indeed, happen!)

Amit and I sat down on the floor next to the two of them. To start with, Mrini went through several very easy jigsaw puzzles, while Tara worked with great focus on some number-related activity. Eventually, with some effort by the teacher, Mrini was also persuaded to work on number-related activities. There were several different activities. The one I’d heard most about was number rods – a set of rods with length from one to ten units. The idea was to arrange the rods in sequence and then count the striped units on the rods and the correct number symbol with each rod. There was another counting activity that involved putting the right number of sticks into various slots; and another activity involving putting some kind of counters in front of the number symbols. What impressed me most was a set of beads. There were ten beads, nine strings of ten beads each, nine square mats made up of ten strings of ten beads each, and finally, a cube, made by stacking ten mats on top of each other. So you had units, tens, hundred, and a thousand, visually reinforcing the numerical, geometrical and decimal relationship between all of them. It was so simple it was beautiful – I wish I’d seen it this way when I was four. This basic concept – especially the concept of square and cube, and of zero (dot) one (string) two (square) and three (cube) dimensions – was never actually tied to the real, physical world when I was a student. They were abstract concepts which I didn’t get my head around until much later. Not that Mrini and Tara have any concept of square and cube right now, or of the decimal system or of dimensions of any kind or number; but when they do begin to understand those concepts, they have something real and physical to understand them by. That is just so nice.

The other activity that their teacher made sure they showed us was sandpaper letters. Both my girls can associate vowel sounds with vowel letters and many/most of the consonant sounds with consonant letters. Mrini can do a few more than Tara and other kids in their class can do more than both, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, my girls almost know their letters! Wow! Of course I was swept away by dreams of buying them a truckload of books each – I can hardly wait for them to discover the joy of reading! – but when I asked their teacher, she said it would take another year or so before they learnt to read. Can it possibly take that long to get there once you already know the letters???

Their teacher told us they were now much better at putting away stuff they had worked on – something we still have to get after them to do at home – and that they both were very independent in class. She also said it was possible now to have real discussions with them, which was nice. She pointed out some of their art work, mentioning that it was quite neat now, and they were probably ready to start writing. I told her they’d been practicing zig-zags, 5 and 2 at home.

We sat with them for about an hour. Towards the end, I was getting itchy. I think Amit would have sat there the whole morning, he’s that kind of a doting dad, but I thought the teacher had better give some attention to the other kids in her group as well. With a maximum of 30 kids, 3 teachers and an akka, they weren’t too stretched at any point, but you can’t hog the teacher’s time for too long all the same. Other kids came up to her to ask for work or to show her what they’d done. Several kids showed her words they’d written, and one boy brought his notebook and asked for sums. Yes, he asked for sums! He even knew what numbers he wanted to add – and the teacher let him dictate the questions! And when he didn’t like the colour of the pen she was using, she let him bring her another one.

Meanwhile, the girls were getting itchy too! In the middle, Mrini wandered off to join her friends and find out what Navneet was up to. She came back soon, but not for too long. We kept telling them we’d be leaving in “five minutes” – standard procedure for brining any fun activity to a graceful end – but when we still hadn’t left at the end of fifteen, Mrini gave me a disgusted look and said “bye, mummy,” much too firmly. We took the cue and left!

I was talking to their daycare teacher about it later that day. Their daycare runs a primary kindergarten school, where things are done rather differently. I mentioned to her how much freedom the kids had in the Montessori environment. She surprised me by saying, “It is one of the most disciplined methodologies.” I started to tell her how little discipline there really was, but she was two steps ahead of me. “It allows kids a lot of freedom, so they learn to do their own work, at their own pace, and to enjoy the freedom of being able to walk around without disturbing other kids. That’s what discipline really is. Not being made to sit in one place and be quiet, but knowing that you have to do your own work without disturbing others.” That was a good point.

Overall it was a very nice experience. It is nice to know that one’s kids are actually learning something in school, even if they refuse to show off or even talk about it at home. It’s nice to see the manner in which they are learning, and how much fun it can be. It’s great to watch the independence, freedom, and responsibility that this environment allows them. Best of all was the atmosphere in class. When I sat in class with the girls in June last year, when they had just joined school, it looked like complete chaos. But now it’s August and the class has settled down. A couple of the new kids are still shy, and one boy howled for five minutes when his mother handed him over to the teacher, but apart from that, the kids were all comfortable, happy, and mostly engrossed in their work. The teachers were comfortable, cheerful, firm and un-hassled. Kids were completely comfortable with the teachers, they didn’t even hesitate to sit in the teacher’s lap. Yet… this was school – not somebody’s home, not a playschool, not daycare – this was school.

I don’t have a very clear recollection of what my school was like at this age, but I’m sure that it was nothing like this! I’m so happy our girls are in this warm, bright, and happy place for three whole years.


Back to School

June 7, 2010

We’ve been reminding the kids for a week or so that school would be re-opening soon. We took them out clothes shopping and school-bag shopping. All weekend, we talked about going back to school on Monday. And at last today we did it. Tara gulped down her breakfast, while Mrini dawdled over it, but as soon as I’d brushed their teeth, they rushed to put on their new clothes. Mrini is into Winnie-the-Pooh t-shirts and Tara is into Mickey Mouse. Mrini chose a pair of blue denim shorts and a white t-shirt, while Tara went for yellow pants rolled up at the bottom and a bright red t-shirt. They grabbed their new school bags and stuffed in their snack boxes and water bottles. They both agreed to two ponytails in their hair, and enthusiastically posed for photos.

Despite all of which, we got out of the house a good half hour earlier than we had been doing during the summer holidays, encountered as little traffic as could be hoped for, and they were (as usual) the first kids in their class to reach school. They are in a new classroom this year, but have the same teachers and most of the same classmates, apart from a handful of new admissions who haven’t actually joined yet. Predictably, both of them were shy when we actually reached their new classroom, but it took only a couple of minutes for them to relax enough to enter the room. After that, they kissed us and pushed us firmly away, waving happily. It makes me so proud when they do that – I’m so glad that they’re confident and secure enough to send us away smiling, even after a 10-week break and with a new classroom to boot. It must be so difficult for parents whose kids cry and fuss and don’t want to go to school.

Their teacher told us that school had already been open a week for older kids, and the bus/van services were fully operational. I’d planned to go and check that the girls get on the van today, but after speaking to their teacher in person and the van driver over the phone, I’m going to take a chance on it. I will go to daycare at lunchtime, to ensure that they reach as expected (and to drop off their lunch). And if that part of the day goes according to plan, then it’s official. The kids are back at school, and they’re not “babies” any more – they’re “second-years” now. They really are growing up!


Report Cards

March 29, 2010

Summer holidays are here! Luckily, this year the girls are in daycare, so I don’t have to tear my hair out wondering how to keep them busy for two whole months. It’s difficult enough on weekends! Daycare, in retrospect, has a wonderful addition to our lives. They have a good gang of friends, a group of 15 or so, and a nice set of care givers who seem to have no trouble keeping 15 kids under 5 busy and happy. Sometimes, when I leave office a few minutes early, I actually feel bad about pulling them out of daycare when they are having so much fun with all their friends!

On Thursday, we went to their school – leaving them at daycare – to pick up their report cards. Sad to say, report cards come in the shape of computer printouts nowadays. Our girls’ report cards were almost identical – they don’t know their number symbols yet (0-9), and they aren’t interest in writing. But, they’re great conversationalists. They have separate gangs and don’t stick to each other all the time – which was good to know – but they do mimic each other. So, if one is being naughty, the other will be too. And if one can be made to toe the line, the other follows automatically.

None of this was really surprising. What was surprising was to see the art work the kids had done. They had coloured butterflies, caterpillars, and fish – neatly, inside the lines, and even using different shades for eyes, wings, and fins! They had cut out and painted paper christmas trees and stockings. They had made flowers out of coloured paper and ice cream sticks. They had sprinkled glitter onto paper to make the curved shape of a snail’s shell!

Of course I have to say hats off to the teachers for having the patience and inclination to make 30-odd kids do these activities neatly and to completion; but… my kids can do all that!? Wow!? At home, they just scatter the crayons all over the house, tear up their drawing books, fight, and come crying for help! What magic do they wield at school to turn these undisciplined, unfocused balls of energy and frustration into budding artists!?

We also discovered in school that the girls do actually eat their snacks every day. This is surprising because they have insisted on taking bread and marmalade every day for the last three months! If I give them something different, even if it is roti and marmalade, it comes back uneaten. So I wondered if they were really eating their bread everyday, or what. Apparently they not only ate it, they finished it very quickly and then looked for more interesting stuff in their friends’ tiffin boxes. It had become such that one of their friends went home and told his mother everyday, “give more of this, Mrini and Tara will like it; don’t give that, Mrini and Tara don’t like it.” And of course, his doting mother did just that!

So – this manipulation and exploitation of the opposite sex starts at this tender age, does it!

And now there’s no more school for two months. When the girls go back in June, they will no longer be the “babies” of their class. And it’s just the other day that they started school!


School

December 28, 2009

The twins have really gotten into Christmas mode this year. When I went to pick them up from daycare one day, they called me inside very excitedly and showed me the miniature Christmass tree they were engaged in decorating. There were streamers and balloons up, and pictures of Santa Claus. Later on, Tara told me that Santa Claus came to school and gave them chocolate and that Mrini cried. Mrini confirmed that she had cried, but the chocolate story she did not verify, so I’m not sure whether that part was fact or fiction.

On the last day of school before the winter break, there was a Christmas party in school. I’d thought it was only for the tiny tots of the Montessori classes, but when I went to drop the kids off, I saw the entire school was in ‘party’ clothes – that is, not in uniform. The Montessori classes had been decorated in Christmas colours, and the one of the kids’ three class teachers whom I saw was dressed in a gorgeous rust-red silk churidar-kurta. School had notified us not to send any snacks, so I gathered they would be provided, and later on I saw that the kids had also been presented with jigsaw puzzles and Santa Claus caps that they might have had a hand in the making of. We had also been asked to collect our charges by 10.30 a.m. This might not have been very convenient for us, but for the fact that both Amit and I had a holiday that day. Amit went to pick up the girls and was equally delighted with the party atmosphere.

Such a thing never happened in the schools I was in, back in my days. We were allowed to be in “civvies” – that is, not in uniform – on our birthdays, up to a certain age; and on school-leaving day, the students who were bidding farewell and those who were leaving were supposed to come to school in “formal” attire, which meant that all the girls wore saris (many of them for the first or second times in their lives). Their day started late in the morning and ended late in the afternoon, so the rest of us didn’t get to see them in their finery much. (On a side note, I was quite relieved never to have to go through this ritual, because I didn’t finish school in this school, and the one I did finish in didn’t have any ritual that I can recall.)

Apart from school-leaving day and annual day, which was a very organized and rehearsed affair, the only other occasion on which we might have worn civvies to school was Children’s Day. On that day, I think, we also got a small packet of goodies to munch. But that was only while we were very small – I don’t think we had it all the way up to sweet 16.

As for festivals – I don’t recall ever learning anything about them in school. Whatever we imbibed was from other children around us, not because there was any formal focus on them. I don’t think we ever decorated our classes or did rangoli or had our teachers come especially dressed up in the festive spirit. The main thing we got on festivals was a holiday. The rest was up to our parents.

I can see other little differences as well, in the kids’ school as compared to mine. Assembly, for instance. There must have been times when it was foggy, cold, hot, or rainy, but I don’t recall Assembly ever being called off. Logically, it seems impossible that we could have had Assembly in the pouring rain – we must have skipped Assembly at least when it rained, but in my mind it seems that Assembly was sacrosanct. At least I know that we had Assembly when it was freezing cold – I can still remember standing out in the field, wearing a sweater and blazer and feeling generally warm enough, but with my finger tips slowly turning blue.

In the kids’ school, Assembly seems to be determined by the position of the stars or some equally arbitrary factor. Some days they have it, some days they don’t. The weather is a factor, but it’s not the only or the most obvious factor. Also, it seems to be taken altogether much more casually. We, for instance, couldn’t afford to be late for Assembly. It was terrible. If you came late because your bus came late, it was ok, because there would be a whole busload of you and you’d be sent to your places without a word of reprimand; but if you were the only ones, just a handful of students dribbling in late…

See, mostly you had to get to class, deposit your bag, and then head to Assembly. If you were late, you obviously couldn’t do that. So you deposited your bag on the side of the field and tried to sneak into your class queue. Which was arranged in ascending order of height. So if you were short, like me, it was pretty difficult to be inconspicuous. Also if you were tall enough to be right at the back. You’d best be of a medium height and then you could squirm into the middle of the queue. If you managed to do this, fine, but when everyone was leaving the field you’d have to stop to pick up your bag – you’d just have to. That’s when the Prefects would be waiting to pounce on you. They also inspected everyone for hair left untied, long nails, short skirts, rolled up socks, non-conforming shoes, or any other signs of non-conformance that they could spot. Habitual offenders were not let off lightly. I don’t – I must admit – recall exactly what we were made to do for being late or for the other offences, but it must have been pretty bad. At least they made you get out of line and wait in the field, which made you late for the first class. I guess they maybe gave you a talking to. Maybe they made you run rounds? Though that, I think, only the PT trainer had the authority to do. So I’m not sure exactly what power the Prefects wielded. Maybe it was just the being picked on, being singled out, which was punishment enough. Whatever it was, it was certainly something you’d take reasonable measures to avoid.

In the kids’ school, though, I see an untidy line-up of bags every day, near the field. Kids file out and claim their bags without comment. Nobody seems to care. I spotted a fancy pair of sports shoes the other day, instead of the plain white canvas shoes everyone else was wearing. I don’t know if anyone cared about that, either.

At first thought, I’d have said this showed a deterioration in the standard of educational institutions these days. But then, I tried to clear my mind of my preconceived notions and really think about it. What’s so good about that strictly disciplinarian stance that my school took? Is it necessarily a good thing to promote discipline at the cost of individuality and freedom of expression? What’s so bad about open hair and long nails, anyway? So what if you leave your bag at the edge of the field? Perhaps it’s ok to loosen the reins just a little and let kids be kids. If you give them just a little bit of freedom, maybe kids, some of them at least, will respond with just a little bit of responsibility. Maybe it’s worth trying.


They Totally Missed The Bus!

December 14, 2009

Kids really are amazing.

In a conversation some days ago, sup33 mentioned what her daughter’s to-be school principal had said: kids are much more hardy than parents think they are. They have more stamina, more energy, and are more adaptive than we give them credit for. My own kids have proved this to me many times already, yet they still surprise me.

When I was much younger – not a child exactly, but growing up – I was scared of being left at school. This actually happened once, when one of my parents turned up a little late to pick me up – I must have been 6 or 8, or possibly even 9 years old. But much later, even up to the age of 16 or so, I used to have anxious dreams of being left at school. In those days, I went home by school bus, and I had a constant, though mild, paranoia of missing the bus. My recurring dream on this theme lacked the intensity of a nightmare, but it was definitely a worrying and anxiety-laden dream, and one that persisted for a while even after school itself – or at least the school bus part of school – had come to an end.

We started the twins on the school van ten days ago, just before we left for Pondicherry. I went with them for two days, and left instructions with their teacher, the van driver, and the daycare attendant that from the following school day, they would come on their own, unattended.

Then, the weekend intervened.

And we went to Pondicherry.

And by the time we returned and sent the kids to school on Wednesday, something got lost in transit between the school teacher and the van driver and the kids didn’t get on to the bus (or in to the van, in this case).

It was my last day of unemployment, and I had spent the morning getting their lunch ready. I drove to their daycare with the intention of greeting them as they got off the van, to ensure that they reached safely and were not unduly worried about the commute, and also, at the same time, delivering their lunch. I had just about reached the place with a few minutes to spare, when Amit called.

“Where are you?”
“I’m almost there, at their daycare,” I said.
“Ok. You have to go to their school right away.”
Naturally, thoughts of illness, accidents, and other possible calamities flooded into my mind.
“The van didn’t pick them up.”

First I called the van driver. He was unperturbed. He had thought they were starting from tomorrow. In any case, he was already quite far from school and couldn’t possibly go back to pick them up. So I called daycare, updated them, called Amit back, updated him, and set off on the long drive to their school.

I was tense – were they very upset? Were they scared? Lonely? Crying?

I knew that their teachers would not leave them, that they would keep them engaged and do their best to allay their fears, but… Just a couple of weeks ago, Mrini had been in tears fearing I wasn’t coming to fetch her, and I wasn’t even late that day. And just this morning, Tara had said “don’t go,” and clung to me tearfully, while her teacher tugged her away and assured her that mama would come early today to pick them up. And I hadn’t turned up! What trauma they would be experiencing!

So I drove blindly, stupidly, preoccupied with these thoughts. Narrowly escaping various catastrophes, I reached school at 12.45 to find… two perfectly happy, laughing, playing, children who greeted me with “hey, what happened to the van?” (or words to that effect). Not a word of complaint or a single teardrop in sight.

Huh. So much for all that worrying. Why on earth did I think that my childhood fears, which I had forgotten all about until now, would be their fears? They were in a familiar environment, they had their teachers, their work, their friends. One of the things with Montessori is that older kids – up to 5+ – are in the same class as younger kids (3+). The older kids get to stay back for an extra hour or so, so by the time I reached, the seniors still hadn’t gone home.

And then, of course, there are the two of them. Although that more than doubles their naughtiness and all the mischief they can get up to, it also means that each of them is very rarely totally alone.

I greeted them unconcernedly, as though my turning up was just a special bonus for the day, and we drove to daycare, and they were somewhat late for lunch but none the worse for it – despite the fact that they’d returned from a hectic trip out of town and had an extremely interrupted sleep last night. They both slept in the afternoon (thank goodness!) and were in top form that evening.

One good thing that came out of this entire experience was that something that would doubtless have worried me eventually – the prospect of the twins missing the bus – happened even before it had occurred to me to be worried about it. And once the worst has happened and has been handled, it loses its fear factor. I know now that if they ever miss the bus in future, their teachers will call us, and either of us, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing then, will drop everything and rush to pick them up. And until we get there, they will be in their school, with their teachers and friends, and they will be fine.

Still, overall, they are just amazing in how adaptable they are. They’ve just been two weeks in daycare, and that’s been interrupted by a change in daycare, and a trip out of town; but they’ve settled down with a minimum of fuss and are absolutely cheerful and positive about the whole thing. Tara had taken to fussing a bit when we dropped her off at school in the morning, but today she told me with great determination that she was going to go “quickly” into class, and she did – she waved to me and went off smiling!

I still have twinges of guilt at how much time I’m going to be spending away from them… but it’s worse when they make it so easy for you.


What’s In A School, Anyway?

June 28, 2009

Before we started doing the rounds of the schools trying to get the twins in, I wasn’t very concerned about school. I didn’t believe it was necessary to get them into the “best” school. As far as I was concerned, any school that was middle of the range would do. What did “best” mean, anyway?

To me, when it comes to schools, “best” would probably mean a large school, with enormous grounds, good sports facilities, and generally excellent infrastructure. That means clean toilets, well-equipped science labs, plenty of extra-curricular activities which are given sufficient priority. And, very importantly, well-paid staff. I’d expect teachers to like their subjects, enjoy teaching, and to encourage curiosity and questioning in students. In my experience as a student, it is difficult, but not impossible, to find teachers like that.

I didn’t aspire, necessarily, to the “best” school for my children. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because these schools tend to be expensive, and hence elitist. I would want my kids to know and mix with people from different economic and cultural backgrounds, to realize that every birthday doesn’t have to be celebrated at McDonald’s, or, worse, TGIF.

Perhaps because I don’t really believe that it is important to always get the “best” for your children; rather it’s important to get them what is good enough, so that they are not brought up in an altogether exalted environment. They should be able to deal with everyday realities like things breaking – literally or figuratively.

I also felt that, even if they weren’t in the “best” school, they’d learn enough at school to be going on with. Whatever they didn’t learn in school, in terms of values, communication skills, social graces and the like, I was willing to risk betting that we could teach them at home. And in terms of just academics, I wasn’t too concerned. As long as I can teach them to be regular, disciplined, conscientious, and, hopefully, interested, the rest would follow. Besides, I’m not worried about them coming first or second in class – as long as they genuinely learn and have fun. What I’d rather see them doing in school, is making friends, learning to interact, learning to play, learning to question and find answers, learning to win and lose and laugh and cry. In other words, learning to live.

For that, I figured, a good enough school would be good enough.

But then we got caught up in the usual rat race of admission and hearing from others about how great this, that, or the other school was. And suddenly “best” became whatever everyone else was talking about. In fact, from what I could make out, “best” came to mean “most difficult to get in to”.

By that definition, our kids have gotten into one of the “best” schools. This school is so “best” that people either swoon over it, or have never heard of it. You know the type – like the restaurants you can only go to by invitation: you’re either dying to get in there (because it is so damn difficult to actually get invited), or you’ve never heard of it. Only a privileged handful have ever actually been inside.

On the inside, though, I’m not sure that it’s really very different. It’s a school, it has classrooms, teachers, students. This school does not have the facilities that would make it rate as “best” by my definition. The main playground, for instance, is a public playground shared with another school and, in theory, open for strangers to walk in to.

All the same, I have no real complaints with their new school right now. I liked the interaction, as I mentioned earlier, and I vehemently disliked the interaction at another school which had the most impressive facilities. (For the record, no, the twins didn’t actually get in there. But, also for the record, I was railing against their admission process right at the time it happened, and we didn’t find out until much later that they hadn’t gotten in, so it wasn’t a matter of sour grapes.) I like the Montessori set up here, to whatever extent I’ve seen so far, and the kids’ teachers seem to be nice. I’ve watched the older kids at Assembly when I go to drop the kids in the morning, and I really like the way they do Assembly too. But, judging by the number of kids at Assembly, this really is a small school. So no – by my definition, this school would rate as decent, pretty good, but not in the “best” category. Probably not worth paying over-the-top fees for, nor commuting 40 minutes each way for. I’d want to keep those burdens for one of the more stereotypical convent schools in the heart of town, where acres of playground and a swimming pool are included in the school premises.

Not that I’d even dream of changing their school now that they’ve started. But what I’m really wondering about is, what differentiates ok, from good, from best? Is it one’s own priorities and expectations of a school, or is it just what everyone else says about a school? And is it worth the effort of huge fees and long distances just to get your kids into a school that is on other people’s “best” list?


I Can’t Even Blame This On The Flu

June 24, 2009

I hate this feeling.

The twins have completed two weeks at school. They seem to be ok. Their role reversal is complete now, I think, with Mrini taking off her shoes and going happily into class, while Tara clings to my legs and wails. I think she’s ok the moment I leave, so I leave promptly, with a smile and a wave. The teacher reports that they are fine. Yesterday, apparently, at break, Tara went and grabbed some chips (wafers) from another kid, then ran and gave half to Mrini. They both sat and ate them together, then Tara went off and stole some more. Gosh, I have to tell them not to steal food! The teacher was thoroughly amused and said it’s ok and that the other girl didn’t even notice. But still.

This week, they’ve been staying for the full session – 8.30-12 noon. They don’t seem to get exceptionally tired or anything. It’s a different story for their mother and chauffeur, though. I’ve only done half of the ten drop-and-pick-up trips per week this week, and I’ve already clocked up 100 km. We’ve been discussing buying a new car, but at this rate, what I need is a new me. Or, at least, I need to get them on to that school bus.

What age is the right age for a school bus? Is below three too soon? Probably, but it depends on who’s doing the driving. Ask the driver, and even two-and-a-half is none too soon. It’s not just about the actual driving – it’s about spending close to three totally non-productive hours every day sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, keeping up an inane flow of conversation with the kids half the time (the other half, even they aren’t there) while fretting about whatever else you could be doing if you weren’t doing this.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for the mother in me to accept that the twins will be just fine in a school bus. I worry that they won’t know where they’re going and what they will find when they get there. I worry that they’ll cry, or want to go to the toilet, and there’ll be nobody to help them. I worry that they’ll feel lost and scared and alone.

But, will I ever really get used to this drop-and-pick-up-ten-times-every-week routine? Will I ever be able to manage it easily?

Yesterday, for instance, was just crazy. I had to go for a meeting for some potential documentation work that I might get (or have got, actually). It was pretty much on the way to their school, but what with tennis before that, and walking home with a carton of 10 litres of milk after that… well, I was really tired by lunch time. Then I didn’t sleep well last night, and was awake by 5 a.m. this morning (though my alarm is set only for 5.45, so I wasted a good 45 minutes of sleep), feeling, if possible, even more tired than when I went to sleep last night.

Yeah, I know… I’m a mother now, this is what I signed up for.

But then things suddenly got worse.

See, I dressed the girls and sent them off to school with their clips in their hair, shoes on their feet, school bags with spare clothes and water bottles packed… and I forgot to pack their tiffin boxes! I mean, I had the damn tiffin boxes ready to go, but I left them lying on the kitchen counter. And I saw them as soon as I got home.

What are my poor girls going to do at break??? I feel terrible. Only two weeks and I’ve already come to this! What’s even worse is that I’m sitting here and stuffing my face with breakfast while I type. What kind of a mother am I? I’m a monster mother. I should actually have driven straight back to their school with the blasted tiffin boxes, but I’m just too tired to even seriously consider the idea. I’ll take them when I go to pick the girls up, and they can eat it then, but what are they going to do when all the other kids are eating? Steal food, again? They’ll be hungry by then, too, because of course they don’t eat much breakfast at 6.30 a.m.

So I’m feeling totally lousy – sorry-for-myself, tired, and guilty, all at once.

Sigh. If I’m not the world’s worst mother yet, I’m working my way up the ladder pretty quickly I think.


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