Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unschooling Experience- a mother's view point

I have lost count of the number of raised eyebrows that we have come across when we say that our kids do not go to school. They are shocked and immediately sputter, "But you and your husband are both Ph.D.'s". We smile pityingly and say, as though it makes perfect logical sense, "That's why!"

I would be cheating if I dared to take the credit for this brilliant idea of not sending the kids to school. The story began with my very esteemed cousin badgering me to get my two darling daughters out of good schools, in my husband's opinion, then, a rather insane idea to deprive them of a decent and proper education. As for poor me, I was left torn between my love and respect for the superior intelligence of my cousin and my love & loyalty to my husband dear. So I was forced to do a bit of reading, soul searching and discussing to comprehend the concept of education.

"Education is the manifestation of perfection in man", said Swami Vivekananda. 

"While one is young is the time to investigate, to experiment with everything. The school should help its young people to discover their vocations and responsibilities, and not merely cram their minds with facts and technical knowledge; it should be the soil in which they can grow, without fear happily and integrally", in the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

"Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character making assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by-heart a whole library.....If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world, and encyclopedias are the rishis", in the words of Swami Vivekananda.

After going through such and other similar literature, I was more positive about this adventure and wanted to embark on it. We and a handful of other families came together in this enterprise, though, the other families appeared more skeptical than hopeful for me. In all we had ten children scattered in the ages between 5 and 12. With this set and DJ as our mentor the journey began.

And what a journey it was!

Since then, every day has been new and charged, every movement a mental struggle where my beliefs, misconceptions are challenged and shattered and my brain fights in its endeavour to create new pathways of understanding. Along this voyage of discovery my definitions of joy, togetherness, forgiveness, family and life have undergone a complete transformation and my wish is to share this joy with all.

Our immediate focus on pulling our children out of school was to give them complete freedom, with no restraints whatsoever. The purpose was manifold, one of them being to wipe out the cobwebs of stress from their minds and hearts.

It took a mere couple of weeks to bring out the freshness and liveliness in their faces. They spent their time lazily, enjoying the sun and the rain and the mud on which they showered their individual creativities. They dreamt up stories and giggled and laughed and slept and ate alws! It helped that we lived in the outskirts of Hyderabad where the bounties of nature were very visible. There were peacocks and snakes, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, campfires and sleepovers.

At times this would irk parents and others in the community to see them while away "precious time" when all their contemporaries were seriously slogging away at their studies. In comparison our children were pretty poor in mathematics, English the sciences and geography. I remember I cringed, the time when my 10 year old daughter did not know where in the world Chicago was! (What a disgrace! All school goers know that it is in USA of course.....or so so I imagined!). There were many such incidents like when they failed to answer simple addition questions fast enough for us! But then we took heart and courage in reading up about similar problems faced by other un-schoolers parents. And when we tried to enforce any sort of discipline and study times, they were conveniently forgotten. Most often either their dullness in lessons would be a test to our tempers or else their quirkiness and imagination in answering would send us into raptures of laughter, becoming stories to be told and retold! The emphasis though being on the vernacular, the importance of learning other languages was always explained. Spending so much time together they got to know each others strengths and weaknesses intimately which they expressed in songs that they wrote on each other gently ridiculing each ones typical idiosyncracies. Much later we realised how much this self created fun activity had helped them to overcome their weaknesses and bond them together for life.

Slowly however they were given some duties to perform regularly like collecting flowers for worship in the mornings,  drawing rangolis every morning and evening in front of their houses, singing simple bhajans together in the evenings, etc. The elder kids were given additional activities like doing certain hours of household chores, helping the elders in cooking, etc.  Every festival was celebrated by our community together, so the children had loads of opportunities to perform responsible activities like serving water to all at meal times, waiting patiently for food to be served since, by rule it was served only after it was first offered to God. On special events skits and plays would be performed, they were encouraged to tell stories in public  highlighting the greatness of Sri Sai Baba which had been recounted to them by elders. Some of the kids would cry, some would be shy and others would talk typically like elders! Our community would take pride and would be appreciative of their antics for days after!

Two and a half years passed by thus, and the older kids parents owing to peer pressure showed signs of restlessness. Then again, the children themselves were inclined to prove to their parents and their loved ones that they were as capable if not more, than other school going children. So the idea of taking the 10th class exams through private was flouted. The idea emerged in October, the exams were scheduled for March! And, the group did not want to split, they all wanted to do it together, which meant that the children's ages varied from 10 and half years to 15 years!!! Well, the children's wish was our command and under the leadership of DJ plans were made, strategies formed, books procured, schedules prepared and studies were begun. One would imagine that the children studied on a war footing, but far from it was the case.

Hitherto the underlying but not obvious principle behind the freedom given to the children was the concept of spiritual realization being the highest goal of life, everything else was utterly subservient to this one purpose. Towards this end they were surrounded by literature on the Indian saints of all eras, Sufi saints and mystics, Sikh gurus, etc.. Great people of all times like Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Shahid Bhagat Singh, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Pythagoras figured often in our story telling times and even tantrum throwing time. Lectures, discussions and readings on spirituality that were held almost every day for and by the community were imbibed unhindered, by tender ears. Care was strictly taken that no hands hit a child, no unkind word spoken to them, and an atmosphere of giving, solidarity and service was always maintained.

Now again, not to loose that foundation of spirituality, the children were told to perform worship and arati everyday to Sri Sai Baba, the embodiment of spirituality of the current age. Food was organized so that all of them ate the same thing together. In short, they continued to spend all their time together going home only to sleep and bathe. They had exactly three months to read for10 papers. It had been close to three years since they had touched a pen properly or taken any notes, so the struggle began from there. Yet, they took around 15 days to finish each syllabus after which they were promptly taken out to celebrate either with a 3-D movie or Pizza Hut.......It was a pleasure to watch them help each in their studies. The older kids would memorize a portion and then help the younger ones to understand. Then the younger kids would help each other memorize. They would make gentle fun of each other to snap themselves out of boredom. Images would be taken on cell phones of them sleeping or struggling in awkward positions to memorize particularly useless stuff! The jokes and laughter were never far away. From February onwards we started on written tests to make them practice their writing skills. Oh Man! Were they creative, those answers! The younger ones had to be told to write longer answers in keeping with our education system, the smart Aleck's were told to curtail their imagination and write to the point, it was a blast, timing them, doing the invigilation and correcting the answer sheets. We all had tremendous fun!

Then came a mass exodus from the scene of preparation to the scene of the crime or errrr examination (pun unintended). There were six adults including our mentor DJ and ten kids who shifted base to Ongole where they were to take the exam. We adults spent a hectic two months cooking, washing, cleaning and helping the kids learn. The kids poor things got adjusted to the twin hassles of the heat and humidity of the coastal town of Ongole, without a word. The daily cooking 4 to 5 times a day for hungry teenagers took its toll on the adults and we ended up making some really weird combinations of food, which were taken in healthy stride by the kids but has gained a fond and indelible entry into our '10th class exams' memoirs. There were mid night teas and early morning snacks, there was squashing the mosquitoes and hitting the books, writing formulae with peices of chalk on the terrace floor and discussing answers with DJ while the sun gently set. The option of quitting was openly dicussed when the going got tough,  but somehow the will to see a decision through sustained. Yet when inspite of it when their spirits flagged and they felt disheartened, DJ energised all of us by playing cricket in the first floor hall and 'deep' in the entire two storied building. Through it all the childrens daily itenary of worship and arati went on without interruption.

Once the exams started the countdown to home turf began! Exam days fell into a ritual like pattern. Once ready the kids would all stand in a vague semblance of a row and they would be handed over their writing pads, pencil boxes and hall ticket by DJ with Gods wishes on his lips. They would then be escorted in a couple of cars to the examination Centre. Here they would group around DJ who would give them last minute words of encouragement. A dose of lecithin to beat the heat and provide mental strength and they would be off into their respective rooms. After an agonizing wait for them by us, they would then emerge out of the examination Centre, escorted back in cars amongst a riot of cacophonic sounds and then they would all sit around DJ for the last ritual act of discussing their answers with him. Once he'd gauged each ones' performance in terms of percentage, only then would they sit down for food!

The day of the last exam held the grand finale. The kids were unsuspectingly brought home and once their answers were discussed as usual they were ushered into the first floor hall where they encountered a WHOLE ROOM FULL OF BALLOONS IN  A MYRIAD COLOURS!!!! They stared open mouthed at first and then came the peals of joy and laughter when they started to hit the ballons, fall on them, hit us with the balloons in mock frustration and generally screamed an shouted. Their tension slowly ebbed away as they played and the return trip where they tore their textbooks to pieces and let them flutter away in the breeze through the window of the bus saw the last remnants of their stress disappear as if into the wind. It was a bunch of happy, successful kids who got  a grand welcome on homecoming!

However, the spiritual footing on which everything else was to stand had taken a beating in the pressure of formal education.  After all to think about marks and ranks and the necessity of being judged  for life by someone who does not know you and will probably never set eyes on you in his entire lifetime, on the basis of a few written words (reproduced from an outdated text) on a few scraps of paper, and then make a lasting, public conclusion on your mental capacity is not only ridiculous but downright obnoxious. Their inherent curiosity and love of learning had diminished, books had become equated with exams and so their minds simply closed up. So, there was again a lull and freedom  given to recover their natural healthy mindset. They learnt the basics of karate, got their yellow belts and continued with yoga, football, throw ball, badminton, chess, etc. They experimented with cooking and became quite good and also innovative chefs. In the meanwhile they also took a course in Permaculture Design. They learnt to prepare the potting mix, make compost and grow plants. In the process they came to identify different plants and their growing times. Marveling at their interest and grasp of the subject they were given a small  plot of land where they started and successfully maintained a nursery. They learnt the art of marketing their saplings, taking orders and  even made a profit on their enterprise.

All too soon it was decision time again! The older kids wanted to finish off with school education as they felt interested in higher studies. The younger children did want to be left out and they too jumped in. This time they were older and wiser and also confident about doing it by themselves with only a little help from us in the form of providing teachers for certain portions. We admitted them into NIOS and let them take the lead this time. /

They all handled their routine chores and studies well, taking care that they kept pace with each other. Towards the end when they found that they were short of time, they felt the need to recreate their '10th class exam' spirit. Surprisingly they came up with the idea of taking a house on rent and living together so as to better manage their time! Although we parents were very skeptical about it, in the end their eagerness and sincerity touched us and we gave in. True to their word they managed the cleaning of their house and sundry work by themselves. Meals though were handled by us. The pride and confidence that shone on their faces on managing an entire house just by themselves was gratifying. By the end of two months they had not only cleared their exams but also learnt the nitty gritties of housekeeping and home economy.

Now six months later they are accomplished tailors, wonderful cooks, sing bhajans soul touchingly, great managers planners and event organisers, draw beautifully are respectful, confident.......the list runs endless. They all show leadership skills but they know exactly how to mould themselves into a group so that each one shines with the strength of their own brightness!

But that is not to say that all kids have the same learning curve even in a group. My younger daughter is a case in point. She was too young to join them in taking the examinations that the others took. Besides, her health did not at that time support her enough. But knowledge and capability have not been compromised. She reads well, knows enough math to manage her life, thanks mainly due to the gentle prodding of the other children. Her knowledge of the sciences is more than what I observe in other kids because we have made it more practical rather than allowing it to remain a bookish concept. Her levels of curiosity and interest in all matters has remained undiminished. With her we hope to go one step further and completely do away with the need for taking unnecessary examinations. A solid spiritual and secular education, a strong sense of morality, intelligence, confidence and innate creativity can surely create avenues for leading sustainable and content lives. 

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