Random Thoughts

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John Holt calls education “the ugly business of people-shaping”.

***

I’m convinced that it’s essential for one to have the freedom and leisure to mess around with whatever one is interested in or feels a fancy for at that moment. I don’t mean to say that one should not be asked to do anything. But whatever one has to do must be a real demand- a demand from somebody else that one has agreed to take up, or a demand that life throws at you. And having met the demand one must have the right to use one’s time as one wishes. Not only does it keep one in good spirits and enhance your creativity, but I think it is a fundamental right of any human being, of any age- as long as they are not harming somebody else.

***

The third year in teaching feels different. I feel like I have in my mind a richer map of the landscape of living and working in a school, just by having been in different kinds of situations with children, both inside and outside the classroom.

Keeping aside all the entanglements in the business of education given what our society is, I think children benefit from having adults around who are not very rigid in their thinking, who are doing something real that they enjoy, who can listen to children without having an educational motive all the time, and I think I partly fit that profile.

***

I probably can do a decent job here, but I don’t know if this work nourishes me. I do feel that being here has nourished me, whether it is partly due to the work with the children or whether it is completely independent of it but due to the environment, I do not know.

***

What nourishes me? What does this nourishment feel like? Is it more than just feeling good about one’s work? There seems to be a complex understanding of one’s work that you gain by going through a variety of experiences, and trying to make sense of them. I remember reading in “The User Illusion”, that stability is the foundation on which surprises can emerge, something truly creative can emerge. The science of complexity, I feel, gives an interesting way to make sense of our lives.

Stability can become linear and predictable and boring. And we try to make our lives more interesting by discarding stability and seeking out entirely new experiences which increases the possibilities in your life but also increases the disorder.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t stop asking questions and doesn’t start resigning oneself to things as they are just because one sticks with stability, I think the small and insignificant brush strokes which you enjoy making but think are meaningless can together make something interesting and unexpected. But you are not in conscious control of the emergence of complexity. You cannot foresee it.

You can only keep listening to your life and try to sense whether the linearity of stability is becoming boring, and if it is, try to study one’s brush strokes more closely instead of discarding the stability and seeking quick fulfillment in something else.

This is the insight which the science of complexity shows us. How is it different from the message of almost every religion? Probably the essence is the same.

But I find this insight neutral and devoid of any moral obligation or responsibility for working with oneself to reach a more enlightened state. All it says is that if you are bored with the linearity of your life, probably the more intelligent way to address this issue is to look at the little things you do and not yearn for a romantic wholesale change. The former allows complexity and meaning to emerge, while the latter will probably just increase disorder.

I don’t think anybody can understand this as an abstract concept and then try to live it. I see this insight when I try to make sense of the experiences I have already been through. I think everybody goes through a point in life when they feel bored with the linearity and yearn for romantic change. Sometimes they take the plunge, sometimes they persist with their earlier lives. In both cases, I think it is the subsequent investment of oneself in the small and insignificant brush strokes that lets complexity emerge from the linearity of stability.

***

Having been here for over two years now, I see that my brush strokes have allowed the emergence of some complexity and meaning. Probably it would have happened even if I had been working in an IT company or doing research. But taking a jump helped me move away from some of my mental blocks and look at life afresh.

But without having been through different experiences I don’t think I could have seen this. I think it is perfectly normal for any young person to reject and resist such ideas from elders as a simple advice of delaying gratification, coloured with a moral tinge. I think it comes only by being through various experiences and trying to make sense of them, and cannot be passed on through education, by sitting down together and talking. Even though elder people do it only wishing for the good of the youngsters.

It’s probably healthier for younger people to reject such advice and follow their instincts. One may or may not ‘do well’ in life, and nobody outside you can truly judge that. Either way you will be responding to real demands of life and possibly let a real understanding emerge, while accepting such an idea and limiting one’s own experiences can distort such understanding, I think.

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Life, the Universe and Nearly Everything

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Here I am, at the end of my second year in Sahyadri, left again in a pensive mood. I get lost when I try to express my experiences here in a way so as to communicate with the world. Looking back at my previous blog posts about life in Sahyadri, I realise I have written about various aspects of my experiences at different times, but all disjointed. I have written about the interesting things that happen here from day to day. I have written about my experience teaching in the classroom. I have written about my discontent and frustrations. I have written about my evolving outlook of life.

This year has been one of interesting experiences and insights and questions and confusions. It’s very personal, and I wonder if I should write about it on the blog. I keep writing my thoughts in a notebook these days, since I think they are very specific in space and time. But then I think there is value in trying to distil those experiences and get its essence in a form that’s relevant for a wider audience.

Articulating one’s thoughts in a form meant to communicate something to someone else helps me get clearer about my own thoughts. There are very few people to whom I talk about my thoughts at a level where I feel- “Ah, we are communicating!”. There are many people who know me, whom I know, with whom I just pass by. And I suspect the reason for that is that I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell myself. And I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell others.

They say an adolescent matures psychologically at a rate determined by the society. The fact is, coming to Sahyadri was the first thing that I had wanted to do, decided to do, on my own in life. Granted that I had doubts whether I would be suited to be a teacher (and I still do!), but once I had come here for the interview and seen the place and met some of the people, I knew that I wanted to be here. And it’s only after coming here that I have been able to feel likeĀ  an individual, with legitimate desires and frustrations and abilities and shortcomings.

***

The first year went mostly in getting used to life in the classroom. This year I feel I have got a better grip on that. Of course, teaching is such a complex activity that you can probably never say you have done a good job, but I know that I’ve done at least a baseline job part of the time. And I’ve been aware at some other times, that I was doing a less than baseline job, but just couldn’t gather the motivation and energy to put in that extra effort.

In this second year, I’ve been able to peel off some deep rooted ideas about myself and see myself differently. Of course, it’s still only a set of thoughts- an idea of what I am- but it’s been liberating.

At the beginning of this year I was very motivated, being the second year of teaching, and I was eager to build on things that I had learnt in the first year, to do some things better that I had made a mess of at my first attempt. I was also entrusted with additional duties like being a class teacher, and made myself available to listen closely to students’ issues and experiences in school. I had some additional classes too, since I was teaching computer applications also. So most of my waking moments went into my school work, for the first half of the term.

I’m not sure what happened after that- perhaps it was just fatigue, but I think it was something deeper too- I felt a disconnect with the work in school. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew that I felt an immense resistance to sit down and prepare for the next day’s class, I just didn’t enjoy being in the classroom, I felt that my work was completely meaningless.

Not that I had been thinking that this work is meaningful in any deep sense. Being an atheist, I don’t attribute any cosmic meaning or purpose to anything. But meaningless in the sense that I seemed to be labouring within the same constructs of society which I had found meaningless as a student. It seemed like I was stuck somewhere. All I could realise was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. But then I had no answer to the next question- what do you want to do then? I liked being in this place, with these people, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, because I seemed to be stuck within the same meaningless constructs.

That’s when I realised that I had no coherent story of myself. That I was more of an overgrown adolescent of 22, rather than an adult of 22, pretty much still figuring out his place in society. It was a very difficult time, dragging myself through the weeks in the second half of the term. You can’t hide from people your disconnect and disinterest, when you are a teacher. And once it came embarrassingly to the fore on teacher’s day, when some class 10 students were interviewing some of the teachers in the morning assembly, about why they chose to teach. When my turn came, I began with why I came to Sahyadri in the first place, but could only stammer my way to my present reality that I was confused about being a teacher.

It’s a blessing that I have people here with whom I can talk about my discontent and frustrations without their being illegitimised. I had long conversations with some of them, talking about my discontent and trying to uncover its source. It was very messy and we kept going back and forth for many days. In a way it seemed to me that whatever the discontent was, it was not directly related to the work, and if I jumped over to doing something else, it would just resurface. So I knew I had to keep at it and get to the bottom of it.

In the beginning of the second term, we had this workshop on re-envisioning education, during which we spent ten days just looking closely at our individual beliefs about teaching and learning, and why we teach. This again was a legitimate space for sharing frustrations and discontent, and some things crystallised for me at the end of it.

For one, I could see the messy and entangled nature of education, and that being a teacher meant having one foot in the muck all the time. And I could also see clearly that I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to teach. I realised that I came here seeking a place far away from the crowd of cities, where I could be in touch with nature and quietness, where I could be with people who had a similar outlook of life (and as I recently realised, with whom discontent and frustration were natural and legitimate). Teaching was something I thought I could do, to have access to these. If I could be here without having to teach, I would still be happy.

***

After the workshop, I felt I needed a fresh start in teaching. Fortunately, it was still the beginning of the second term, and 10th standard classes were almost over. So I decided to start afresh with class 9. I had been experimenting extensively with them even in the earlier term. Now I thought was a good time to start with their class 10 syllabus.

Before I started I had a heart to heart chat with them about my workshop experience and how I looked at teaching now and how what we did in class would depend a lot on what they wanted from it. Most of them were very clear that they were learning chemistry to pass the ICSE and get that qualification, and wouldn’t be learning it otherwise. I said- fair enough, we’ll make the classes focused on preparing you for that.

For the first time I could go into the classroom feeling that I was there to do something which the students wanted to do, for whatever limited purpose. I no longer had to go into a class thinking that this topic had to be made interesting for the children to remain engaged and so on. Of course, that didn’t mean that I would be teaching by rote. One of the things which the children said they wanted from the classes was to understand things properly so that they could learn more easily and better. But getting children interested in chemistry was no longer one of my concerns, helping them learn well for the exams was.

This worked well for my relationship with the subjects, and the domain of knowledge in general. I find them quite interesting at one level to think and talk about, but there’s nothing there that has touched me deeply that I have an urge to share with children. And I think I was labouring under the common myth that a teacher needs to be passionate about the subject. I found it quite interesting to engage with the children in the subject, but I could access that something within me only if there was an interest from outside. There’s no urge within to share, and definitely not to push anything down somebody’s throat.

***

In a way that took care of my relationship with classroom teaching. I still have many questions about the constructs of a school, especially a residential school, and what being a teacher means. But I feel a difference- there’s no frustration or impatience to get to any answer. In a way I see the complexity in the whole business of education, and I’m happy to keep the questions alive and wait for the living of it to reveal answers if any.

Another part of me became clearer to me during the course of this year, during the course of conversations. Something not really connected to school work, but about my motivations and what I am really seeking and yearning for in life.

I had been a good student in school and my parents encouraged me to excel at everything I did, and I tried to do so. It seems to me now, that I had done everything that was expected of me as a child. This was especially true of my mother, who had very clear ideas about how I should grow up, how I should never take things for granted, how I should excel in whatever I did and not be mediocre, and so on.

I might be wrong, but I think these expectations have been a burden on me. I don’t blame my parents, it just reflects a society that thinks it knows what is best for children, and is acting out of best intentions, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that but the devil is in the details of how you do it.

And in my case, I realised it because these external expectations and push virtually disappeared one day when my mother passed away in June 2006, when I had just finished my schooling and was getting ready to step into college. There was a huge emptiness, because my mother had almost completely filled the horizon of my consciousness throughout my childhood, with me being an only child and having very little close contact with any adults other than my parents.

For the first time, external expectations of doing well disappeared, and it was liberating. One thing that suffered was academics. I was no longer one of the toppers, but rank average. But I dare say I learnt a few things well, things that I found interesting. I was free to be myself in a way I had never been able to when I was a child. I might sound ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful to my parents for all that they did for me, and the love and care with which they brought me up. But I cannot deny that I experience a greater wholeness of being today, in the absence of those expectations.

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to feel guilty about feeling this way. But then, my mother had suffered so much from her long term illness, and death only saved her from the suffering. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had my mother lived. It would have been interesting. In the last few months of her life, when I was in the 12th standard, I had already begun to have questions about life and society and education, and I used to talk to her about my thoughts. It was interesting how she used to take me seriously sometimes, and how she used to just tell me to stop whining and get back to studying, at other times.

Anyway, I do feel happy to be free today. One of the interesting things I have learnt is that without the external expectations, there’s nowhere I really want to go and I’m already on “the other side of the hedge”, as in E. M. Forster’s story. I’m just a living organism seeking survival and play. What constitutes play for me is something I’m constantly discovering for myself.

I’ve become extremely wary of attachment, and traditional values of family and relationships. It’s often looked at as something pure and desirable, but it’s an iceberg of entangled human emotions of which one sees only a rosy tip. I like the people around me, and I savour human contact, but I do not want to get attached to anyone. I don’t miss anyone. That’s another thing I’ve realised- when I’m here, I’m in contact with the people around me. Everything and everyone else recede to somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness- almost just names and images. I could be accused of not caring, I guess. Perhaps I don’t. But then that is me.

***

That is my story for the time being. I’m sure parts of it will change and evolve, but I feel that for the first time, I’m on my way to becoming an adult. And I think that means some crystallisation of certain aspects of oneself, for life.

I feel immensely happy and contented to be here. One very important habit that I’ve formed this term is to just go off on my own for walks, during the term. Earlier I used to go on for months without stepping outside the campus, and then suddenly realise- Oh my goodness, I’m living in the middle of all this beauty and I’m stuck in these abstractions!

Lying on the python hill looking at the stars listening to the breeze, watching raindrops on leaves, watching birds and insects (and snakes sometimes!), watching the sun set in different places on the horizon as the seasons progress, watching the moon change its shape and rise at different times, it’s easy to get away from the abstractions in which one lives and works. And remind myself that I’m only a living organism on this planet.

And though I’ve had my difficult times and situations with students, I feel it’s a privilege to be in constant contact with young human beings who are growing up.

I’m on the other side of the hedge.

The Good Old Days

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It is often misleading to compare life in two different eras, but that is exactly what I’m attempting to do in this post.

Recently I have been reading some classic Malayalam novels like Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum by Uroob, Oru Deshathinte Kadha by S.K.Pottekkatt and Unnikkuttante Lokam by Nandanar. All these books beautifully describe the life in Northern Kerala some 90 to 50 years ago. One thing struck me after reading these books, more than anything else- that how sterile the environment in which I grew up- and my childhood- were.

I’m not grumbling or being ungrateful. I like to think that I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in comfort, with liberty and into a life full of possibilities. But something is missing- big time. I really don’t know how to pinpoint what exactly is missing.

Perhaps it’s the lack of contact and communion with nature, having been brought up entirely in a town. Perhaps it’s the effect of today’s schools(which are more like factories). Perhaps it’s because of the demise of the joint families where cousins got together in their ancestral homes at least during vacations (my elder cousins had this fortune. By the time I was growing up it was too late…).

Perhaps it’s because of the marginalization of society. Especially in towns, people generally interact only with people from similar economic/social backgrounds. This is very evident if you look at the backgrounds of your classmates, whether in school or at college. Perhaps it’s because so much time is now spent watching/listening to various virtual media so that actual time spent “living” is less. Time spent observing and interacting with the real world. So that we have withdrawn deeper and deeper into our shells of comfort and become less and less bothered about what’s going on outside it.

It must be a combination of all these things and more, which I do not have the words to explain- basically a lack of diversity and colourfulness to stimulate the senses and the intellect, compared to the “good old days”. Of course, these are my personal views. I can’t generalize them, but from my understanding of my peers I could confidently say that these conditions apply to many if not most of them too, differing only marginally from person to person.

I simply cannot accept this as the “price of progress”, just like I cannot accept environmental degradation and our alienation from nature as the price of progress and civilization. I sometimes wish I was born at least some 20 years earlier! But coming back to reality, I really do want to explore alternative ways to see if I can rediscover some of that colourfulness…

The Colourful World of Children

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I recently read two awesome books centered around children.The first was the Malayalam novel Unnikkuttante Lokam (Unnikkuttan’s world) by Nandanar, about a little village boy of five years. The story is set in a pre-independence Malabar village, and beautifully depicts the village life in those times. Written from the view point of Unnikkuttan, it gives you an idea of how colourful and full of mystery the world of a child is, which a grown-up needs a lot of patience, love and imagination to even begin to understand. Also how the village provides a child with endless opportunities for amusement and a diverse environment that nurtures the child’s sense of wonder.

The second book was a Malayalm translation of the Japanese novel- Tottochan- the Little Girl at the Window written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi as her childhood memoir. It’s about a small unconventional primary school in pre-war Japan, run by Mr. Kobayashi where she attended for a few years. Totto-chan(as she was affectionately called), a naughty little girl, was expelled from her first school as they couldn’t handle her mischiefs. Her mother then took her to Tomo-gakuen, the school run by Mr. Kobayashi.

There Tottochan finds herself in an exciting and magical new world, and a teacher who understood her and treated her as a friend. The book describes many incidents which happened at Tomo, the friends she had there, lessons she learnt, and her relationship with her teacher. Narrated from Tottochan’s point of view, it reveals many intricate aspects of the world of children. Not only that, it also tells us the role that the headmaster plays in making the children feel secure and happy, and how he “lets them be” instead of constantly telling them what they “should” be (which is what you often experience in schools).

A Thing of Joy

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Her little feet trod the dusty road
Eager to explore the neighbourhood
And she led me down the street,
Her gentle fingers clasped in mine.

Everything she found fascinating
The cows that dined from the garbage cans
The homeless dogs that ran hither and tither
The crows that flew in from nowhere and sat
On the electric poles, making the ugliest noises.

Instantly she took to the hawker
Who was selling bangles of glass,
Her attention captured by their jingle.
She kneeled down to take
A closer look at a black beetle
That stood out in the dirt.

I was getting rather bored
And my mind started wandering
Away from the dull grey buildings
Which made the city a concrete jungle.

Then it was my mind sprouted wings
And flew away to my distant home
Where squirrels chattered merrily on mango trees
Butterflies flitted among the flower laden shrubs
Grasshoppers jumped from one blade to the next
And lilies weaved a stocking for the goosberry tree.

She would have all these friends for herself
As in a fairy tale she would roam forever
Picking up flowers at will.
She would listen to the nightingale’s song
Her eyes wide with wonder.
She’d have the time of her life
Baking little round cakes of mud.

What was she even doing here,
Walking down this road bustling with traffic,
And flanked by stinking drains?
Her soft feet deserve a carpet of roses
And not an unforgiving layer of urban dirt.

I had lost myself in thoughts such as these,
When I felt a tug on my fingers.
And I saw her point up through the twilight
To the luminous silver disc hanging in the sky
And exclaimed to me with glittering eyes,
“The Moon! Look at the Moon!”

I looked at the moon,
But again back at her face,
That was filled with joy and wonder.
And I couldn’t help but feel
Haunted by a strange irony-

Here was something which was the same
Whether she was walking down a dirt road
Or a meadow in full bloom.
Once again I looked at her,
Her face glued towards the moon.
Then took her hand and started walking back.