Priya Desikan grapples with a system; head on. A conformist who rebelled when her deepest passions were challenged; this is her unique struggle with the Educational System. You and I may have a chalta-hai attitude and plod on cursing the system, tolerating it or fretting over it. Not she. She decided enough is enough and pulled-out her son to reinvent her own thinking on schooling, education and learning. No novice to the field; as a Special Educator she has worked with children with different abilities. When it comes to making personal choices, we may balk at taking such a bold step.
Taking ownership and responsibility for the quality of education that she chooses to give her son; Priya quit Mainstream education to embark on a journey in Home-schooling. Revelling in a process of learning and unlearning, having deep, unconditional trust that the child (her son) will guide the adult in this process of discovery; Priya shows us how we as parents cannot let fear or the “herd mentality” overrule us. A leader by example!
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhiji
( You can contact her at email@example.com)
It starts here…
I was born on September 30th 1970 in Bombay. My parents were both working at Readers’ Digest then. My parents were pretty well-off and mother had great support from her family and I was always taken care of by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and maids. (I am the eldest of two and have a younger sister.)
My father grew up in a village in Tamil Nadu and never went to school due to health and economic constraints till he was 9yrs old. But he taught himself to read and write English and interact with a variety of people. He had to raise 5 of his elder brother’s children from when he was barely 17 years old as his brother died very young. Father also married late to ensure his nieces/nephews got to some point in their lives. He made a lot of sacrifices and is who he is, through self-determination and his life experiences.
My mother and father were always busy with their work and I missed having them home when I came back from school. The only person who was there for us right through our growing years was my grandmother. Many times, my sister and I would go to my aunt’s house for hot tiffin! Looking back today, I missed having my parents around; I was also a bit of a loner myself and had very few friends. I started writing very young; poetry and letters to my father was an outlet for my emotions and deep pondering.
We were in Chennai by now and school was a very important part of our lives. I liked my school a lot and even today am proud that I went to the school I did. My value systems and other aspects of the person I am today are because of my interactions with some fantastic teachers and people at school. I was always a good student and a total conformist! Many teachers were friendly with us and we used to talk to them about our feelings, problems and so on. (Ironically this is what is missing in today’s schools, the warmth, the care, the personal touch and love of a teacher and guide.)
After school, I went on to graduate in Physics. Next, I wanted to do my Masters, but could not get admission into the course of my choice; and I nearly went into depression. Still, I was stubborn and decided to stay at home and not pursue anything else. My parents allowed me to do this and supported me.
My mother knew someone at Vidya Sagar (formerly Spastics Society of India, Chennai) and asked me to volunteer there to take my mind off things. I started volunteering there and soon discovered how to fight odds in life from the mothers and kids I interacted with. They made me realize that there were bigger problems than mine. Everything Changed!
I did this for 4 months when I was asked to do the Special Education Course; but I could not make up my mind as Physics was still close to my heart. Finally, I was pushed into making a decision and given a deadline. I think I was one of the last to submit my application for the course!
I started living and thinking differently! I lived my new found passion, working with children with special needs; I grew up!
(I was always a sort of a rebel and do not mind being different. I refused to write GRE or apply abroad, despite my family insisting and pressurizing me, as I wanted to study only in India. Today, as a family, I think we are rebels because we are home schooling. We chose to be different and it has its own consequences…But let me come to that part….)
A gift from God arrives!
Srinath came into my life when I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I was in college and 19, when my grandmother passed away. I was very close to her as she was the one my sister and I grew up with; she had taken care of us.
Now roles switched, as I took care of her those last few months. She was 89; very sick and bed-ridden. Bathing her, taking her to the bathroom, washing her clothes, feeding her, being with her; it was traumatic to see her lose her independence.
I was shattered when she passed away, but put on a brave front as my father was also completely devastated. Suddenly I had no one to talk to at home and hardly had any friends. At that point in time Srinath was there for me as a friend, to listen and just be there and that slowly over the years took on a different turn as we realized that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.
Marriage was the result of perseverance, prayers and endless waiting as both of us wanted it to be a joyful occasion. Our families disapproved of the relationship and those 5 years were very painful (I don’t know how we survived all that!). But we achieved what we wanted to and finally got married in 1996!
After that, both of us were busy and happy with each other and our careers to think of having children soon. Perhaps we needed that space after all that we had gone through! So it was not until 2003 / 4 that we even thought of having children. We were seriously contemplating adoption and after convincing our families, finally went to an orphanage to register. We loved the place and the people and even landed up taking the necessary forms. Exactly two weeks later I realized I was pregnant! That was one incident which made me start believing in coincidences….And that was it!
Raghav came into our lives on July 1st 2005. I always knew, even when he was inside me that he was going to be a very special child ~ a gift from God to us! Well, he proved that first by coming out in 3 hours! That was all the labor I went through; a miracle for a first-time Mom!
Moving Into School…
Life was charming with my new born and he grew faster than I could imagine and soon it was time to enrol him in school.
Firstly, I scouted a lot for a school that I could trust my child with. I spoke to many people and personally went to see many schools before finally deciding on this one. Initially I was very happy with it; although there were a few things I always questioned in my mind. I thought the individual attention he would get there would make up for everything else and it seemed a happy place. (Only later on did I realize that appearances can be deceptive and I had to pay a huge price for it!)
As Raghav moved on from one programme to another there were many things that came up that irritated and angered me at times.
Teachers would (informally) talk about the kids every day to parents as they came to pick them up, or in the corridors. They would even say negative things in a very curt way, without thinking how the parent might feel about it. Teachers did not seem to care or bother to understand parent’s background and assumed we knew very little.
Parent-teacher meetings mostly focused on rules and regulations, very little time was spent on talking to parents about the methodology or expectations. There was no real observation from the teachers about my child that made me feel she had understood his strengths and needs. Surprisingly parent -parent interactions was also not encouraged.
All the classes were structured so that every 15-20 minutes there was a change in activity; even if the child was really engrossed in what he / she was doing, they were asked to “clean-up”. This really baffled me and many times I brought this up with the teachers’ and Principal; who claimed that that was how long a kid of that age could pay attention. But it used to be hell for me at home as Raghav was so used to this external-programming, that he could not decided what to do for himself. He needed me to constantly keep things ready for him and that got a bit too much after a point as he had absolutely no self-direction. I knew he was not actually a child like that. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
In 2009 one thing led to another…
I was asked to help train a girl to work with my friend’s child (who had special needs), at the same school but in a different class. I took it on hesitatingly as I did not know how much time I could commit. It was a huge challenge as the school did not seem to like her (the trainee) but the parents could not find another replacement. I went in once a week or so to observe my trainee and provide her hands-on-training.
My first objective was to give the trainee, the skills to deal with things there. The second objective was to settle the child and get him onto a way of communicating his needs. We achieved both. We started working on topic charts and a visual timetable for each day. (It was important for the Class Teacher to understand how difficult it is for a child not to know what to expect and not to have control over his environment, especially when things are changed suddenly.)
Things took a turn when soon the Principal tried to get my trainee to join as an assistant staff in the school, after all the effort I had put into training her for the special needs child. The way they went about the whole thing was what hurt and angered me. They could have been straight-forward; but when asking the trainee-girl to join the school they never thought of an alternative for the parents. They just wanted to ditch the parents and leave them to find another person for their child on their own…again. That really angered me. (I did not expect this from the school and this was the first blow).
I had a long chat with the trainee girl and she decided against joining the school. (I won this battle without any direct confrontation.)
Around the same time, a lot happened with Raghav in school…
He was very close to a girl in class and they purposely kept the two apart at circle time. Raghav and I share what we do every day just before bedtime and we call it our “share and tell”. One day when we were sharing what each of us had done that day, he started sobbing uncontrollably. After a lot of cajoling and reassurance, he opened up and told me that he and this girl had hugged each other during out-door play time and that Aunty had shouted at them. He then said “Amma; you, Appa and I hug each other every day because we love each other. I love her. She is my best friend. Why can’t I hug her then?” Why would you scold a 4 year old child for something like this??! It was shocking to say the least! It showed how much of child development they actually knew or understood.
Soon they started formal writing and I found a lot of changes in Raghav. He started detesting anything to do with writing at home and complained that they were making him write too much and that they did not get time even for outdoor play (not enough by his standards I guess.) He refused to do any homework or even do scrapbook work that he used to love earlier!
He would tell me that the teachers were getting angry with kids for scribbling and not writing properly and that one teacher even said that they would be put in a dark room! (This coming from an elitist school that claimed to be very child centric?! It took him a year to get over this fear of darkness!)
Towards the end of the term he started rebelling even in school. He used to be a goody-goody child and always listened to the teacher. But once when he refused to write, he was kept back in class and not sent to play outside. That upset him a lot. (I told the teacher that writing was not as important as reading to me, as that was the crucial skill needed for kids to access information on their own. But nothing changed.)
Then there was a community event (carnival) at the school. Children participated with their family and Raghav decided to dance on stage with his father to a popular Hindi film number; and then call his friends on stage to dance with him. He chose the song, practised with his dad and decided on whom to call to the stage too. But on the day of the event while they were on stage and dancing, the teachers decided that it was not a fast enough number to get everyone dancing and so changed it, without asking or even telling him! He was so upset that he just walked off.
There were other issues that escalated as well…
Raghav’s sleep issues became pronounced. He would sleep late and then get up with nightmares; screaming and crying; we would not know why. Next morning would be a war zone to get ready for school. He would not eat properly, would be very cranky and irritable and then when I went to pick him up he would not leave school despite being tired. Here, all he wanted to do was cycle like crazy in the play area and pretend to destroy things and people there. That got me really worried as it became very frequent. I realized there was something drastically wrong. I had to help my child and find a way out of this mess.
Another day there was a discussion in class on how, they were big children and so should sleep on their own in another room. Raghav sobbed to me about this one night as he was scared we would make him do that and he was scared of being alone and he wanted us near him. I disliked the way in which they handled these issues by throwing blanket statements at kids without understanding their sensitivities.
The other issue was about teaching facts itself. They had a project on food and said things like: “Non-Veg food was important to make you strong and healthy!”; “You should not eat oily foods as they go and clog your intestines” and so on!! Raghav then refused to eat ghee and oil and I had to do a lot of talking before convincing him otherwise. This made me realize how important it was to present the right information to kids in the right way and also be aware of what they have understood from all that information.
The last straw for me was when I found that a friend’s daughter had been hit by a teacher and when my friend went to the authorities; she was called a liar! I tried my best to give her all the emotional support I could. I decided to stand by her even if it meant that Raghav would lose his seat in the school and I was also ready to sue the school. But my friend decided against it and moved on. That incident was a revelation to me. I now saw the hypocrisies and the insensitivity of the Head.
And we move out….
By then the fights with Raghav to get to school every day was getting to be too much. The days my husband was not in town I had an even tougher time and he absented himself pretty often! There was no other way out. So, we decided to go and talk to the teachers and find out what the problems were and express our thoughts and opinions.
The teacher gave the impression that she could not flex too much especially when it came to writing and if we wanted to keep him back that would not be possible as then he would have to be there for 3 more terms doing the same things, due to some school policy.
We were caught in a fix as to what to do. We decided to meet the teachers of the next class he would move to and then decide. This was their response:
When I told them (Principal and teacher) that I was worried because my son hated coming to school…
“You should not give him a choice in these matters…….just be firm! Let him cry…..he will settle down…”
When I asked for flexibility – whether it was ok not to send him on the days he doesn’t want to go….
“Well, then you will have to take on the responsibility to fill in the gaps……he would miss out if a concept has already been introduced that week in class or if there is a field trip”
“What does he do at home? Do you sit with him and work? If not, then maybe that is the problem! You should do that; make it a habit.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the environment to suit his personality style, he is a loner”
“Other kids don’t think much of him anyway!”
“You should make home a boring place to be in – then he will know that it is better to go to school!”
When we told them that he was coming late everyday because he didn’t want to come to school
“Oh! Maybe I should I call him to my office and have a chat with him for being late everyday to school……he needs to be accountable for time”
(We are talking about a 5 year old here!!)
Srinath (Raghav’s father) adds to Priya’s recollection:
One more of the behaviors (????) highlighted: “Your child has a big attitude.” It shocked us. Where does this come from? Principal and a person who claims to have been seeing children for more than 25 years as a teacher (and a very proud one at that.)
The explanation: “Though your child knows answers to the questions asked, he does not want to answer. He has a look of the all-knowing.”
Does a child of nearly 5 know what attitude means? Believe me it still rings in my ears!!
(It is a scary thought when you realize as a parent that the people you are trusting your kid with to play a part in building his values, his understanding of people and the joys of learning, actually have a very warped understanding of children, education and values!)
I share all this not to justify my decision about home-schooling / unschooling, but to share with others what I went through as a parent. To understand that I had no other choice but to decide what I did. I hope others know or will learn how to tackle these issues better than I did.
(Excerpts taken from the blog: You can read the entire flow of thought here: http://people-for-change.blogspot.com/
The Decision is taken
Many such instances left scars in our hearts. To me it was that last meeting that really hurt. No mother or parent likes to hear these kinds of things about her child. We went back home that day to tell Raghav that we had decided to home-school him. To this day, his immediate reply rings in my ears: “Finally you decided!” He had perhaps decided long back that this was not the place for him!
When he had said: “Amma, why can’t I go to school for 14 days and stay at home for 17 days?” That remark from him got me thinking! I realized he hated going to school because his freedom was curbed. Coincidentally, I attended a meeting on alternative education. It was great to meet a group of parents with very young children thinking of alternative ways of educating their children as they were not happy with the schooling system for various reasons. I started reading and looking up on options and that got me going.
What De-schooling means to me…
Till some time back our lives revolved around Raghav’s school. Starting our day with “getting ready for school” and ending the day with “getting ready for school”!
Coming to think of it our routines revolved around school routine! School was life! Holidays were planned around it, outings and playtime were planned around it, family time was planned around it, and eating time was planned around it. Can you imagine how “important” going to school is?
That has suddenly vanished! School has become non-existent! We have nothing “to do” as a family every morning! I think that was the first thought and issue we had to confront in this “deschooling” process! Ourselves!
It takes time to adjust to any change and although Raghav was ecstatic about it and there was a drastic change in him after we took this decision, we had to come to terms with this “nothing to do”. That is what deschooling means to me now; having nothing to do that is imposed from outside, where everything you do comes from within; you do something because you want to do it!!
Time seems to have stopped suddenly or slowed down! We don’t have to rush all the time, any more. We are learning to value and manage our time better.
We are learning to question our own ideas, thoughts and beliefs on education, life, values and other issues. We are learning to rely on ourselves. We are learning to be free….learning to just be! This is a journey with no road-map; we are going wherever we want to go and wherever it takes us.
I used to be one who was most comfortable when I had an objective or a plan. I have learnt a lot, changed a lot. Most of what I have learnt is about myself and my conditioning and how that impacts everything that I say or do. Today, I hardly plan anything, just live in the moment and go where life takes me (or at least I am trying my best to do that!). Raghav is my greatest teacher.
My “learning” and “unlearning”…
When we know that a child has a disability, we immediately try and make an attempt to understand things better. Why is it that we don’t make an effort to try and understand “all” children irrespective of their labels and personalities? Why is it that we find it so difficult to respect individuality?
I have often pondered over many issues, and many continue to surface with Raghav everyday or every now and then. I would like to share my pondering with all of you. These are not my rigid views but my learning and unlearning. When you have a child or are in contact with children, you learn everyday.
I think it is important to understand the situation and environment the child is in first, before labeling it as a tantrum. I would rather see it as a way of expression than, a “problem behaviour”. I think most tantrums happen when kids are under stress, that stress could be due to hunger, sleep, tiredness, boredom, and so on. Now, I have learnt to observe things more carefully and look for patterns in this, with Raghav.
Routines are convenient for us adults. Children live in the moment, the present; and so schedules do not make sense to them. If it did then they would ask us for schedules! When I was asking Raghav about the things he liked and disliked at school, this was what he said:
“Amma, what is a timetable? I don’t understand a timetable.” I tried to explain what it was and then he said: “Amma, I don’t like to do a particular thing at a particular time. I like to do it in my time.” (I have given him that time now and work my routine around his. We do only what he is comfortable doing – nothing else. When you do this with understanding and respect his needs, it does not feel like you are sacrificing things for him – your time, your social circle, your needs and so on. I am learning to respect his time in the hope that some day he will learn to understand our urgency and needs as well.)
Children caught in a time and space warp that have been created by regimental structures in schools, often show restlessness and sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that they need that; that they need structure and stimulation. But in reality what they need is to unwind, relax, unlearn and relearn what it takes to be free and creative. For when you are truly comfortable with yourself, you are okay with just being and having nothing to do.
After just one month at home, I saw a huge change in Raghav. He is comfortable with himself, there are fewer times when he asks me what he should do. He is better able to make those choices and decisions; there is more laughter, more smiles, more understanding less whining, less tears, less defiance, less anger and more peace! No more talk about destruction and monsters!
When you respect your child he learns to respect you.
When you listen to your child he learns to listen to you.
I sit back and wonder, how it was for us and how it has all changed with one bold decision of “un-schooling”!
I believe in coincidences, especially after reading the book “Celestine Prophecy”. I have started to look at events and people in my life as a beautifully made jigsaw puzzle, where you find one piece after another fitting in at the right place and time. So maybe this was all meant to be……
With all those conflicts that Raghav and I had at school I have re-defined my concept of learning and education:
- I don’t want Raghav to do things out of fear, I want him to learn to question everything and have no fear of anything or anyone. I want him to enjoy learning
- I want children to be understood; celebrate their uniqueness and appreciate every child as an individual personality
- I cannot be a bystander and watch injustice especially when it concerns children (something that is so very close to my heart)
- Children need just empathy; you being there and not teaching. In fact I don’t believe in teaching any more; I think it’s a waste of time!
- Children have a natural desire and ability to learn. You are like a gardener providing the right kind of soil, water, light and love. All the potential is within – in the seed. All you have to do is tend it with your caring, humble hands and watch it grow! When you think you own the seed and are the creator of the plant is when problems arise.
- I am learning everyday to be mindful and always go with my heart, my intuition and be answerable to my conscience.
There is a need now to invest time in more meaningful things, to live in the moment without fear or hope for tomorrow…for tomorrow is always another day…
“Life is like a rainbow….enjoy the moment!”
My journey is just beginning….
(This is a story that came to me in 2 parts. The events leading to the decision and later the learning/unlearning. Her honest sharing was an amazing journey for me!)