Unconventional, radical, different are some words that stand out when I introduce Dola Dasgupta to you. Strong, Infallible and Honest are also words that describe her.
This is a story of a young woman’s journey to authenticity. Not many of us have the guts to grab our inner voice and prosecute it, not many can open our lives and perjure it. Her transformation is at many levels and in the many roles that she chose to assay. Scrutinizing her role as a mother, a teacher, a wife, a daughter, a woman, and a human being.
She has reinvented her thinking in every way and in her every day. In telling us her story she shows us that transformation and the very process of becoming authentic to your self (and others) is the most difficult of all reinventions. Society demands that you conform and fit into their conventional norms; but she chooses to break this thinking to carve a future for herself and her children.
Yet to fit into the scope of this blog, she chooses to highlight her un-schooling journey; as her goal and aspiration at present is to “nurture the natural growth of children”.
So do feel free to contact her to know more about how to learn without school: firstname.lastname@example.org
She also blogs at:
(Please do leave your thoughts and feedback on the comment form)
(A simple direction shown to me by a dear friend and another protagonist, led me to Dola. A couple of emails, questions asked, answers given and here is her story, raw, clear and unedited. A pleasure when the writer is so proficient and I all I need to do is sit back and share with the world!)
When it all began:
I am Dola Dasgupta, unschooling mom to daughter G and son I…and a disciple of life!
I started out in life pretty much as most individual do. I was born to a family with reasonable means. Grew up with a father; who was mostly away at work trying to support his immediate and extended family and an incredible mother who practically ran the whole household and pretty much took care of me and my sister’s needs. My parents raised us in ways that they thought were doable by them or as they could to the best of their abilities at that time. Most of their parenting was imbibed from how they were raised.
However my mother was always a little more independent and free thinking and tried her best to instil a sense of freedom and independence in both my sister and me. Always talking to us on how a woman needs to find her own voice to be able to make a difference.
Yet there was a paradox that I saw as a child and almost all of my growing years. I also saw a woman in my mother, who was never cherished or valued for all the contribution she made in our lives and in my father’s and our extended families. Not having a father around for emotional and other support made me hero worship him. Since my mother was not cherished for being the homemaker and creative person that she was, I grew up with a perception that to be loved and appreciated in a man’s world I needed to excel in more masculine areas of life.
So all my growing up years were about trying really hard at excelling in academics and pursuing careers that would get appreciated by my father and also trying to become that free and independent woman, my mother felt she could never be. Even though my mother was an incredible woman, there lay deeply buried within her, sadness and resentment towards her own parents for marrying her off early and also towards her husband for not being appreciative of her true self and her presence in his life.
In my loyalties to my father, the man I never had, and my mother who herself struggled with her situation, somewhere I lost my own voice and true expression of the self that I was born with. I excelled and was on the top of things till school. But when I joined University, the downslide happened. From being a topper in both my 10th and 12th examinations I finished bottom third division in my bachelors.
It was a miracle that I did not fail. The three years of college was the most torturous event of my life. I hated going to college. I despised the subject I chose. I hated myself and felt a lack of love and affection within me. I was disillusioned and discontented with all that my life was. I entered into various relationships thinking they would make me feel better about myself. I slid from being a confident school girl to a woman with rock bottom self worth and esteem.
At the age of 19 I no longer wanted to look at myself in the mirror. I was in serious depression. It led me to many more self depleting experiences. (Of course they are all now my biggest learning lesson from life and I actually value them very much today). But trust me those were not very happy and blissful days!
So if I say, my discomfort with how children are being raised or educated started when it was time for my daughter to go to school, it would not be the exact point to start sharing my journey. But the more I contemplate on my decisions (TO UNSCHOOL) I can see how this discomfort is what I grew up with myself. The intensity with which I wanted to explore my inner world was denied and thrashed brutally by the environment that I was born into and grew up in. That parents always have the best interest of their children in mind is a myth that really needs to be busted. The parents (unknowingly) have only the best interest of a myth and image in mind while raising children.
The fear of breaking norms always kept me in shackles of conformity. The pain in my heart, that constricted tight feeling in the chest and stomach, kept me crying into my pillow for nights at different stages of my childhood, youth and adult life.
When we Adopted: who chose whom?
The flood gates opened and some realisation of this conflict within came to light when I held for the first time G, my daughter who is now almost 10 years old. She was just four months old, when we adopted her. My husband and I were eagerly waiting at the waiting room of the orphanage and the Anganvadi worker came with her and asked me to hold her. That tiny baby felt so warm and she looked straight into my eyes and smiled.
My heart melted after eons of pain and constraints. It was as if time and space did not exist. And soul mates were being reunited. I cried like a baby and she watched calmly, As if knowing and understanding every feeling that was going through my heart. At that moment I knew that I had always wanted to be a mother and creator.
Many people ask me why we adopted. Well to say I always knew I would, is not satisfactory to most. So I say the factual stuff. I was just recovering from cancer and was advised by the doctors to not conceive. It was a seed lying dormant deep in my heart. Fortunately my husband and I had talked about adoption when we were courting. Post marriage, my husband’s work once took him to an orphanage in Bangalore. On his return, we began to discuss adoption in earnest. I had been advised by my doctors to not conceive for sometime due to the cancer that I was recovering from. We did not want to wait. So we adopted.
So to say cancer happened so that G could come into my life is looking at life as it is. It was the happiest and most touching moment of my life. Little did I know it would in years to come, change and shatter every false image I had created of myself.
I realised each day that I really wanted to be a mother so that I could heal the wounds of my own childhood, spent in the lonely by-lanes of my inner world, which I never expressed out of fear that I would not be understood or received well. My father was practically absent and my mother was trying very hard to keep the household and its functions going amidst motherhood, wifehood and trouble in her own family and husband’s family.
That instance at the orphanage when she smiled at me, is the reference point for me. Even now when I am in doubt about whether I am doing the right thing by not sending my children to school and parenting radically, I remember her smile. If a baby of just 4 months knew she had found the parents she was looking for, I feel she pretty much knows all else there is to know for her growth and development!
When I quit:
I was working as an assistant Company Secretary in a prestigious corporate house. A job I got after much hard work and sweat. A job other women would die for. But the thought of a 4 month old at home alone with an old babysitter was too heart-wrenching for me.
I quit my job, much to the dismay of family and friends. And I became a fulltime mom. Of course it was not easy. Years of conditioning kept pulling me with rational thinking like “what is a qualified person like you doing at home?” or “If I do not have my own money my husband will not respect me?” or “Life is passing me by and I am stuck here with baby?” And the biggest ever fear…that I too would land up being angry and resentful like my mother.
I fought these thoughts; sometimes successfully, sometimes the thoughts had the better of me. Amidst all this my daughter was already two years old. So I decided to enrol her in a play school and join as a teacher in another school, the rational thinking brain telling me “at least you will be home half the day.”
So the day my daughter was sent away with much fanfare to a play school I joined work again. She could barely talk. That day when she came back home she was in shock. Her eyes and her body looked all dejected; losing faith; telling me “How could you do this to me?” She cried all the time and her tears told me ‘I am not ready mom. Just let me be with you a little while longer.”
But the hard core conventional mom that I had suddenly let my conditioning make me, just overlooked all that and sent her back every day. My friends told me “Don’t worry, they all cry for a week or a month. Eventually they start liking school more than home.”
So that is how it was. She got used to school. I got used to school. The household got used to the chaos of a working couple. Every morning was a warzone. I was rushing myself, G and my husband. I would lay out G’s things on the bed and leave for work even while she was sleeping. The house maid would come in and get her ready and drop her to the bus stand. My father would pick her up in the afternoon and I would come back from work and pick her up from my mom’s place. This went on day in and day out.
She wanted to play with me and talk to her, but I was so tired from my job. The anger and frustration of not listening to my heart was taking a toll on me. I would push her away and shout at her. “Go away mom needs to rest.”
In the evening she would play for a while in the park with me and other kids. Then the evening rush would start to get all to have dinner and then bed. Mommy has to wake up at 5 am.
When I could take it no more:
At the school where I taught, the situation was none the better. Most teachers were happy, but I was always bewildered by the way things were. I taught German language to 300 students, who were selected to learn German because they had secured 80% in Maths. That was a boon all my fellow teachers told me, because I got the cream, the top of the class. But little did the administration realise that language skills have nothing to do with math skills. So the parents of these children complained all the time how their wards were good in all subjects but German.
I had two classes a week per section of 45 minutes each. No audiovisual aids, no interactive books, no respite from straining my vocal chords. Add to that a class which had no interest in learning a foreign language.
I was so frustrated. I felt bad that the students were being forced by parents to learn a foreign language for which they had no use. I felt bad for myself, for turning into a screaming shouting lunatic who seemed to be forever running a race against time.
During that time G was being ‘prepared’ by her play school for the BIG interview to get into the big schools. So every day she would be made to go through the same drill of colour identification, shape identification, alphabet and number recognition and rhymes and story telling.
From being a bubbly little girl, G was turning into a turnkey toy. The dates of the interviews closed in on us like dooms day judgment. She went to mock interviews with her play school teacher, accompanied by us.
In one of the mock interviews the teacher drew a river on the floor and G was asked to decide what she would have to do when she came across a river. She obediently stepped over the drawing and crossed the river! Then she was asked to recite (for the 1000th time) Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Then the teacher asked her to name the yellow coloured fruits.
After all this the teacher told us. “Well she is fine here…let us see what she does in the real interview.” Imagine crossing a river by just stepping over it, which according to the teacher is a real interview?!
Then we started the weekly march to the schools for interviews. I would dress her up in best frocks and shoes and promise her an ice cream after the interview. At the venue, she would be whisked away from us into another room by total strangers. The principal would whisk us away to another room and ask us questions like:
“So Mr Banerji what is your job profile and what is it that you exactly do.?” Mr Banerji had answered tougher questions than that at innumerable job interviews. But as I held his hand below the table I found it cold with sweat. He knew his answers would decide the fate of his daughter.
Then the principal asked me, “So why did you adopt G?” When I told her I always wanted to adopt, she had the nerve to ask me but why not your own biological child. I wanted to tell her to mind her own business. But Mr Banerji squeezed my hand under the table indicating keep calm. So I had to tell her the official story.
After all this, the next day our daughter’s name did not appear on the list of those who got in.
This is what we did with six schools. Making up incredible answers at the interviews to justify why we are choosing a particular school was really beginning to make me sick. The last school was done and the last date for school admission was looming large on our heads. By evening when the courier did not come, the home environment was stiller than stale air. I could not breathe and I saw the whole weight of failure or success on the tiny shoulders of my precious daughter. Then the door bell rang and we rushed out to grab the courier man. She had got through. Relief and disappointment both filled my heart.
But again my rational (conventional is a better word over here?) mind took over and I sent her to school. I had finally quit my job at the school as I was expecting our son.
G was not toilet trained. At the play school at least they were gentle with the children. At the big school, no one cared. She would be afraid to ask the teacher for permission, since the teacher always gave stern looks to children who wanted to go during class. The ayahs were also over worked and did not help the children to wash up properly.
G often came back home with soiled clothes or wet clothes in a packet. Then I would be called to school for this problem of hers. One day I lost it and punished her at home and beat her for not telling the ayah, (I feel so ashamed of my behaviour even now.)
Then the teacher would complain at the parent teacher meetings about her ‘friendly’ nature and how she could not sit in one place and had too many friends! The teachers complained about her not willing to write a full page of ABCs everyday and that instead she liked looking outside the window.
But they always praised her dancing and singing skills. She was in the school choir. But that did not count much. I realised she was bored with writing alphabets each day. By then my husband and I were seriously thinking of other options. I was really upset with her becoming restless, angry, irritated, her loss of appetite, her lack of warmth. We knew the school was taking a toll on her authentic nature.
When we finally decided: A leap into the Unknown
God answered our prayers and we met a family of homeschoolers in Hyderabad on my husband’s insistence, and when we came back from the holiday G never went to school again. This has been over three years now
Before we started homeschooling, I was skeptical of it. But meeting this family with two wonderful daughters made the decision easy for me. Just listening to the mother and how, while she was certain, her husband was not. That she had prayed to Jesus (she is a devout Christian), to help convince her husband about homeschooling and her conviction in her faith, made me take the intuitive jump into the unknown.
I have made many heart decisions in the past without thinking much. And even though my husband was keener than me to start with, he did not expect this sudden change of heart. He was afraid and still is, but nevertheless he was excited and hopeful. The respective families were by then used to us being head-strong who did what they felt was right. They did not say anything on the face but surely thought we were crazy and out of our minds.
My husband’s family thought that way when we adopted G also. My family thought this way when I left a lucrative job to be a stay-at-home-mom. We were already pros at messing around!!
Of course since that day every family and household crisis got attributed to children not going to school. If I was in bad mood, it was because kids were always at home. If my husband and I fought, it was because kids did not go to school. If my children were becoming more self assured and spoke their minds more often, it was because they did not go to school.
I have been asked so many times if I knew what I was doing. My father often asks me to stop messing around with the lives of our children and ‘Teach’ them something. My mother could not fathom the idea of a life where ‘no one was going any where in the morning hours. My mother-in-law once told be very gently, “You know I found out that homeschooling was started in the USA because of the problem of sex and drugs in school.”
Respective parents would obliquely ask the children questions like, “are you studying enough?” Then one day my mother-in-law hinted this, “you know there are no doctors in my family”. Then if my children did not want to eat breakfast my mother would say, “How can children feel hungry when they do nothing?” My father-in-law would cringe whenever I took the kids to watch a film on weekday mornings! In spite of him beings the biggest movie buff in our family! (He was 12 years old when he went alone to Bombay to meet his favourite movie star Dilip Kumar and shook his hand!)
There were many such instances and when it got to a point where I felt my boundaries were being transgressed I firmly and gently told all near and dear ones this, “You have done your best to raise us, but now it is my turn to have the fun of raising my children. If I need help I will ask and then please see if you can help me.”
That at least put a stop to frontal attacks. Behind my back it still goes on. But as I watch my children getting happier and content, these things stopped affecting me; a long while ago.
I started this learning journey with a structured curriculum where I designated a few hours to studying. G and I struggled hard with books and subject taught in school to only see the stress levels rising in both of us. The futility of studying new words, grammar, sentence making, additions, and general knowledge started to spoil our fun.
I realised soon that we both needed to detoxify ourselves from years of schooling. Especially as the mother, who had been conventionally educated, I needed more time to get school out of my head. G needed a lot of time to de-stress from three years of being told what to do every waking hour of her days.
When it is time to move on:
During that time when I was still struggling with books and curriculum, my husband and I happened to land up in Pune for a family funeral. We had read about another family and their three unschooled kids in a magazine interview. But we had no clue where she lived. So we logged on to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited website and searched for this family. Once we had their phone numbers, we called them up and my fateful meeting with them was fixed.
The lady, (who is now one my best friends) asked me a most significant question, “so do you Homeschool or Unschool?” and I responded with a “Duh”. I went on to narrate my struggle and my desire to find an alternative to school.
(At that time her older son was into video gaming and a large TV set was switched on the whole time in that household, I saw things strewn all over the place. And her younger son was interested in Guns and liked being called Yakamoto. Her daughter was pursuing a photography course somewhere; and her husband was a practicing Zen student! I felt my heart beat faster than ever. And I knew intuitively again that this is it.)
I came back to Delhi, my home town and Googled ‘unschooling’. Up came links to Sandra Dodd’s website ‘Radical Unschooling.” I have always loved the word ‘radical’, which means going back to roots. So I went straight to that site and was lost in it for a month. With each passing day getting more and more convinced that this was the Path for me and my children.
I kept discussing with my husband. But soon found his interest diminishing. He was no longer interested in what I did with the children. He told me once that he wanted us to homeschool so that he could travel to any place, keep me at home and make me dependent on him financially and do any work that he liked to do. I was shocked. And suddenly saw that the intention had nothing to do with the kids really.
So somewhere in between all this the drift in my husband and me started happening. We both found ourselves struggling hard to be true to ourselves and yet keep the marriage going. I was getting deeper and deeper into unschooling and his restlessness and unwillingness to see or try and understand the shift was creating a lot of stress in our relationship.
There were other deeper issues also in our relationship which was causing pain and suffering to both of us. It seemed that with my resolve to finally live the life that I yearned for, the turmoil in our marriage also intensified. The differences that arose over unschooling were just another manifestation of deeper issues, which I became aware of and understood were festering for a long time. Unschooling was suddenly taking me away from my old ways of being and the outer world was reflecting the struggle of the Mind to keep me in the same place.
Anyway the crux is that soon out marriage was falling apart for various reasons know and unknown. Suddenly I was being branded the ‘radically unconventional woman.” And my husband proclaimed that he was always a ‘conventional’ person.
I felt betrayed; he felt betrayed and I am still wondering, ‘How did this man become a conventional person?” Perhaps I was all the while projecting myself onto him and he did not really have a choice, so just went with me or was it the other way? It is too painful to talk about and yet I am healing myself and feeling more and more at peace.
Besides embarking on this remarkable journey with my children, I was also being pushed towards another journey, the journey into my inner world. How strange it was that, all through my childhood that is exactly what I felt was being repressed and suppressed in me?
All my life I tried to fit into the acceptable norms of the society, and suddenly I was being pushed to walk a different path. So I took the plunge. There was very little choice left. My marriage had become abusive. There was anger, violence, resentment. It was not a conducive environment for any kind of evolution and growth.
It has been three years since I started out to reclaim myself and rediscover myself. The things that I understood were not all pleasant. I realised how self centred I had been. How hard I had been on myself by trying to prove that nothing was wrong with me? I also saw the control games I play and the control games others play to fulfil our selfish needs. To project a good people-pleasing image to the world, I could manipulate situations. With each realisation the outer world changed.
As I reclaimed the projections, the people in my life changed, some for the better and some for the worse. As I stopped participating in the games, the love that I thought existed was no longer present. I was being branded with many labels. So I saw how it is only when one gives in to others demands and wishes of how one must behave, one is loved otherwise not. There was lack of total and unconditional acceptance because I did not accept myself.
Each day as I own my shadows and accept myself with total love, I see the world changing. I am now with people who love and appreciate me and yet somehow the attachment to this external appreciation does not matter. I am doing all the things that I truly loved doing. My husband and I are no longer together. I am seizing the opportunity to live this life as an adventure and looking forward to the companions I carry forward with me, my beloved children. It is a tough road ahead but I know if I can come so far I will make it farther…..