We stay in a small industrial township in Assam. Monsoon, here, is a thing of beauty. When we shifted here from Delhi, we stayed in a guesthouse initially before moving into a family accommodation. One evening, a concerned neighbour came up to me. “Your children are playing barefeet in the rain. They will fall sick. You should be more careful,” she said, a note of accusation in her voice. I went out to see my children splashing around in mud pools and sticking out their tongues to catch the raindrops. Their joy was unbridled. So was mine. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.
I am a mother to three children — a daughter, aged seven, and four-year-old twin sons. All three learn away from school. Though the common term for this is homeschooling, I find it limited in expression. For us, the whole world is their classroom and life lessons are more important than studying by rote. Their happiness in the present moment mean more to us than some distant, whimsical ideal that banks on their settling down with a fat salary. To create, one needs the luxury of time. I feel the daily grind of school-activity class takes that away. Let me put a disclaimer here: I am not advocating homeschooling. This is merely about my journey with my children so far.
The main premise of homeschooling is that every child has different abilities. The school system, because of its requirement to cater to large numbers, is not designed to be sensitive to these variable abilities. It expects every student to be good at everything. Worse, it divides life into subjects. In nature, though, everything co-exists — physics, chemistry, biology, maths, emotions, music and languages, be it for birds or humans. Homeschooling gives us the opportunity to see the world in a holistic sense and work with our children on their unique capabilities.
A typical day for the children begins with all three of them waking up at different times, completely rested, instead of being made to rush to catch a school bus every morning. Each one of them has a different interest — one sits with a book while another goes off cycling; the third one might have made cupcakes in her dream and wakes up to pursue it through the day. At times, we read through the morning, paint, bake or play board games. We go out to forage for seasonal fruits. The children linger around waiting for a snail to come out of its shell or watching the “touch me not” (Mimosa pudica) plants shut down. On our way back, botanical questions come up — what does a snail eat? Why does the plant close when touched? We return home to find out more. Answering questions is our model for learning; the other one is travel. We often do farmstays and spend time with people who practise alternative lifestyles.
My journey with my children has helped me respect and acquire skills which we thought were a waste of time when we were young. Now, we do papier mache, we sew, garden, cook and do household chores together. I had a flourishing career before I became a full-time homeschooling mom and even though I miss it sometimes, I do not regret giving it up. Enjoying hard work and living in the moment have been my greatest learning yet.
Of course, everything has a downside. We are not a perfect happy family every day of our lives. There are times when things go wrong, our own schooled minds take over and we want the children to study, learn to write, etc. We yell at them; my husband and I fight in front of them, and then we feel guilty about it. The most challenging part of parenting is to establish dialogue with a four-year-old. The beautiful part is that children argue with an open mind, and, we hope, we have been able to pave the way for lifelong emotional connections with our children.
I am standing outside the hall for my physics exam and I know nothing. This was a frequent nightmare I woke up to, till very recently. Even though I hated chemistry and physics, I opted for science in my senior school, only because my parents and I thought that all bright students should study science; the arts were for “losers”. Fortunately, I was able to find my calling and became a journalist. I covered school education for the newspaper I worked for and encountered anxious parents and confused children in that time. When my firstborn was 2.5 years old and we started exploring schools, these memories came back to haunt me. What was normal for the rest of the world freaked me out. It was awful to see children get into the cycle of “jaldi karo” through the day. I wasn’t ready to let my whole life revolve around meaningless competition, craftwork that the child couldn’t do on her own and the large academic syllabi that were thrust down their throats every session.
But the most important factor that pushed me towards homeschooling was the dumbing down in school. I couldn’t, and still cannot, fathom the need to wear socks, shoes and a tie to school in the tropical heat of India. “No talking in class” is what we have all heard in school. What a paradox then that we expect them to be excellent teamworkers and public speakers when they grow up. If a child questions a lot, he is labelled a rebel or a troublemaker. If an employee questions the organisation, his appraisal suffers; if a citizen questions the government, he is called an anti-national. Our entire academic structure is designed to trample spirits. When we don’t question these things, it’s the beginning of a process of life-long dumbing down.
I know homeschoolers who have grown up to be filmmakers and professional bakers, software junkies and farmers who take pride in their knowledge of land and livestock. Many have started alternative learning spaces. They haven’t had to struggle to do any of this. They are happy to live their passions and earn a living from them, too. My daughter wants to be a fairy when she grows up. My sons are simply happy to be children. As somebody said, the planet does not need more successful people. It desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, storytellers and lovers.
Recently, I dreamed again that I was waiting outside the exam hall and I knew nothing. But this time, the dream did not end in panic. It occurred to me then that I could choose not to appear for the exam. I haven’t had that nightmare since. This power of choice is a gift that I want to give my children.
(Ravleen Kaur is a former journalist and mother to three children)