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The joys of walking out

After 15 years of traditional schooling, a Lounge columnist and her teenage daughter reflect on their decision to walk out, and the challenges of embracing a new freedom

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

‘To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves’

One of the best times for a young family is when the children are in some sort of trouble. This isn’t something to brag about of course, but I will tell you what it does in my experience.

Suddenly, everyone’s priorities shift. Things that had seemed to be of staggering importance seem superfluous and the only thing that matters is to somehow restore the well-being of the child. To understand how can we facilitate healing.

This requires rigorous self-reflection. It demands that we summon our own wisdom and strength so that we can seek help and make informed decisions. It forces us to come together as a team because our collective stakes are too high. No other success means anything unless the children are well and flourishing. This is what it means to be a family, I guess.

Earlier this year, our two older daughters, Sahar, 15, and Aliza, 13, chose to take a break from formal schooling. They became self-learners. As parents, we had been drawn to the concepts of alternative education, homeschooling and unschooling from the very beginning. I had had a sense of dread around sending my children to school but I didn’t entirely trust my personal response.

I had first read John Holt’s How Children Fail when I had been a 15-year-old student myself. “To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid," he has written and it resonated deeply.

I bought his books and carried them everywhere with me. I would compulsively read about gifted children healing from unacknowledged traumas. I was trying to unravel the mysterious nexus between child-rearing norms, modern-day education systems, the influence of the media and the onslaught of consumerist culture that eventually leaves the sensitive individual stranded and isolated.

When our children were still toddlers, we moved home from a flat in south Delhi to a greener suburb to escape the shallow peer pressures of the city. We chose their schools carefully. We changed the way we worked and travelled. We trained ourselves to communicate actively with the school authorities every time our dissonance with their ways of functioning became urgent.

One year, our children’s school decided to stay open on the festival of Eid, ostensibly because there had been too many holidays. When I called the school principal, she said if we are a Muslim family, I am free to not send my children to school. On another day, when I went to speak about gendered verbal violence that had become a norm in the sports field and among the boys, I was told that I must prepare my daughters for the real world because, after all, they would have to get used to this anyway. When I called out the way in which the language of threats and coercion was being used by teachers to dominate children, I was told that my children need not worry because they were already timid enough to not need the same tactics of control over them.

We changed schools and chose an institution that spoke a language similar to ours about bringing up children with responsibility and idealism. And that’s when we realized that we had reached the end of the road when it came to formal schooling.

Large mainstream schools can pretend to want the right thing, but they have neither the intent nor the wherewithal to place the individual child at the centre of educational practice. They can talk about fostering empathy, social egalitarianism and environmental responsibility, but the corporate nature of their structure forces them to maintain status quo and only truly concentrate on upward social mobility as the goal of education.

Children deserve reverence, but instead they are routinely infantilized. Traditional schooling inculcates fear and damages the self-esteem of students. It is designed to teach children how to fit in with and succeed within authoritarian systems.

After all, schools don’t exist in isolation. Their clients are predominantly parents whose main aspirations are to raise children who will come out of institutions well-networked and well-branded. This demands conformity and obedience. Imagination or experimentation is belittled and discouraged.

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves," Holt has written. “And most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."

Our search for an alternative solution inspired us to attend the Learning Societies unConference (LSuC) in Bengaluru last year and the Families Learning Together get-together at Swaraj University in Udaipur this year. This changed everything for all of us. Our older daughters chose to quit school and our youngest continues to go to a small Waldorf school where she feels nurtured and free to learn (see Sahar Beg’s first person account of why she quit school).

The thing with unschooling is that once you see the light, you cannot unsee it. The LSuC brought together over 800 people in various stages of practising alternative ways to work, grow food, eat, learn and live creative lives. Here we saw what a collective commitment to loving relationships, peaceful self-growth and to the environment and social justice really looks like. We felt inspired and nourished.

I found a guru in the environmental activist and editor from Goa, Claude Alvares. We met Vidhi and Manish Jain and their joyful daughter Kanku from Shikshantar in Udaipur. I listened to Dola Dasgupta and Sumi Chandresh and watched Qudrat and other self-contained unschoolers in awe. We heard Juli and Vivek Cariappa narrate their life story of leaving Delhi and raising their children on a farm. We watched Manish Freeman, the expert in non-competitive games, make everyone hold hands and dance together.

Here were the possibilities I had dared to dream of too. At these gatherings we learnt of self-sustainable farms and learning centres where children and adults are free to be self-guided learners. “This is the best form of living," I thought to myself. “To become free of one’s dependance on oppressive, exploitative systems that compromise our allegiance to our own authenticity in return for the ability to earn big money and acquire social status."

“Do we have the guts to recalibrate our needs and press reset on our own lives?" I asked myself.

I remember that I had this confidence as a child for a very long time. I can summon it again. Our intuition is a powerful tool. Our innate sense of morality and empathy are guiding lights. The individual is more powerful than every institution that will attempt to contain him or her.

The children are all right. They are like saplings in a storm. Our only job is to not contaminate their okay-ness.

Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India.

‘School forced me to put parts of myself inside a box’

Ever since I stopped going to school in March, I’ve been crying a lot. In the beginning, it freaked me out a bit, how small things would make me so emotional. Only recently have I started to get an inkling as to why.

School forced me to put parts of myself inside a box and to accept a lot of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. You’re expected to behave a certain way. You are supposed to like certain things.

People want to put you in a box with a label. You can either be the nice one, the cool one, the athletic one or the pretty one. You can’t be nice and pretty, that’s ridiculous! Everyone is always so surprised if you do something even slightly different than usual.

I was always terrified of saying something people wouldn’t expect. Now, it seems so stupid, everyone should feel free to be able to crack jokes, or be sarcastic or moody or cheerful or shy without being self-conscious, right?

But in school, it’s just a part of everyday life. This anxiety to fit in.

In school, people say something else, and mean something entirely different.

They say they won’t care if a girl and a boy become good friends. They say they don’t care whether you’re fat or skinny. They say they don’t care what marks you get.

But the thing is, people care a whole lot more than they say they do. Have you started waxing yet? Did you get your period? Do you get your eyebrows done? Did you see that TV show? Do you think that guy/girl is cute? Ew, you don’t like that band do you? How many marks did you get on that test? OMG, look how fat he/she is getting.

Most days it felt like I had been holding my breath the whole day. I would have so many things I couldn’t say, so many parts of myself I would have to hide. And I wouldn’t realize how tense I was until I would come home and just crash. I would come back from school completely exhausted and wouldn’t be able to give a reason as to why.

In the six months that I haven’t been going to school, I’ve been thinking a lot. Because that’s another luxury that school doesn’t give you time for. The time to just stare at the ceiling, listening to music. To be able to wonder about nothing and everything. Fantasize about crazy stuff.

As a teenager, I need a lot of that. Because in these moments, when you’re not specifically thinking about anything, important things that have been buried inside you come up.

And I think about them. About my two younger sisters and my parents and the world. And how once that used to mean the same thing. About my friends, and how they need spaces to feel safe too. About school and how easy it was for me to leave when my parents first offered me the choice to continue formal schooling or follow my own uncharted path. How I am glad that I was able to choose to leave, despite the uncertainty. To grieve, because I miss school so much. Conversations in the cafeteria I wish I could go back to, because there are so many things we leave unsaid. About the art rooms and music room and my favourite library. The dumb jokes that made our sides hurt. About all my beautiful teachers and how I never got to say thank you.

This is why I’ve been crying, I think. Because I left some things behind that I wish I could have taken with me. Scenes in books and movies, lines in songs, quotes and paintings that remind me of things that I don’t remember, but now at least I have the space to acknowledge that.

Emotions I didn’t have the time to feel are catching up with me now.

Time. Something else school doesn’t leave you with. Because 8 hours a day for five, sometimes six, days a week isn’t enough. No, we have a minimum of 2 hours of homework everyday, and on weekends, five.

It’s like teachers think that we have nothing better to do. Homework. God, that word still makes me want to scream.

We miss weddings, funerals, family gatherings, birthday parties. We want to paint, listen to music, dance, catch up with cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts. We want to play, read and write for fun. We want to do nothing at all.

No wonder we aren’t in touch with our emotions. We don’t have the time to be.

My parents have always looked for alternate schools. In the beginning, we went to a small school that was just a short walk from our home. I was in one of its earliest batches. We barely had any homework, and there was enough time for sports.

But as it grew, it became more and more mainstream. The old teachers started leaving, and the new ones just didn’t seem to care for kindness. Many of them were mean and harsh and had absolutely no idea how to deal with children.

So, two years ago, I moved to another school. And I never would have been able to leave school completely if I hadn’t switched schools when I did. Because now I had seen that even though our new school was better, it wasn’t what I needed. I grew and changed and flourished a lot in the two years that I was there. I made amazing friends and had great teachers. But there were still enough people who really didn’t want to be teachers. Who brought anger and angst into the classroom and forced us to somehow learn to deal with them. People stuck in a time warp. And of course, the persistent problem of bullies for classmates.

But you know, that’s what all schools are like. It seems the best of them are still not good enough.

Unschooling gives me the freedom to learn whatever I want to learn, however I want to learn it. In school, there’s one standard pace, and you have to keep up with it. Those who can, are smart, and the others are labelled slow. But no two children are the same. We all understand things differently, and have different ways of seeing the world. Of course we’re not going to be able to understand all at the same time.

So many of these truths are so obvious. They are common sense, even for children. Yet we are supposed to pretend that we can’t really see what we do. That somehow what we feel terrible about is not so bad.

I’m glad I don’t have to live that pretend life anymore. I’ll figure out something more authentic on my own. I feel confident of that.

Sahar Beg is a 15-year-old who has chosen to quit formal schooling in favour of the unschooling life this year.

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