As you sit by the sea, I insist you read this. Sonali Pattnaik, a mother, writes and you can’t miss a word, a feeling, an un-schooling that will set you free.
UNSCHOOLING MY CHILD IS AN ACT OF RADICAL LOVE AND FREEDOM FOR ME
When I was in school, almost throughout my time in school, I had the impression that I wasn’t of much value but it was expected of me to bring great results. In kindergarten, I topped my entire school, a small primary school in our neighbourhood, when I was five. I got a prize and a special mention for it but I distinctly remember being more interested in the flower pattern embossed on the plastic tiffin box I won as a prize for it, than the achievement itself which didn’t seem to mean anything much to me at the time. From being a ranker I even went on to fail math when we changed school years later, only to buck up once again so I could be first, second or third in class and that one failure crushed me more than any victory had ever thrilled me. The red ‘f’ sign was bewildering to a child used to excellent or above average performance at everything and I thought I would be flogged.
I wasn’t flogged but seemed to have brought grave disappointment home and the fact that I had to endure life altering changes, leaving behind friends, family and familiarity to re-adjust to a life in a semi-urban location, inside a massive and dilapidated colonial bungalow and in a school where canes were sharpened and kept next to the principal’s desk mattered little in the shadow of that ‘f’. What was seen as learning had nothing to do with coping, understanding changes, learning about the new place one has moved into or who could have lived inside that incredibly large and isolated bungalow at one point of time. It was the numbers on that piece of paper and the red sign signaled its failure that decided our sense of worth. My early and only associations with learning were bragging (ranks, medals, mentions etc.) or failing (‘f’ in math in third grade) and it took me many, many, years after to figure out what I must have known instinctively as a child but was wiped out of me, that neither bragging nor failing, nor report cards or certificates, have much to do with learning.
Fear after all, not a desire or thirst for learning or pleasure, was the real driving force behind my accomplishments, my very survival at school and in whatever little life spilled outside of it. And tiffin, encapsulated in my earliest memory of a tangible reward that was only mine, arriving as an interruption of the drudgery of the classroom (a most unnatural space for learning) with its opportunity for nourishment and its signature scents of love, always a marker of temporary release from fear, a sign of an hour of pleasure, chatting and friendship. Learning ought to be more tiffin than tutelage but our schools teach us the opposite of that. Tiffin boxes however, like schools, have compartments and compartments do not allow one thing to mix with another. Its great if the chutney and the dosa do not mix for sure but for a child (or even an adult) to learn in an enduring way, pleasure and nourishment, math and music, friendship and freedom have to mix. Recess is how teaching and learning ought to look like, open spaces marked with laughter and connect, allowing for bonds between humans and between subjects and curiosities to be forged intuitively and freely. Unfortunately, I am quite sure that is not what the tiffin box I received was supposed to remind me of.
I lived almost all my life not knowing what being propelled by curiosity to learn and discover could look like, and I have always lived with a great disconnect between worldly success and my sense of self-worth. I have a hopeless sense of estimation of the value of my work and while school incessantly inscribed onto my most inner consciousness the consumerist and materialist myth that my value lay in succeeding at that which was considered success-worthy, no matter how much I achieved, and as far as worldly success went I accomplished much, my sense of self-worth never measured up. Like the comments in my kindergarten report cards, irrespective of the stellar results, an unforgiving, ungenerous headmistress’s strict reminder, hung around my neck like an albatross, “can do even better!”
Certain European renaissance philosophers believed that because of the gap between divinity and humanity we are constantly propelled to achieve more greatness, an argument or belief that re-wrote the stern medieval reminder of the gap between divinity and humanity as the failure that marked man as fallen in an anthropocentric manner. It was another matter that the ‘man’ at the centre of that philosophy who was eternally propelled to greatness by the immeasurable gap, was exclusive in sex, race and culture. The school system seems to have embraced this so-called anthropocentric philosophy while acting exactly like the medieval shunning of humanity, a paradox well entrenched and well accepted that in the end removes self-driven desire to achieve from the equation.
And yet even this binary between self and divinity, like the compartments of the schooling system between disciplines, between pleasure and learning, between failure and success, between the rank holders, creates a false sense of distinction between what may be, for a child’s imagination and ideally for human imagination, free-floating, inextricable and enmeshed. The distance between a child and what she can achieve is fluid infinity when we see that possibility already present and a gap, a chasm, when we beguile her into believing that it is something else (books, teachers, reports) that her the fount of her learning, not her. Most schools understand learning as a gap, as an always-already present emptiness in the child, a lacuna, a falling short of, that ironically schools with their authoritative, obedience-centric, non-individualistic approach to knowledge are somehow capable of ‘filling’. A child is potential infinite and to think otherwise is an exercise of power over her vulnerability.
Truth is, if you watch for a little while how a child learns you know it is in an environment, and through a method, that is the opposite of regiment, structure, discipline and standardization. Learning occurs best organically, often self-driven and through a passion that cannot be learnt, only encouraged. Schools often obfuscate the difference between learning and accomplishment for a mercenary reward or recognition leaving us to spend a lifetime doing things for others, anxious and exhausted in the cycle of competition, having never faced our ‘selves’ completely.
You can see when a child learns to play with words that poetry comes intuitively when free play is encouraged. You can see that a child knows that if fingers aren’t enough she can count her toes, her faith in apprehending the world beginning with her faith in herself, in the belief that she already possesses all the tools she needs to understand the world with. The pivot upon which the renaissance philosophers may have turned the medieval religious belief of self-abnegation and authoritative divine power is by relocating that power in the ‘self’— by embracing the humanness in us as the soil of growth and divinity. The gap that was previously viewed as a perpetual lack between humanity and divinity, casting human beings into self-doubt and obedience, becomes a marker of infinite possibility, spearheading immense creativity and knowledge only because a change in perspective subverts power and rejects its position as external to the human spirit, placing it in the hands of humanity.
To me, choosing unschooling for my child, was that kind of a move—one that sets my child, and me, free from the burden of having to believe in a perpetual gap that does not exist. Freeing ourselves of the idea of the gap means ridding ourselves of a perpetual denial of the self that does not fit into a grid that has been pre-constructed by society and an make way for an unfortunate life-long struggle to recognize the true self against the structures of judgement and comparison of children that takes place in the name of learning.
I did not learn anything in school because I wanted to, or because my consciousness was overwhelmed with emotions, feelings and questions about a particular subject – such a volition or desire was not admissible to the ideology of the public, industrial, (sometimes) missionary schooling systems that I was a part of, that so many of us received ‘education’ from. I took refuge in my imagination, in observation of people, and colours of trees and flowers and the social behavior of small creatures and in believing the unbelievable which once included being certain that a colony of small people lived and made music inside my right ear, as a means of surviving the dry learning that school provided.
I had an artistic temperament and the ‘subjects’ taught in school, the very authoritarian arrangement of the classroom, the monotony of uniforms and timetables felt, in spite of being absolutely routine, extremely unnatural to my disobedient mind. My response was to simply ‘perform’ so I would not have to cope, or question or confront the consequences of resistance for school had taught me early on that the cost of rebellion was humiliation or punishment and my sensitive heart dreaded those wrongful consequences. My rebellious heart, which thrives in learning by itself, crumbled in the top-down system of school and my truly greatest lesson from school was that if one were to survive, one must obey authority and dream on the side, unnoticed. Ironically a breaking of convention, a questioning of authority, an interrogation and rejection of power and a fierce reclaiming of identity through love and compassion, informs all the work I do today, academically, artistically, as a poet and a parent. I can say with complete confidence then that school took away something that is fundamental to my soul and hence reduced me to a version of myself I could barely recognize. Hence that inheritance of disconnect, of misrecognition, between how I ‘perform’ and how I feel about myself.
The industrial, commercial schooling system that we have today specializes in a creation of misrecognition; by standardizing performance and success it teaches us the myth that value is based in a mark, a score that can be given by another person who has the authority to do so, that value is external, monetary and power-driven. It obfuscates the truth that value is something that is non-tradable, that it is a quality that exists for itself, in itself and, an environment of learning ought to simply help minds recognize who they are, not can or will be. In the journey of self-recognition would lie eternal value—in the doing of what the self loves would lie self-recognition, its value not a medal that may be assigned but a dew drop that may be seen when observed with quietude, in the process itself.
It is a joy to watch my daughter seize learning at her own pace and through her own desires and affective volition. One of the greatest pleasures I have is to see how strong her feminist self is. Before the age of five she had invented the term ‘misspiece’ as opposed to ‘masterpiece’ to describe a formidable piece of work and would wish me on father’s day because I was a single mother for the first four years of her life and she believed that I was both her father and mother. It fills my heart with immense pride when I see her at public gatherings such as a workshop, doing a thing with complete confidence, voicing her resistance when she feels something is not right. Her manner is extremely unlike most school-going children, a fact that is corroborated by workshop coordinators. She rarely waits to be spoken to, if she has something to say or ask, she simply does it. This often does not go down well with many who are used to silencing children and making them speak only when they are given permission to and I have had to make interventions with those adults to explain to them the importance of keeping a check on our entitlements and letting children be themselves as fully, boldly and messily as possible. I do not know if the gender and class codification found in schools and the lack of encouragement given to questioning and imagination would have allowed much of this to thrive.
My daughter sings, dances, makes word puns and poetry all day long, cracks hilarious jokes, creates imaginary creatures, names them and gives them features, makes up stories, cooks with us, plays football, loves to swing and is extremely athletic. She also asks me how she can save the world very often and gives me the seeds of all the fruits she eats saying, ‘let’s plant them.’ She cries if she sees an animal hurt in any way, even an image of a sad animal haunts her for a long time, talks to the Champa tree in our balcony, knows from the smell of a tomato plant that has not begun flowering that it is a tomato plant and calls out gender stereotypes and disruption or subversion of stereotypes wherever she encounters them. She turns the numbers she writes into creatures real and imagined and evidences self-reflexivity that most people strive to and may not find in a lifetime. She has also written and drawn two books.
I will cite one example of what I mean by self-reflexivity. She was most excited about a four-way chat with family members she loves that included her aunts, uncle and her grandparents but through the chat she complained about not feeling included. She got away quickly and played while the rest of us chatted. Later she explained to me that she prefers one to one interaction and having to wrap her head around so many people and multiple-way conversations was difficult for her. I was beyond amazed about that clarity at six. Self-care, self-respect and self-reflexivity are critical to thriving and learning and these are at the core of our decision to unschool. And the ability to move at a self-determined pace, to your own song, away from the herd.
At seven I mostly remember being quiet, often bewildered and misunderstood. The red ‘f’ bewildered me because I had no sense of understanding how the level and manner in which math was done in my new school was dramatically different from what I was used to. There was no-one to explain nor did I possess the language and the wherewithal to make that assessment for myself. Nor was there any way of knowing, understanding and confronting failure for our schools so quick to seize that term and label students with it have little room for helping children learn what failure means. I had not failed. I was simply surviving in a world that had failed me. In recognizing that learning is about helping children embrace this complex and dazzling world in mutual respect, love and compassion so they can become wholly and truly who they are and will be, we would have done our work for them and for this world.
I am giving my daughter the lunchbox I received as a reminder for excelling in a system that thrived upon hierarchies and obedience, in obliterating the wonderful truth and freedom of our different and complex selves, as a token of interruption and subversion. Imagine a world where we were all truly allowed to be free, where we understood mutual responsibility without being forced to appear responsible as long as we were visible to authority, for only real freedom can teach that responsibility and autonomy go hand-in-hand. Imagine a world where we are free to break from the walls of power and classification to fashion ourselves according to our deepest desires and strongest pulls without being compartmentalized, evaluated or judged. Unschooling is a step towards that world- it is gifting my child and the child in me, the lunchbox of learning, not of timed recess, a learning that is nourishment, pleasure and sustenance, of laughter, falling and enduring bonds, of recognizing failure as a site of flight not finality. Hopefully we can both unschool ourselves in the process, learning to discover and create not for external validation and rewards but for the joy of doing so, listening to our truths alone.
Oh, did I mention that the lunchbox I got was blue like a clear sky and had roses carved on its lid? I loved it. An un-cloudy and limitless sky, not the bags that bend their shoulders as they walk and undo their natural proclivity to look upwards, at the flowering trees and the lone eagle, is all we need for the blossoming of the beautiful, individual flower-mind.
If this isn’t everything you wanted to read…I know it is and I know you’re beaming with pride in her. As was I. As will every parent and ironically, every professor. You never left school. You only and utterly unschooled. And there is so much to learn from that.
Until your next lesson for me,
(We, at The SHOUT! Network, don’t know how to thank Dr. Sonali Pattnaik for writing this for us, for you, for the future of learning. In 3000 words, she’s made “A Revolution In Letters” come full circle. A character-gory couldn’t ask for more. This is what we’ve been trying to get across all along. But we needed her to teach us just how! To this prolific, profound and unbound writer/teacher/poet/mother we owe our whole philosophy upon education.)
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