Choosing the right school for Rumi (Oh My God, we’re there already!)

I have tried to put off this decision for as long as possible, as if putting it off will also put off my child’s growth, but the truth is that Rumi is growing faster than a weed and she will soon have to be “packed off” to school, unless we decide to homeschool or unschool. These two options are really great, and we have been reading about them, carelessly tossing them about in our minds, and becoming increasingly tempted by them but we are not confident enough to take up the mantle. So we start talking about schools and what we would really like and the first thing that becomes clear to us is that an ideal school such as we envisage in our mind exists only in Finland. So we start the other way round, and start talking about all the things we do not want.

I was in an ICSE all-girls school and my husband in a very popular state-board Co-Ed, and the two schools are as different as can be. But both of us really loved our school days. School gave me a love for the short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekov and for Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. It was where I got to be on stage for the first time and learn songs like “Hello Dolly” and “Tea for Two” that I had never, ever heard at home. It was where I made friends for life. And I never really minded the green colored uniform with its attached belt and a pocket on one side and a hooked opening on the other (through which they could check whether we had those gigantic balloony bloomers on!)

It is only now, after having learned how to teach a foreign language, that I am able to analyze what was not quite right during school days and talk about various pedagogical factors and look back and see what didn’t work for us.

My husband and I feel for instance, that our individual spirits got lost in school, that we were encouraged to conform to strict, social norms. Students who in some way or the other didn’t really “fit in” were bullied by some teachers or shamed; in some horrid cases, even the child’s upbringing and family background were talked about! In a class of over 50 kids, there were about four or five students that were absolute Teachers’ Pets and also another four or five that were intensely disliked and regularly shouted out at. For me, the pendulum swung both ways, so I know deeply and intimately, the glee of being a teacher’s favorite and getting away with some stuff as well as the shame and misery of being a dunce.

We never really felt a sense of collaboration with our peers. Prefects and monitors were generally teacher’s favorites. Even simple things like Dramatics or Elocution or Dance competitions were not really open to everyone. Once you got lucky or spotted in the eight standard, you were “in” until the tenth. I had the luck to participate in standard eight and so could be on stage all three years in a row but two close friends who tried out in the next year for their respective “houses” were not even encouraged to audition.

Oh and sports was really a laughing matter! So the sports teacher asks us to form a line according to our height (And naturally, yours truly was the tiniest tot in the entire grade). And he splits it in half. Tall girls basketball, short girls hockey. That was it. Hockey lesson was free period. We aimlessly lolled balls in various directions and giggled and gossiped as we ran to fetch them. Basketball at least had the fun and excitement of an inter-house competition but to this day I have no idea how to hold a hockey stick correctly.

I can name only one or two teachers out of ten that seemed really passionate about the subject they were teaching or evoked any sense of enthusiasm for that 50 minute period. Since interest in any given subject really depends a lot on the teacher, there were only one or two lessons that we looked forward to in the entire day and others were spent in passing notes to each other and giggling or naturally, drawing moustaches on the black-and-white people in our text books.

Both my husband and I were shy and painfully sensitive. What came to his rescue was German. It was introduced in Standard 8 and it was a subject that he found he was very, very good at. Suddenly he became one of the top-scorers in class. Since a school student’s identity and place in the favoritism hierarchy hinged mainly upon marks in those days, he got some popularity and mileage in the last year or two of school. On my part, the coping mechanism was a sense of bravado and cheerful don’t-careism. I stopped (or rather pretended to have stopped) caring about marks and journals and homework and gravitated towards the role of the class mischief-maker. I stopped working hard, never met any submission deadlines, I was always lying and giving excuses and laughing and merry-making (and all the time feeling really mortified and humiliated inside). Came out of school with decent marks, enough to get into a college of choice.  Whew!

Luckily, schools have changed so much since then, and today there is a plethora of new schools, giving us many more options than our parents ever had. The biggest change is in the class strength, which is a huge, huge positive. Another plus is the number of extra-curricular activities such as singing and dance and swimming and taekwondo. Some school websites are really very impressive and talk of nurturing the child’s individual and creative spirit.

And most schools now have really world-class facilities and state-of-the-art grounds and labs and swimming pools. They organize visits and talks from eminent personalities. Students participate in so many group trips and scholarships. Most schools encourage visits and have lengthy orientation programs for parents. We are really impressed with the one or two schools that we visit and come out feeling pleased and encouraged until we hear the following anecdotes, all from the horse’s mouth (chatty Purandare aunty hanging out with the society kids, yo!):

School number 1:

(The most heartbreaking, since I had fallen in love with the school)

I’m teaching a girl the Past and Present Participle (have to quickly Google it myself coz I have no idea). I ask her about school and she seems a little exhausted and its only standard 5. (I guess it’s because most schools have full-day timings plus after-school activities now). So we’re talking about school and she says they had a visit from a so-and-so bigshot yesterday. How nice. Yes, but because of this visit, the kids did not get a food break on time. They were not even allowed to use the bathroom! She goes on to say that even the dance period was cancelled, but I’m only half-listening. All I can think of is hungry children, some of whom want to pee real bad, holed up in class because Mr. X is touring the grounds! So he is not allowed to see children scampering all over? Because he should not see the school in its natural, everyday state but in an artificial, perfectly trimmed quiet state? This would be something that I could imagine happening way back in our time but even today! I found it quite ridiculous.

Then we move on to her English exam paper. She has fared quite badly but it is not because her English is bad, but because her answers were not what the teacher expected. Example: My brother got lost in a _____ of people (She wrote ‘mob’ whereas the expected answer was ‘crowd’). Now the use of the word ‘mob’ here cannot be termed as incorrect English! And these things need to be discussed in an English class (why is ‘crowd’ better than ‘mob’, what is the subtle difference?) She also lost marks for writing a telephonic conversation without drawing a ‘box’ around it. What??! Really took me back to my own exam papers and that was more than a decade back!

School number 2:

(Consistently one of the top-ranking schools in Pune)

A group of students are practicing for a play, laughing and generally having themselves a good time. The Principal walks past. Pin-drop silence. “What are you doing?” she asks them in an icy tone. “We are practicing for the play” they say. “Is laughing also a part of the play?” she asks (Yes, this is a true story!). “No” they murmur. “Then I would like you to remember that you are in the tenth standard. You may practice the play but I see no reason to laugh.” WTF??

School number 3:

A 10 year old girl develops a stammering problem because the teachers constantly nag her about her grammatical mistakes.

School number 4:

Timings: 11 to 5 after which they have physical training Child leaves the house at 10 and comes home at 8 (longer hours than I have ever worked!)

School number 5:

For the Sanskrit board exam, students are asked to memorize long answers word-for-word. Any deviation or effort to write in their own words will result in lost marks.

School number 6:

Giving preference to Brahmin students (so, so horrible!)

School number 7:

Preference to Christians (Are they losing it?)

And so it goes. I am really quite taken aback to realize that while the infrastructure and planning has changed, what is happening inside the classroom walls is still what was happening 10 years back. Dejected at this state-of-affairs, we start approaching our choices from another angle: which school can do minimal damage? (lesser hours, lesser interference, more freedom). ‘Homeschooling’ makes its way back into our conversations. Then we hear of a school called Swadha.

Swadha, founded in 2012, is a Steiner school. I didn’t know there were Steiner schools in Pune, but turns out there are two or three. Just visiting the website of the school makes me so, so happy I literally get goosebumps. We decide to go for an orientation program. Now I was very excited that the school was on Paud road and so close to us, but unfortunately they have shifted their premises to Pashan-Sus road. And they are still on the lookout for land so it may possibly shift to a different part of Pune. The founder, Shefali is so unassuming and gentle and soft-spoken, it is a welcome cry from strict image the words “Founder / Principal” conjure up in our mind (Anyway, the school does not believe in such designations).

We love the fact that there are no books till the kids turn 6. We love the unfinished toys and simple classrooms (We sit on the floor on rugs for the orientation program). We absolutely love the fact that the school follows the rhythm of one lesson indoors and the next one outdoors. I get literally ecstatic when I hear that there will be no reading or writing till the children turn 6 (no writing a single letter a 100 times, yay!) And by the time Shefali shows us a beautiful text book created by a 6-year old, I am excitedly tugging Abhi’s arm and shooting him urgent, quivering looks like a child that is desperate to buy the balloon at the signal.

Now, Waldorf schools have also been severely criticized on many grounds, the most common being the cult-like philosophies of Dr. Steiner and his weird, spiritual motives behind not introducing reading too early or not using certain crayon colors. Some of the articles online are really downright freaky! But I’m quite sure we don’t need to worry about that here in India where Waldorf schools are still far and few.

Waldorf schools in India are fairly recent (the first one started in 1997 in Hyderabad). So there aren’t any Waldorf high schools as yet. Schools like Swadha will follow the Steiner philosophy till grade 7 and then switch over to a ‘regular’ curriculum (Swadha plans to take up the IGCSE board). I think more and more that we are getting kind of the best of both worlds here. We get a relaxed, easy-paced way of learning till our child is about 12, after which she still gets to appear for the board exam.

Also, the school seems to be practicing the Steiner philosophy without going to cult-like extremes such as avoiding certain crayon colors (‘seems’ being the keyword here; we will come to know a lot more once we take admission and Rumi actually starts going).

I definitely think that this school will work for us, at least, most certainly at the Kindergarten level. If we find some degree of brainwashing or see that Rumi is falling behind in her learning, we can pull her out. This is the first school that has excited us and really resonated with us.

Even then, going ahead with it seems so momentous and it is making us quite anxious (will she have problems later? Will she blame us for eventual shortcomings?) But then, we reason, there will always be something to blame us for, all we can do is to keep doing the best we can and hope and pray for the best for her. So that’s what I’m doing, praying hard and hoping and crossing my fingers that this choice that we make brings all that is wonderful and good for our little baby who will soon be off to school!