Our decision to not send Isha to school is as much hers as it is ours. Rajeev and I were clear about our side of the decision even before we got married ten years ago. Not because it was a cool idea, but because that was the best way we thought we could nurture free thinking, feeling, doing and being. But we never savored the idea of imposing our decisions on our child either. Here’s the story of Isha’s experience with three schools that she has been to.
When Isha was two, I was a mother who felt exhausted emotionally and physically. She was still nursing, and I was taking care of a lot of her needs, cloth diapering, cooking, house work, writing and trying to keep up with all the other work that I was doing. When I was at the point of burn out, I thought sending her to a playschool would give me a couple of predictable hours of me-time everyday. And of course, Isha’s need for interacting with other children and interesting Montessori materials was a consideration too. We thought playschool wouldn’t be all that bad. It was only going to be stuff and other kids with sensitive adults to watch them. Some of our friends recommended a place nearby and we took her there. It had five other kids. The akka who ran it (and the other helper akkas) seemed absolutely wonderful; warm and friendly. They had a friendly place and visibly adored children!
Isha went to this place for exactly four days, during which time I sat right outside the room. Initially, she was so excited about going somewhere where they’d be kids and stuff. But slowly, as she realized that it meant that she’d have to be away from me, her anxiety grew. Whatever I saw there during those four days scared me enough to decide to pull her out. It was basically three hours of constant stimulation, loud noisy music, constant distraction, constant interaction, constant directed activity / games, “good-boy” “good-girl” incentivising and so on. It was like a subdued version of a children’s play station inside a mall, where you go and let your children’s senses get as assaulted as possible! Here are specific things that I saw there.
- A little boy got extremely curious about the pedal of a cycle parked outside and was exploring it joyously. I stood by his side and just watched. An akka came and picked up the boy – like she’d pick up a toy – saying “Chee, chee, dirty dirty! Come I’ll give something nice to play with.”
- Another child was rolling out the play-dough into rotis (like his mom would, may be!) and was slowly getting very engrossed in the activity. Another akka came and snatched the material from him and said “Come, now it is singing-time!” The resistance and crying got numbed and drowned in the loud nursery rhymes those akkas had all by then started singing cheerfully with animated actions.
- Each day ended with a painting session – Toddlers were given sheets of paper with something drawn on them and asked to colour them neatly. The staff “helped” the children by holding their hands and colouring these sheets.
After three days of feeling very confused and distressed, I took a call on the fourth day to say ‘enough!’ and stopped sending her there. We then started looking for another place for her to go to.
In her second playschool, she lasted for exactly three weeks. Here’s the story.
When we met the principal, we told her “We actually plan to homeschool her. But we thought she could come here for a couple of years. Once you start your A-B-C-D instructions, we’d like to take her out of here.” She agreed. Isha was initially very excited seeing all the kids, the outdoor play area, the colourful Montessori materials, etc. and was quite delighted about going to school. She’d wake up and get ready enthusiastically. In the morning of the first day, she climbed on to the jungle-gym and was having a good time there. When the morning bell rang, an akka came and grabbed her, pulling her away from the j-g saying ‘Time to go inside!’ Isha screamed and yelled, and I felt so distressed watching this. When I stepped forward to pick her up and comfort her, the akka said “It’s ok. I’ll take care of her. She’ll be fine. You just stay where you are!” With an aching heart, I stayed outside listening to Isha crying uncontrollably inside. After some time she calmed down. I felt better.
But Isha’s going to school became a more and more anxiety-filled experience with each passing day. When we asked her, she said she wanted to go to school but not inside the room. She just wanted one of us to stay with her while she’d play on the jungle-gym and slide outside all day! When we spoke to the principal about this, she said she could do that until she got used to the school and got curious and interested in the materials kept inside. And so for the next week or so, she played outdoors while one of us was with her. All the toddlers inside would watch Isha yearningly from behind the grill gate (which was locked) and would periodically be asked by an akka to go inside the room and pick up an ‘activity’ to do. It was very painful to see that. After a few days of being outdoors and slowly getting enticed with story-telling and colourful Montessori materials, Isha did begin to go inside. But with each day, her anxiety and a feeling of distress only kept increasing. All day she’d started telling us imaginative stories about a baby cat, a baby lizard, a baby crow, a baby elephant, a baby ant and so on. The stories and the contexts would all be different from each other, but the underlying theme of each of them was this: The baby was missing the mother and was very distressed. We, once again, met the principal and told her about Isha’s stories. She said “Isha’s processing her separation-anxiety in her own creative way. Just listen to her stories and acknowledge her feeling. There’s nothing to worry about. She’ll be ok.”
Among many things, the most distressing thing that I personally witnessed there was the adults’ lack of understanding about children crying.
- One day, a young boy, not more than four years old, was sitting in a corner and sobbing uncontrollably, while all the other children were playing outside. I asked an akka why he was crying. She said “He feels abandoned by his parents after his baby-sister was born. So, he’s been upset about it.” Seeing Isha play happily and independently, I walked up to this boy to just be there for him and comfort him. I was pulled back by an akka saying “No, don’t talk to him. He needs to learn to deal with this by himself. If we start talking to him, he’ll start crying even more. If you leave him alone, he’ll stop crying.” Though I knew what the right thing for me to do was, she was so insistent that I step back and I did, quite unwillingly. I felt miserable for a whole day after that.
- Another day, I saw a little girl and boy (barely three years old) hugging each other so lovingly and kissing each other on the cheek. The akka there was so scandalized and assumed this moral responsibility for the situation and physically separated them saying “Chee, you should not do these things!”
- The absolutely last straw for me was when Isha came out of the school crying one day. The akka who was carrying her gave her to me and said to Isha “Look how ugly your face looks when you cry! You look so beautiful when you smile. So, you should come to school tomorrow with a smiling face, ok?” She might have thought that she was saying something very creative and sensible to make a crying child feel better! But I felt completely disgusted, distressed and horrified at the whole experience. Though there were many parents who had just started sending their kids to school, none of them had such a strong reaction to things like we did. These parents and the teachers used to say “That’s how the initial days are. They’ll soon settle down.” and “Well, the kids can’t always be spoken to and dealt with nicely. They also need to learn to face adults who aren’t so nice to them all the time!”
I think this whole ‘settling down’ is a myth. Children* train themselves to resign to the situation knowing that they really have only two choices – keep resisting and continue to feel miserable or resign to the situation and stop experiencing life less and less intensely. There is a huge cost that is paid when the child decides to resign! She starts to actively disconnect from her feelings and intuition. She starts believing in other people’s stories about who she is and isn’t. She starts feeling low self-esteem and feeling like she’d be accepted only if she behaved like everybody else. It’s a long list of things that start, the day a child makes that decision as a three-year-old to “settle down” in a school she does not feel safe in. So many things that I’ve had to struggle to unlearn as I realize things as a grown-up. (But I’m extremely grateful for all of that!)
Learning to face not-so-nice adults?
Young children are extremely vulnerable beings. I am very convinced that when children feel unsafe with adults and don’t have a safe space to run to, they feel abandoned, scared and disempowered. This can cause a deep sense of hurt and distrust that they are not capable of processing or working through. They leave deep scars and a feeling of insecurity. In the process of protecting themselves from hurt and coping with a feeling of insecurity, they expend a lot of their life energy – either through withdrawing, shutting down, or aggression - depending on the child’s personality / tendencies. Children who feel completely safe at all times and are in the presence of adults who they can completely trust, are able to fully access and use all their life energy for active exploration and creation. (I’ve written an earlier post about this two years ago. Good to read along with this post.)
We continue to offer Isha a trusting and safe space (as much as we can), never leaving her with anyone she does not feel fully safe with; and always reassuring her, letting her know she can cry or honestly process anything she’s feeling / experiencing, without any shame, guilt or fear. And the results are extremely rewarding and positive. Isha sometimes comes to us and says “I feel like crying!” We tell her “Ok, by yourself or on amma’s lap?” Sometimes she does choose to say “By myself” and would go into her room and lie down for a while with a teardrop trickling down her cheek. In a few minutes she’d come running out saying “Amma, look what I found under the table as I was lying down. The red bead we were looking for!” with glistening eyes and an exuberant laughter. She is becoming more independent (emotionally and physically), with an increasing ability to explore and be adventurous. More than anything, her ability to be truly joyous inside!
After these two experiments, we decided to absolutely drop our idea of another place called school for Isha. After a whole year, one day Isha said “Amma, I want to go to school.” seeing some of her close friends go to school everyday. Her wanting to go to school became stronger with each passing day and one day we had to say ‘Okay! You don’t have to, but you can try going to a school.’ This was an even more relaxed and alternative Montessori environment that had been recently started. We could choose to go and leave when we wanted, but were requested to be consistent with our own hours day after day. The entire first week, Isha was very enthusiastic about going to school. It looked like she was thoroughly enjoying it. The second week, she didn’t resist going but dragged her feet about it. The third week, she started saying she didn’t want to go. As usual, we tried to push her a little bit to see if it was some “local reason” that could be overcome.
One day I got a call from an akka there saying ‘Please come and pick up Isha immediately!’ So I rushed there.
When I entered the school, the akka said something very beautiful "Isha’s sleeping inside. She was crying uncontrollably asking for you. When we asked her to calm down she said “I don’t want to cry. But what do I do? I am not able to stop crying!” I said “It’s ok to cry. Do you want me to hold you while you are crying and waiting for amma?” She said “No! I want to go inside and lie down and cry by myself.” I said “That’s fine too.” And helped her put down a mat where she lied down. She fell asleep crying to herself.”
I felt so deeply touched by this akka’s sensitivity and Isha’s clarity and strength. I sat next to sleeping Isha for a while stroking her hair. She woke up in sometime and smiled at me. “Amma’s here! You fell asleep before I came. I’ve been sitting here waiting for you to wake up.” She said ‘I know. Amma, can I not come here anymore? I don’t want to go to school. We will just do a lot of fun things at home, travel and all.” I said ‘Sure baby! You never had to. You came here because you wanted to. But we need to go and speak to aunty about our decision. Will you be able to do that?” She agreed.
We set up a time with the aunty who runs the school. Rajeev and I went along with Isha. Isha said ‘I don’t want to come here anymore.’ Her decision was received and accepted gracefully. Aunty said that the doors were open for her come visit anytime she wanted to. It was a happy ending and closure.
We don’t know what exactly happened. Every time we asked her ‘So, what happened? Why didn’t you want to go? Were the aunties rude to you?’ She’d say ‘No, they were never rude to me. They were very loving and kind. It was just too noisy for me there!’ We know that’s not true, since she enjoys being in much noisier places while this school was one of the quietest places she’s been to. May be she’d be able to articulate her reasons some day. But it was her decision. And since then, she’s never once asked to go to school.
Everyday, she gets to interact with strangers, relatives, friends of friends. She hears them say all kinds of things like “What? You don’t go to school? Then, how will you learn?”… “Look Isha. You must go to school. Tell your parents to send you ok?”…… “You are a bad girl if you don’t go to school. Don’t you want to be a good girl?” She finds some of these comments too absurd / amusing to even respond to. When she feels called to respond, she does it in her own creative way. I am rarely needing to step in to say anything these days! She has faced an almost full-range of comments / questions from all kinds of people (from really curious to provoking) to know how and what to respond to which / who.
And life has been wonderful. Overflowing, intense, exuberant, and definitely extremely challenging sometimes. But absolutely wonderful.
So, what happens if Isha asks to go to school a few years down the line? We’ll consider it then freshly, depending on what our life’s context is then, where she’s wanting to go, for what reasons and what our intuition says. If it all feels right, of course we’ll send her where she wants to go if we see it providing an experience / learning that she is genuinely seeking at that point.
* Just yesterday, R and I were discussing how some children are more adaptable and easy going and adjust to schooling, while some other children don’t. These ‘spirited children’ generally experience life more intensely, have more intense emotional responses (joy, sadness and anger) to situations around them than other children do. They throw tantrums more easily, refuse to obey, resist a lot more and also shut down more easily. These spirited children are definitely more challenging to be with. And it’s been an interesting and enlightening journey understanding and working with a spirited child. Will write more on this later.