The Unlearning(s)

American entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said, and I quote, “It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off.”

Many of us faced said fence two years ago, we had to choose who we wanted to be, what we wanted to do; a lot of us, not unlike me I presume, took a leap of faith and landed safely on one side of it – this side happened to be Institute at Pune.

Two years have flown by and today we find ourselves at another such fence, yet another fork in the road – while some of us know where we are headed, others are still battling this dreaded fence – study or work? Money, meaning, or both?

So how do we answer that today – Do we make another leap?

I used to echo Jim Rohn’s sentiment – decision-making is a step toward progress, but this last travail of mine – i.e. the Fellowship – has taught me a thing or two about fences, decision-making and what we all like to call progress. Getting off the fence doesn’t always provide an answer to ‘what matters most’.

What I intend to share now are three things I learned, or more accurately unlearned, in the endeavour that they may help each of us in our own traverses through the proverbial fence.

The first is the story about Faruk. Faruk was a student in my class who lived in a dilapidated shanty at least 4 kilometres away from the school. None of his classmates lived near him; he walked to school, whenever he did, all by himself. I barely used to see him once a fortnight so I confronted him regarding his absence whenever I got the chance to and on one such occasion he revealed that he used his mornings to sell bricks and earn money. Shocked and angered, I tried to dialogue with him explaining the ‘benefits’ of school and how he had his whole adult life to make money. I was convinced that he needed to give up work as he was toying with his future – something I narrated to him often. I couldn’t fathom one of my students engaged in labour. Children shouldn’t be working for their livelihood at the age of 8, should they be?

Today Faruk no longer comes to school – not even once a fortnight; his father can’t pay for their family’s meals and admittedly uses Faruk’s income to keep the stove burning. Instead of trying to find a way around his job, I pushed Faruk to give it up altogether and ended up alienating him from school in the bargain.

Unlearning 1: Good intentions are important, so are strong beliefs, for they may be the only real source of generosity and nobility in this world, but bereft of context and critical thought they often end up exacerbating rather than resolving issues.

Had I, only for a moment even, not perceived Faruk from my own adamant, prejudiced point of view, had I asked myself the question – why can’t Faruk study and work? I may have been able to arrive at a compromise; I may have remained his teacher. I got off the fence; I made a decision without thinking about or understanding the consequences – I lost Faruk.

This brings me to a story – about Suraj. Suraj is a tiny little, doe-eyed creature in my class who can often be found scribbling notes agonizingly in a corner. When I assumed the post as his teacher he would spell his name S-A-R-U-J, and yet language wasn’t even what he struggled at most, arithmetic was where he was really vulnerable – or so I thought. By the time the rest of the class was on question eleven for any given Math assignment, Suraj had barely got around to question two. I spoke to his tuition teacher about strengthening his mental math ability, asked his parents to help with number drills – nothing worked – if anything he was getting worse. “Every reform moves at the proverbial snail’s pace,” Gandhi had said, he had not met Suraj I thought.

After last year’s mid-year assessments I found that Suraj had managed to attempt only 30% of the questions on an average in all previous tests combined. But staggeringly, in whatever he had attempted he answered correctly 90% of the times. What is even more astonishing is that Suraj is my only student who solves each number-operation question pictorially to this today. His responses are marked with tedious block drawings representing each number of his solution. His answer-sheets are nothing short of artwork. Speed not arithmetic aptitude is his Achilles heel. Suraj, much too late to my own detriment I realised, possesses exceptional conceptual understanding of numbers – so much so that today he is in charge of teaching other students subtraction-with-carry-over and multiplication problems. These other students he teaches often manage to outscore him in assessments thanks to the more number of questions they attempt; none of them however are as accurate as Suraj who meticulously compiles his answers one block at a time.

Unlearning 2:Slow can be and is beautiful’. Remember the wise man (or was it woman?) who said, “good things come to those who wait”? I have forever known that speed thrills but kills, but never given ‘slowness’ its well-deserved due. There will come many a time in our futures where we will be stuck, ready to pull our hair out; we will have tirelessly worked for something, believed in something, taken a stand, made a decision and nothing would seem to budge. Let Suraj stand as an immortal reminder that although reform – inner or outer – moves at the proverbial snail’s (or Suraj’s) pace and doesn’t always occur how and when we want it to, it does have the propensity to leave us breathless – our job at times is to let it take its own shape, be its own being, and give it time; slow, I bet, will surprise you.

This brings me to my last, and I would argue indispensable, point. I, like many of you here I am sure, walked into the Fellowship knowing next to nothing about education. My ignorance coupled with curiosity led me to wage many a war within myself – Should children be driven through external rewards, won’t that kill intrinsic motivation? Why choose Dr.Suess and Shel Silverstein over Uncle Pai and R.K Narayan? Why track student behaviour; why the need to ‘train’ them, fit them to our notions of ‘good’ behaviour? Why backward plan from a ‘given’ objective, why not let students arrive at their own conclusions? Why assess performance in Math and English alone, why not in Hindi and Science as well? In India, English is the road to upward mobility and therefore must be taught, but isn’t our mother tongue a window to our culture and therefore equally, if not more, important?

This plethora of thoughts, unanswered riddles have left me burdened with conflict, saddled with chaos as you can well imagine. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The fact is that none of the questions we’re plagued with today have cut and dry, black and white answers. Our jobs, in fact our lives, demand of us this first rate intelligence Fitzgerald alluded to. At times our students need external motivation, at other times they don’t. Are we any different? Suess may be taught in conjunction with Pai – who are we to deprive our children of either? English and Hindi both must be taught, must be assessed.

Unlearning 3: Chaos and conflict are good. Why? Because to walk ‘the middle path’ we need to first ascertain, comprehend the extreme. The world we live in is full of incongruent half-truths and myriad shades of grey. The country we live in is pluralistic, diverse, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. This not only inflates the number of tangential ideas, but at times also leads to intractable extremes – chaos. This barrage of opposing thoughts and ideas however, helps us dig deeper, better informs our decisions, and ultimately, most importantly, makes our choices inclusive – without which surely no nation can survive, let alone thrive.

I would like to end by agreeing and respectfully disagreeing with Mr. Rohn. Yes, there will be many fences like the one we find ourselves on today, and yes, we will battle many decisions even after getting off those fences. But, if there’s anything these two years have taught me it’s this – no matter how much chaos we encounter in our paths, if we remember not to get fazed by our inner conflicts, whilst also questioning our strongest beliefs, if we remember to bide our time, we will not have to get the off those fences blind. In our paths to ‘progress’ what we choose to do and how we choose to do it in fact ‘matters most’, for we are the true dispensers of India’s destiny as Tagore in his eternal words invoked –  Jana gana mangal dayak jaya hey, bharat bhaagya vidhaata! Here’s wishing a gallant victory to all of us – jaya hey!

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Contours of competition

After months of sweat, toil through heat and downpour we were finally there – the final bout, a clash between perennial rivals. My school and that of my opponents had fiercely jostled for ascendancy in the gentlemen’s game, among other domains, for many generations. I had played my part on the road to these finals, but was not to take the field that pivotal day; my role was limited to the side-lines where I was to put the fear of god in them if only by the din of my cheer. And cheer I did – shouted myself hoarse, and then some – right from when the first ball was bowled up until the last wicket of theirs fell, just seven miserly runs short of the target. We had come out glorious victors in an unforgettable day of competition. I had not played and it was the biggest victory of my life still; defeating arch-rivals superseded on-field partaking (would you believe it?)!

It is most unremarkable then that I have carried similar, almost religious, fervour to the sphere of sport coaching. Some nine months ago, fifty minors and I set out on a journey analogous to the one I alluded to above. We tirelessly laboured in the fields of football, athletics and kho-kho, and inevitably arrived at – in the very least for those whom I coached – an unprecedented occasion – the finals of the biggest tournament of their lives. Competition had been tough, opponents valiant; my boys had somehow managed to overturn them all. Through the course of the tournament new rivalries were forged; we knew exactly who we were meeting in the finals – some of them big, some burly – for we had played them before and beaten them, we knew what need be done. Come the day of reckoning there was neither uncertainty nor indecision, not an inkling of doubt; the boys marched on gallantly to receive gold in all but one event, deservedly earning the tag of champions – the ones to beat, the favourites – and oh, did we celebrate! Chhatarpur! Chhatarpur! In deriving vicarious thrill in the successes of those I taught, my life, I thought, had come a full circle (a tad too early one would imagine!).

As the days leisurely passed, the jubilations subsided and the sweetness of the victory slowly dissipated; I was left brooding almost in lament, something major was amiss. As a sportsman victory was never this hollow, why then, as a teacher, a mentor, winning nearly felt like losing? My students had battled hard and won every single game they participated in, but should sport be reduced to only rivalry, victory, and glory I wondered – we weren’t feudal overlords warring to annex evermore territory, were we?

Here I cannot help but trace the roots of my disaffections to the modern neoliberal conceptions of globalization and marketization and their influence on international sport, consequently on sport in general, in the 21st century. The modern sporting industry is a multi-billion (if not a trillion) dollar business globally and ironically sporting arenas of today can be likened to the coliseums of medieval Europe, where players are all but gladiators, and crowds blood-thirsty fanatics (generalisation?) – evidenced by the brutal post-defeat vandalism players’ estates are often subjected to – the only essential difference being the sharing of the spoils; both the victors and the vanquished mutually partake in this respect nowadays. Advertising fuels the proverbial flame; old, defeated foes are often belittled, reduced to rubble only to be resurrected from the grime in order to rechristen rivalries – bigger and badder than ever before – come the next season, only to be surpassed by the season after that; and so the cycle continues. Thus, a deeply partisan and aggressive rhetoric is created in regard to international sporting events and the terms, concepts, ideas used to market them are constantly reproduced, albeit inadvertently, in local schooling environments by way of coach-speak, pep-talk further stoking the fire that is in desperate need of dousing.

Admittedly, there are assumptions in the argument above and generalisations I posit. Perhaps prior to the pervasive television (and now social media) era sport was as fervent locally, where the rest of the world (including me of course) was just not in the know; if sporting fever ran as high even in the untelevised, localised era, then my reference to the role of ‘modern, global market-systems’ in fuelling sport fanaticism is certainly exaggerated however not entirely unfounded; for in such a case sport was already fanaticised, just not in plain sight, and television ads (the symbol for modern, global market-systems) just happened to exacerbate the situation (take local fanaticism global) without actually causing it. Also, my description discounts inter-sport stratification and the race (or lack thereof) to supremacy in capturing consumer imagination that lies therein; there certainly exist certain sports and sporting superstars who don’t belong to or partake in said ‘race’ and therefore aren’t necessarily ‘worshipped’ products under consumerism. This reduces – not wholly removes – the size of the (sporting) universe that forms the premise of my argument and limits the scope of the point I intend to make to some extent.

So what is this point (the fire in need of dousing) I am trying to make? The present global sporting landscape within which school sport, school-level coaching and therefrom the lives of children are located exerts palpable pressure toward the normalisation of a certain brand (read fanatical, fundamentalist) of sport and competition making it immensely hard not to get swayed by it. Children (and undoubtedly adults) under such milieu may grow up idolising ‘fame’ and courting ‘war’ (sport-related), which I do not contend are necessarily evil, but in isolation may very easily detract from the other – I would argue indispensable – aesthetic aspects of sport. Contemporary examples of this phenomenon are aplenty and hence I won’t go into them here.

This is no way absolves us of our duties as teachers – I don’t wish to blame it all on capitalism and leave, no – rather impels us to be more aware, vigilant of the practices we follow whilst coaching our children. Cultivating the ideas of self-improvement and awareness, nurturing patience and perseverance, creating opportunities for service and applauding sacrifice, practicing humility both in victory and defeat, all regulated through use of judicious, unprejudiced vernacular, go hand in hand with skill, competition, victory and glory to create the holistic realm, the holy grail if you will, of sport.

The introductory account of my cricketing ‘glory’ falls abysmally short of mentioning what I in fact savoured most about my time as sportsman: the struggle. The countless front-foot punches to the hanging ball in my veranda, the laborious hours of fielding and catching practice whilst eagerly awaiting a hit in the net, the multiple defeats that heavily punctuated all the victories, the inexorable battle within the mind to stay at the wicket against all predilection for heaving the ball toward the boundary – all moments I learnt from, remember and cherish the most pertaining to my game; winning was never everything for me.

I sincerely hope not to have let my students down in this most solemn regard, and that they have through our myriad hours on the practice field imbibed a love for the struggle in their bid to overcoming adversity and claiming glory, which is the only thing I ever really wanted to accomplish as their mentor.