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Wanted: Exceptional parents

Wanted: Exceptional parents
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First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 01 09 AM IST

(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Updated: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 01 27 PM IST
10 January: To impress The School, we chose our outfits carefully. Me: Grey sweater, black skirt, calf-length boots. Nitin: cream blazer, dark shirt, khakis.
It was our first “interaction”.
That’s the word the Supreme Court used before Christmas to tell New Delhi schools they could verify documents and meet parents of nursery applicants. Admonishing the schools, one judge asked: “What do you want to verify? Black or white. Tall or short. Rich or poor. Apparently it is for collection of donation, officially or unofficially, in the name of transparency.”
But, in the end, the court replaced interviews with the euphemistic, undefined “interaction”.
(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
And so The School sent us an email to “informally” come by its sprawling campus in tony Vasant Vihar, the section of New Delhi known for wide lanes, trees, embassies and kirana shops stocked with authentic European cheese and chocolates. We were told to arrive at noon—without our daughter.
At 11.45, the line stretched on to the road.
“Yikes,” I said. “They invited everyone.”
By 12.30, the gates had not opened, the crowd of 500 grew restless and the line disintegrated. I couldn’t help but size up my appearance against these parents. They exuded glamour. And everyone had decided to wear boots.
But our real secret weapon remained tucked inside Nitin’s ethnic chic briefcase. He had actually packed her artwork—drawings of balloons that really looked like, well, balloons. A collage book she made about planting a garden where she glued uncooked dalon to the pages as seeds.
Then there were the other factors on our side: Her birth certificate showing she was born in the US. Proof of my employment at this newspaper. Reviews of Nitin’s work as an artist, from The New York Times and TimeOut Delhi. “How could they say no?” Nitin had said as he packed the bag.
Looking at this crowd, I suddenly realized: Very easily.
“Naya Meenakshi Kalita Mukul.”
For the first time, I was grateful we had given our child a long name; by the time the guard pronounced it, we squeezed inside.
After two table check-ins, we waited in another area as a group discussion waged on a stage. One official videotaped the affair, presumably in case school staff forgot any of the pearls uttered by the thousands of parents passing through.
Our turn came and went in a blink. Neither Nitin nor I, products of the US education and employment system, have ever sat through a group discussion where we are being judged (debate team does not count.) We were asked: “Why this school?”
And then the principal called on one woman, who said a bunch of flattering stuff praising the admissions process(!): “I hate to sound elitist but most of our friends’ children go here.”
You’re no elitist, I thought. You are an ignorant snob.
Around we went and finally me: “We are looking for a place where our kid can still be a kid. Our home is very open and we want to find a school that mirrors that philosophy.”
As we left, the line was still trickling on to the road.
11 January: Exceptional track record.
I came to the words on the form and paused. How on earth can a child of three have such a thing? And then I saw the boxes for response divided into “father” and “mother”. The Exceptional School, which anyway I feared would mean more lessons on Prada than permutations, was referring to us. The parents.
The nerve. Isn’t education the only way to level the playing field, to surmount the stigma of parents and past? I just want my child to attend school with nice, normal families. Of course, hypocritical me eloquently listed Nitin’s and my “exceptional” accomplishments.
15 January: We only applied to five schools and I feel a bit like an idiot now. I just landed back in Delhi after a long weekend in Guwahati and because of stress and more “interactions” scheduled over the next few weeks, I asked my parents to keep Naya with them.
She wasn’t even supposed to qualify this year. But the Supreme Court’s early Christmas gift (bless them) lowered the age for nursery. In mid-December, we began to seek advice, collect information from websites, and tour schools (getting as far as the front gates, really).
At age 3.5, had we stayed in the US, Naya would just be entering playschool.
Here, her first school experience started at age 2: a whopping four hours a day. When we moved to Delhi from Washington, DC in 2006, she missed her friends and grandparents and we thought school might help.
When Naya “graduated” to the next class, she started saying she didn’t want to go to school. She brought home sheets that asked her to do things like colour a banana yellow and “within the lines”. Of course, Nitin, the artist who saw his friends snag crores for splashing paint way beyond those lines, was offended.
We went to observe her playschool last summer—and were appalled. Our daughter, then 2, was being asked to sit at a desk and learn how to read and write. “The letter ‘M’ has two humpeties,” her teacher said, making her hands curve in a seeming definition of the word “humpety”.
“Great,“ I whispered to Nitin. “They are teaching her to read English with made-up nonsense.”
When we discovered that the school was selling our names to banks plugging financial products, we decided to withdraw. In Naya’s last week at this school, Ronald McDonald served as the American representative for “Diversity Week”.
So we went on a hunt for the most laidback, non-corporate school we could find. After a dozen dizzying tours, we settled on a little-known school run by the Aurobindo Society with a feisty, loving principal who accused traditional education of robbing childhoods. She seemed the type who would embrace a purple banana coloured violently, so we signed up.
Six months later, we were on the hunt again. This time, Nitin and I picked five private schools in south Delhi that friends and educators deemed examples of open, integrated curricula, applied—and prayed.
17 January: Today, we interviewed at one of the so-called alternative schools that we really loved. But, when we sat before the four(!) interviewers, they said: “You both seem busy. Who looks after the child?”
(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Momentarily stunned, I said, “Nitin works from home. That is the arrangement we have.”
Another question, from the left. “Can your husband verify employment?”
“Well,” I said, “he works mainly as an artist—for himself.”
“Is there anything on a letterhead?” came the woman again.
I must have looked annoyed. Thankfully, Nitin pulled out a review and silenced them.
“Thank you,” they said.
“That’s it?” I asked, incredulous. “Don’t you want to know anything else?”
“No, we’re fine,” she said.
I walked away, shaking my head. How can they chastise us for being working parents on the one hand and then seek “professional” letters and proof on the other?
Nitin just called his father to let him know and Dad exuded his usual optimism: “Don’t worry. You’ll get in somewhere. Naya is really smart.”
Too bad she is not the one being judged.
That Evening
Tonight came Naya’s first rejection from The School. Actually, it really is a rejection of us: our jobs, our schooling, our status or lack thereof, maybe even my boots.
Today is also the day I think that Nitin and I naively realize we love our kid more than ourselves. I don’t think I felt this sad even when I didn’t get into an Ivy League college (but I did for graduate school, as I told the Exceptional School).
What’s most perplexing is that the system in India still feels incredibly patriarchal, based on what accomplishments parents have made. While we consider ourselves accomplished in the creative sense, we wonder why that didn’t work for admissions. It is so clear, from the admitted, that some families lie their way in. One friend tells us this school likes graduates of the Indian Institute of Management, while another says certain companies lobby for seats. Other schools are upfront about “donations” of several lakhs—an illegal practice.
We tried to do this whole thing without connections or kissing ass, but we are revisiting that policy now. Is this the Indian way?
18 January: Everyone always makes fun of Delhiites for being such snobs. Even before we moved here, people warned us that the first question people ask is, “Where do you live?” And then, the admonition goes, you are sized up in terms of worth and character, importance and connections. But if you have kids, the question and assessment changes to, “Where does she go to school?”
I confess I’ve asked the same.
19 January: This morning, our yoga instructor asked why we have been so stressed and cancelling sessions. I thought he would be mad at our lack of commitment. Then out came his story:
“I went through this four years ago,” he said. “It is the worst part of parenthood.”
He recounted paying a cash bribe of Rs30,000 to get his daughter into a school near his house. I had never even heard of the place, so I assumed it was a mid-level institution. She got in.
Then, he said, he asked an influential businessman to intervene and see if he could get any of the money back. “Rs30,000 for me is a lot,” he said, as if to explain.
“Umm, yeah, Guruji, me too,” I said, balancing on tiptoe.
He was refunded Rs23,000.
I am definitely not relaxed after yoga today.
20 January: Nitin is on a networking kick. I think he is applying what he learned from schmoozing the art scene to this whole admissions thing. Last week, he blindly called up the remaining schools and requested meetings. One of them awards extra points for children from Gujarat so Nitin plugged his father’s journey from Sialkot, Pakistan, to Ahmedabad.
He also just happened to mention that he had done an arts fellowship in Ahmedabad, and that I researched in Vadodara for my first book.
It worked. Two obliged and I am taking yet another morning off work tomorrow to join the schmooze.
21 January: Today, we sat with the principal of the Cultural School, who exuded warmth and intellect all at once. She listened to us, said she gets 3,500 applications for 65 spots (that’s a 1.8% chance!) and wished us luck for the shortlist to be announced next week.
To kill time before the next meeting, we went to Khan Market to buy a gift for Naya’s friend’s birthday party tonight. I am dreading going because three of the kids who will be there got into The School, including birthday boy himself.
Geez, what kind of mom am I? To compensate, I bought gifts worth about Rs1,000. I didn’t even spend that much on Naya this year.
The second school that was to meet us suddenly changed its mind. We didn’t even make it past the gate.
22 January: My parents are visiting from the US and marvelling at this nightmare.
“They interview parents?” my father inquires. “If they did that when I was a boy, we never would have gotten in. And my mother would have asked them who the hell they think they are...”
My father went to Don Bosco in Guwahati, no small feat for the child of a village farmer/contractor and an illiterate mother. His access to an education literally changed the course of his life. And, his entire family’s.
23 January: I finally figured out why I am so upset about this whole school admissions fiasco. Education is the linchpin of possibility here. A lack of it holds countless people back. Access to it transforms lives. That this key to India’s future remains mired in so much muck, from corruption to connections, is deeply troubling and enough cause to cease believing.
Everyone tells me, “No matter where she goes, she will be okay.” Or else: “Look at us, we turned out fine.”
That’s not the point.
Despite having strong beliefs about the type of school I want (open curriculum, little rote learning, no tracing letters), I worry about sending Naya to a place where only certain people can enter.
I would say the values we most want to pass on to our child are ethics, compassion, hard work. So, I don’t feel I can be part of something that requires jockeying favour. The moment I have to do that, it crosses a moral line into an India in which I can no longer believe. And so this whole process is also about whether this country can ever really be home.
26 January: Happy Republic Day.
To celebrate, I got my family tickets to the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
It seemed like all of India turned out for it and none of the officers posted along the parade route knew our entry gate. With Naya held close, we stepped aside in the frantic push towards the metal detectors. People screamed. Police yelled. I just wanted to cry.
“We have lived in the US for 36 years,” my mother told a guard. “But I have hung on to my Indian citizenship.”
He said he couldn’t help.
An hour later, the crowd dispersed, some turned away, others inside.
Behind some heaps of garbage, Nitin found a spot from where we could glimpse the tanks and horses.
“This is fine,” I said. “Let’s just show Naya the camels and go home.”
Fifteen minutes after the parade started, an officer approached my father. “Would you like to go in?”
Incredulous, we followed him. He seated us high in the bleachers, a great view among a crowd diverse in every way, one that made us proud to be Indian—for a moment. The camels passed and Naya was joyous.
Sometimes, India works.
I wonder if all those who struggle on a daily basis, for water, electricity, a gas cylinder, an education, are so used to the fight, so jaded, so tired that they don’t bother to look back and fix the pain of the process?
28 January: You know life is really pathetic when you google your kids’ friends’ names to see if they have made the cut.
29 January: When my generation doesn’t get its way, we blog.
I’ve been on these nursery sites, which emote, fascinate and annoy. Today, I came upon a post that decried a Catholic school for preferring to admit Catholics. Duh. I think they have the right.
But, then don’t private schools have the right to assemble a student population as they see fit? With government schools a joke, and private schools few—education is an issue that the rich and poor are strangely united in being jerked around on. Why hasn’t there been a revolt?
Every night this month, we discuss and weigh: The opportunities here are great, but the possibilities that an American education allows you to dream of are far greater.
6 February: Surprise, surprise. Naya did not make the cut at the Alternative Letterhead Hungry School. I told Nitin tonight that I really want to just go back to Washington, DC. So what if it has among the US’ worst schools? They are starting to look really good.
I can even picture myself on the way to the airport in our Ambassador, tears streaming down my face as Tum Se Hi plays. Naa hai yeh paana naa khona hi hai. Tera naa hona jaane kyun hona hii hai. It isn’t a gain, but it isn’t a loss, either. If I don’t belong to you, why should I exist at all?
Why did you return? Everyone in America will ask. Because I got my answer, I will say. I finally know why my parents left.
That night
Our gas ran out. The driver quit. The maid extended her leave. There is definitely a conspiracy at stake to make me go back. I think I am ready.
7 February: Another rejection, owing to “paucity of seats”, the principal wrote. “This in no way reflects on you or the child.” Then what does it reflect?
8 February: We had an interaction at the Cultural School today. For a change, it actually was very efficient, very transparent, very child-focused. A sticking issue is the Hindi medium status, but that’s also appealing.
Afterwards, we stopped by Naya’s current school to ask the principal to fill in a form for the American School which guarantees entry for citizens. She will do it but she asked us to reconsider.
“If you weren’t progressive parents, I’d say go ahead,” she said. “Other parents I know have paid donations and I say ‘go ahead.’ But you are too aware to do that.”
“Education is a nightmare in India,” I retorted.
“Not just in India,” she corrected. “Everywhere.”
14 February: Happy Valentine’s Day. Naya was not on the list at Exceptional Parents’ School either, which shocked me because she/we had lots of points. Maybe my book needed to be on a global best-seller list and my husband should be selling for crores of rupees, not lakhs.
We only have one school left to hear from. I am pretty sure Naya will be at the American School next fall. There’s great irony in that because a lot of Indians would kill for that opportunity. But what was the point of moving if we cocoon in the familiar?
28 February: She got in.
There her beautiful name was on the website of the Cultural School, unable to be missed, longer than all the other kids.
I sighed, relieved, exasperated, exhausted. Jai Hind, indeed.
No strings. No bribes. A lot of luck.
We know we are among the lucky. But this struggle can’t go the way of so many others, like the parade. Looking back might be the only way for India to move forward.
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First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2008. 01 09 AM IST
More Topics: School | Admissions | Parents | Nursery | Playschool |