Success stories are the hardest to write. Perhaps because I am a cynic myself, I worry about how to make good things believable for readers like me.
Our youngest daughter, Naseem, was 7 at the start of this year when we realized with overwhelming surety that mainstream schooling wasn’t working for her at all. We had been patient about it for years, waiting for her to grow into the expected role of a student, but the longer she went to school, the less she seemed to fit in. There was little synergy between how she learns and how they teach in classrooms. There was not enough happiness or connections in their relationship.
We got lucky. We found a new school called Ukti—The Delhi Waldorf School, where Saloni Zutshi, the co-founder, spoke to us in a language that made us feel heard as parents. Zutshi spoke about developmental stages in children and their emphasis on teaching the whole child—head, hands and heart. She spoke about enabling children to identify with nature and awakening their reverence for knowledge and skill. We recognized our own child as we heard her.
Choosing to move from a school that was 5 minutes from home to another that was 45 minutes away was going to be a serious logistics challenge for us as parents. We made the leap of faith.
I saved a new document on my desktop and titled it, “Before and after Ukti”. I began to type my observations here so that I had a record of things that I might later forget. These are the first words: She is grateful. More connected to me.
I have experienced this and yet even I have a slight sense of disbelief and wonder about it. There is such little space for gratitude in our everyday lives. I feel it, but I don’t express it as much as I feel it. Children don’t need words to express themselves. When we allow them to be, they show us their feelings. When we allow ourselves to be, we are able to receive what they are communicating.
The next paragraphs read like this: She returns from school with a calmness inside her. Her head seems clear. Earlier, there would often be a sense of severe dissonance that would take days to wear off. She falls asleep easily when she gets into her bed at night. She wakes up fresh. She is learning to eat wholesome and healthy food because her peer group in school does that without a fuss.
She has planted a Champa sapling in the school compound. She tells me that she waters it everyday.
“When do you water it,” I asked her.
“After feeding the birds,” she said.
“When do you feed the birds,” I asked her.
“After our prayers,” she said.
Naseem seemed to have a bubble of peace around her. Her rhythm of waking and sleeping, eating, playing and resting had been restored. In school, she was learning to socialize freely with children and adults, in a way that she had never experienced in structured environments before. Our older children articulated the gifts of the new school in simple terms. Ukti, the school will grow every year and so far has classes only up to Grade II. “I also want to study in Ukti,” our 11-year-old middle child, Aliza, said to me. Ali is fascinated by the possibilities of free play and organic learning. Like her younger sister, Ali is a natural explorer of physical spaces and experiences. She offered me a solution. “Instead of class VI, I am willing to go back to class II. Send Naseem to kindergarten. We can start all over again.”
Aliza is a child with strong opinions and astute observations. At the dinner table, she was telling us about how much Ukti has benefited Naseem. I asked her to open this word document on my desktop and add her notes. These are Ali’s words:
Naseem is no longer irritating.
She doesn’t hit us anymore.
She has become sweet.
Main kya karoon (what should I do) is 75% less.
She has become normal.
Sahar, the oldest of the sisters, told me that she can see clearly how much calmer Naseem has become since she joined Ukti. Her quietness affects the entire house. The children have stopped playing video games and don’t ask for permission to watch as many movies on their DVD player as they used to.
“Can I play go girl games on the computer,” she asked me on a slow weekend recently.
“Yes,” I said absent-mindedly, my mind on what I was reading on my screen.
“Did you say yes,” she said.
I looked up at her. “I meant no,” I said.
“I knew you had given me the wrong answer,” she said.
City life keeps us all slightly nervous and tired all the time. There is hostility in the air, a nervous expectation of threat, of having to be careful all the time. At Ukti, the adults in the school are calm, gentle and unhurried. No one raises their voice. It almost sounds surreal but in kindergarten, the teacher sings her words when she wants to announce the beginning or end of an activity. It allows children to transition gently and makes them attentive to cues around them.
Her peer group is childlike, well-behaved and always busy. They bring varied experiences to the class. The physical spaces are wide, large, uncluttered. Ukti has become a safe place, not only for Naseem, but for all of us. The relaxed and accepting spaces of Ukti feel nurturing for the inner psychological world of the child. Instead of learning to build virtual walls that protect them emotionally, children internalize that it is okay to be themselves. They flourish in their own rhythm.
After four weeks of being at the Waldorf school, Naseem was reminding me regularly to look online for 8mm crochet hooks. She loves handwork, which is an important part of their curriculum. Given a chance, all children love handwork. We bought crochet hooks and borrowed wool from my mother’s collection. We bought a skipping rope and she has started keeping score of her skipping prowess on her blackboard at home. She has learnt to knit. She spends hours solving Sudoku puzzles that she has discovered in the newspaper. She continues to collect and play with pebbles. She doesn’t need us to tell her what to do with her time. She asks questions about how things work, wanting to understand processes and logic. She runs around the house doing chores on behalf of all of us.
The real difference between our child’s old school and her new one is the effect the new school has had on her family. I wasn’t sure how we would cope with the stress of driving to drop and pick her up daily. My husband and I have been taking turns all year since she joined Ukti. It has easily become the best part of my day to walk into the school campus and discover bunches of children skipping, racing, jumping, climbing and talking to each other. I’ll be honest, the best part is having them come and talk to me. They show me baby peacocks and compost pits, guavas on trees and things they have made. They ask questions about my day and about Naseem’s sisters. This is how communities grow, I think to myself. This is how we can start to nourish the positive and powerful sides of us again. You realize that the real work of parenting is the part where you finally come around to re-parent your own self. When you take decisions that work for you. When you sleep and eat on schedule, learn to extend yourself and draw boundaries that are protective of your own intimate life spaces.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.
Read Natasha’s previous Mint Lounge columns