Opinion | It takes a vineyard to homeschool a child7 min read . Updated: 25 Sep 2020, 09:00 AM IST
Children may no longer be able to share their tiffins, or smuggle porn magazines, but online schooling is teaching them to adapt when life throws a curveball
We have reached science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s vision of the future some 135 years ahead of schedule.
In The Fun They Had, a story set in 2155, 11-year-old Margie writes in her diary, “Today Tommy (her 13-year-old neighbour) found a real book." She is only used to tele-books where sentences scroll on a screen, not yellow crinkly pages where words stand still. It is a book about school but for Margie school is something that happens at home, in front of a big screen, where she feeds her homework in through a slot. She is incredulous that children once went to an actual school building with other youngsters, that they laughed and played together, helped each other with homework and had human teachers. It made Margie wistful for all “the fun they had".
My old school friend, Krishnendu Chaudhuri, says he has been thinking about this story a lot these days as he watches his son Kaustuv grapple with the brave new world of online school. Kaustuv’s school in Kolkata has 7,000 children. The sections in a class can go up to L. Kaustuv says he misses the anticipation where “with that many kids, literally anything can, and routinely does, happen".
My own first day of school was a life lesson in itself. My mother, unable to get a taxi, was late picking me up. When she arrived, she found me in tears, convinced that this was all a diabolical plot of abandonment. Another boy’s mother was late as well. Both of us, four-year-olds, stood hand in hand, bereft in our new school uniforms. His mother rushed in at the same time as mine.
“Is this your new friend?" my mother asked me. We both nodded mutely, still tear-stained.
“Do you know each other’s names?"
We shook our heads. Wallowing in our common misery, it had never occurred to us that our names mattered. Amitava Ray and I became fast friends that day and have remained so over the decades that followed.
Amitava is now a father himself and lives in Hyderabad. His son Nimish would listen to our “jab we met" story with the indulgent bemusement reserved for fairy tales. Nimish says what he misses most in online school is the high of walking up and solving a problem on the board. When he didn’t understand what was going on, he would look at the faces around him to figure out whether everyone was equally befuddled. As his father and I discovered years ago, there’s nothing like school to unite us in a common misery. For some, it was maths class. For me, it was physical education and singing practice, where the singing teacher marched up and down menacingly listening to each of us quaver our scales.
Online school has its undoubted perks. “The best thing is I can do my first period in bed," says Nimish. His sister Meha, who just returned to her art school in the US, does not miss taking a freezing subway to school in Chicago.
But she misses going to her studio. Creative juices don’t flow in the same way at home with family bustling around.
Arts and sports have definitely been the hardest hit in this new school avatar but there are compensations. Ahona Gupta, mother of two girls, says she certainly does not miss waking up at 6am to make two sets of snacks and two sets of lunches. Paro Anand, the National Sahitya Akademi award-winning children’s books writer, says while nothing substitutes for the company of one’s peers, when she does online sessions with children, she notices that the shy children, the ones who hated standing up in front of a class, are finally speaking up. A couple of Anand’s books have been banned from school because parents worried they were too controversial. “I have often wanted to meet the parents who objected but it never happened," says Anand. “But now parents can see for themselves how kids react to my stories and the issues in them."
As any Harry Potter fan knows, the lasting lessons from school don’t come out of any textbook. In her memoir, Climbing The Mango Trees, Madhur Jaffrey remembers how the Partition of 1947 reverberated in her Delhi schoolyard. The tiffin carriers with roti and spicy mutton the Muslim girls brought to school disappeared almost overnight. The new refugees from Punjab brought chicken cooked in tandoors and sarson ka saag. They all grew up a little faster that year with those history lessons packed into tiffin boxes.
Our life lessons were not so dramatic but they were lessons nonetheless. We learnt to judge character—who was the teacher’s pet, who was the class bully, the prankster. We understood what made us different and what bound us together, whether it was shared tiffin boxes or a dog-eared copy of a smuggled porn magazine. And we learnt solidarity, like the time someone burst a stink bomb in class and everyone got suspended but no one ratted out the “bomber". Of course, online school has its moments too. A mathematics teacher in Mumbai tells The Times Of India about a class where a suggestive song started playing in the background. “I could not identify which student was responsible," she said. “The entire class was giggling throughout."
But it has also exposed a new fracture-line of haves and have-nots—those with fast Wi-Fi at home and those whose parents have had to scrimp and save to buy a smartphone on which their child can continue her lessons. As children, we were often told the story of Bengali social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar sitting on the street and studying by the light of a streetlamp because he had no light at home. Fast internet is the streetlamp of our times. Ahona Gupta says they have had to buy tabs for each of the girls, a good Wi-Fi booster and a fibre connection to supplement their existing cable. Even if life in a pandemic isn’t smooth, at least the internet connection needs to be.
I wasn’t one of the children who loved school from the get go. I was a puny daydreamer who sucked at sport. But school taught me to stand on my own feet inasmuch as it’s possible for a Bengali son to do so, to carve out my own little corner. At our missionary school in Kolkata, I don’t remember much of my trigonometry lessons but I recall sitting in the Jesuit priest Fr Bouche’s room, thrilling to his stories about his escape from Nazis who shot 19 of his classmates and left him with a bullet wound in the knee, a scar we never tired of seeing. Or we would visit Father Hous, a mild-mannered priest with a Dumbledore beard who opened up shelves of sci-fi books and taught us to dream about stars.
Enid Blyton books were filled with cheeky school adventures with lacrosse games and midnight feasts but let’s not get carried away by too much old-school ties nostalgia. This was also a world where vicious bullies and vindictive teachers abounded. Writer Vikram Seth memorably told Doon School students about being relentlessly teased. “Sometimes at lights out I wished I would never wake up," he said. In the sepia-toned nostalgia of school WhatsApp groups we gloss over all that.
In Maximum City, Suketu Mehta remembers the passport photographs of the examination toppers that would appear in the newspaper advertising coaching classes. “They wore thick glasses and looked enervated from frequent masturbation. None of them were smiling at their triumph. They didn’t look like they’d smiled in a month."
But in the end, online school is teaching us how to adapt when life throws us a curveball, and what better lesson can any school impart? Ahona Gupta is impressed by how her children manoeuvre their way around technology and work around network issues, though the six-year-old’s attention sometimes wanders when there’s no teacher keeping a sharp eye on her. Kaustuv Chaudhuri says it has forced him to be more creative since teachers can only provide a basic template these days.
If nothing else, as children prepare to return to brick-and-mortar schools, parents have a newfound appreciation for the harried teachers who fashion character out of bruised grass, scraped knees and chalk dust. Best-selling crime writer Abir Mukherjee and his wife had to handle their five-year-old and 11-year-old at home full-time for a few months in London. Exhausted, he now quips, “My wife says ‘It takes a village to raise a child but a vineyard to homeschool one.’"
And that’s a glass of fine whine indeed.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.