“People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have.” ― John Holt
It was early September when I first looked at the poster which stated in bold lettering, ‘Winter Camp for homeschoolers, unschoolers and self-designed learners’. Children from 11 to 18 years were to spend two months together on a learning journey designed by themselves with the guidance from the Shikshantar team.
I forgot about it until the poster once again flashed in front of me about two weeks later. This time, I started thinking about how such an experience would be beneficial for my older son Aditya (12 years) enrolled in the M2 program of DLRC. Initial apprehension of whether my son was ready for this was overtaken by excitement about everything my son would experience in this space. He would be away for two months for the first time. He would wash his own clothes, eat vegetarian food, manage his own money, live with strangers who would gradually become his friends…The more I thought, the more I was convinced about this experience.
Knowing that Aditya would be at ease if he had a few of his friends with him at the camp, I forwarded the poster to some of his friends moms and was very happy that Shoba – Joe’s mom was thinking about it too. Soon Aditya filled up the application form, only to be told that this camp was not for school going children. We were highly disappointed as we had built up an excitement around the camp. All we did was speak about the camp and Aditya’s journey into the unknown. Luck was on our side as a couple of days later, Vidhi from the Shikshantar team spoke to Aditya and shared that they had accepted his registration. A few children had dropped out and thereby making space for more kids.
As Aditya’s mom, I was super excited about this learning journey, he was embarking on. The gynaecologist who delivered Aditya called Aditya a precious child as he was conceived naturally after I had given up infertility treatment. But for us Aditya would have been precious even if he had been conceived after endless treatments. He taught me to be a mother, he is witness to different emotions in me, he has seen me evolve and learn how to be a mother and an educator.
I was always intrigued by Aditya. A single cell in my body had grown into this inquisitive being craving for more and more knowledge; knowledge that would help him make sense of the world. He loved reading and listening to stories. He learnt to write the alphabet and the numbers on his own. He loved books and could spend hours looking at various books. As he grew, he was quick to grasp concepts and knew most of them even before they we taught at school. He had his learning obsessions. Snails, spiderman, cars, volcanoes, airplanes, cricket, dinosaurs, jelly fish, snakes, universe and solar system, nerf guns, minecraft, the list continues. He would completely immerse in a topic of interest and be obsessed with it and our home would soon fill up with drawings, toys, equipment and books on his current obsession.
He was enrolled in grade 1 when he just turned five. His teacher, also a dear friend of mine stated that he would finish grade 2 or even 3 easily as he already knows so much. This school had multi age classrooms and he was the youngest in his class. As his academic performance kept reaching new highs, he did not show growth in other areas mainly social skills and physical ability. He would find it difficult to catch a ball, but had detailed knowledge on different kinds of balls and the material they were made up of and the game for which they were used. He couldn’t run fast, but could calculate speed at which his friends ran. He would often get teased for his poor physical ability and would also be an object of ridicule among his playmates. These experiences just took him away from sports and given a choice he would want to spend all his time indoors instead to playing outside.
I have always blamed myself for not being able to nurture social skills in him. He was impatient with others, less tolerant of them and would often get into fights. Older children bullied him and used his weaknesses to the fullest. He retaliated by fighting, scratching and using anything he could to save himself. I never really understood the reasons behind his anger and often shouted at him instead of trying to see things from his perspective. He built a notion that I always supported the others and never understood him. His impatience followed by irritability and anger was also displayed during his interactions with his younger siblings and neighbourhood children. Later as he grew, he also took to bullying and ridiculing children younger than him. This behaviour always saddened me and nothing I said or did helped him see things in a different light and made me feel inept and incapable of helping him value every individual for what they are. Probably, his memories of being ridiculed and bullied were very strong and even stronger were his memories of me not empathising with him.
He was also blunt and often stated his mind without thinking of the person in front of him. Once he asked his science teacher, “Do you want my answer or the textbook answer?” at another time he stated loudly in a class, “you teachers want to decide everything for us – you don’t care if we want it or not”. Once he told me, “Only you are allowed to be angry, but not me”.
He never liked to follow rules and always maintained that rules are made for the convenience of the adults. Sleep at nine, finish your homework, eat everything served on your plate, take a bath, keep your room clean, don’t walk on public roads by yourself – don’t do this…don’t do that. This irritated him and still does. Given a chance, he would love to live a life free from all these constraints, a life which allowed him to learn on his own terms, delve deeper into topics of his interest and at times just stare at the fan aimlessly or even just play his favourite video games for the entire day.
Thus when, I saw the poster of the camp for the second time, I knew I couldn’t let this pass. This was just the right thing for him. It would open up a whole new world to him as he would live with children with various life experiences. He would learn from their experiences and get a fresh perspective about his life. Aditya too was super excited about the camp. I had sent him details over email and had asked him to read it carefully before taking a decision. I was happy that he decided to go for the camp. But I would have been okay if he decided to not go.
Questions about missing school, losing out on what was being taught at school simply didn’t bother me. Aditya hates homework and has never studied before an exam. We both have maintained that one should be able to answer a paper without revision. I was confident that if he was interested in the topics being covered at school, he would find a way to keep himself updated; infact would find time to research, watch youtube videos, read books and would find time for his assignments.
Aditya did not share much about the camp during my daily conversations with him. All he said was, “my day was good, I am having fun but I am homesick.” He decided to come back home at the end of one month of camp. He shared, “I want to come home not because I had a problem at the camp, it’s only because I miss home and just want to be at home.” Though I initially encouraged him to stay on, I realised that I needed to trust him with his decision and hence booked his return tickets.
During my visit, I had a glimpse of the journey of the campers. The children and the team were just so comfortable with each other. Everyone at Shikshantar was equal – there was no authoritative figure. I saw children live and talk freely without trying to be politically correct. Their opinions were valued and their decisions were respected. Children did not have to seek permission, but just tell what they wanted to do. They were never told what to do, but were given choices and no judgements were passed. All the campers seemed to be in control of their actions and they willingly took responsibility to complete the routine chores at the center. Everyone was just so happy!
My visit opened up a whole new world to me. I wanted to learn and understand more about, ‘how does this happen and how can I make it happen for my children?’ I decided to attend the LSUC 2017 at Bangalore. Aditya decided that he wanted to come along. That’s when I felt that this would be a great experience not only for me but my entire family. Soon we all registered for it. Our request to bring our dog Mishti along was also accepted and we were on our way to Bangalore.
Look out for Part II – My experiences at LSUC, 2017
The author Sharmila Govande is a mother to three amazing humans aged 12, 9 and 3 years, a dog and a cat. Her older kids are part of the M2 and P2 program respectively. Sharmila has been actively involved in Child Development and Education for the past 20 years as a researcher, trainer, facilitator and educator. She is also a facilitator at DLRC and currently facilitates math and theme for P2.