Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Freedom of Choicelessness

Today, I read a post on FB by an anxious parent wondering if he should enroll his young child in an expensive school, spending a lot of money for good education. I remember similar anxiety for Atreya when I first moved to Singapore. But my decision was made for me because I figured out very soon that I will never be able to afford an international school for my boy on a single salary. Anxiety had to take a back seat and I put him in the nearest neighborhood school that cost me next to nothing.

Over the years, he changed schools a couple of times but stayed in the public school system, a highly competitive and stressful environment, even by Indian standards. Sports are given lip service. Obedience and rote learning are considered virtues. Kids as young as 4 year olds are sent for tuition classes and continue to do so until they pass out from high school. 80% of kids wear glasses to read because of the lifestyle. On the positive side, infrastructure is good. Teachers are qualified and labs well-equipped. And kids are safe.

But at that time, none of this mattered. I had no choice, period.

Even when I could finally afford to move him to an International school many years later, we didn't make the move because I had figured out by then that when some doors are closed on us, we learn to open other doors by ourselves. Sometimes, not having external resources and choices is a good thing- it forces you to dig for resources hidden within you.

Atreya spent the first six years of schooling unmindful of the stress around him, mainly because I was unmindful of it. I had other things to worry about. I did try to help him with difficult concepts in maths and Hindi, but he was left to his own devices for most part.

In his secondary school, I stayed the same but Atreya changed. He became serious about his studies and started enjoying beating the system by hard work and love for what he was learning. When he passed his O levels, he broke all records of the neighborhood school by getting distinction in 7 out of 8 subjects, without any tuition of any sorts. Till last year, 4 years after he graduated from the school, his picture was hanging outside his school and his record remained unbroken (it probably is till today).

But more than this academic achievement, what makes me proud is the kind of person Atreya is today. He is intelligent, disciplined and hard-working like no one else I have seen, considerate towards others and in touch with his emotions. What he is today is partly due to the harsh environment he had to face at school and partly due to the opposite kind of environment at home.

I could use the money saved from expensive school education to travel extensively and buy a house where we lived happily for many years. Even the decision to adopt Aloka was possible because I had control over my expenses. Life lessons came along the way. He saw me struggle and work hard and enjoy my work and take care of people who worked with me, and that was perhaps the best tuition he ever got. He learned to live life without someone watching over him all the time and in the process, became responsible and independent. He traveled with me to far-off places and developed love and respect for nature and the environment.

The type of school he went to did perhaps stunt some aspects of his personality, we would never know, but what he gained is not to be scoffed at either. Could he have been a sportsman if he had attended an International school? Possibly! Could he have chosen to explore his creativity in music and art? Possibly! Would he have learned to manage his time and become disciplined there? Who knows! Would he have grown up to become a kind and thoughtful person? Who knows.

My advice to the young man worrying about his kid's schooling- just be a good dad. Engage with your kid. Show her how to to live by living a good life. Share your struggles and victories openly and often. Be kind and fair. Don't make money the counter to measure your happiness. Choose to love life and she will learn to do the same. This is the only choice worth making. All else will take care of itself.