Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Excellence makes NO excuses

Aliya (see picture) is one of the sharpest and most hardworking students of my class. She is an exceptional leader. Above all, she is tenacious and raises her bar every time we require her to. Considering how most parents are in Shivaji Nagar, I had assumed her parents would be well educated to have trained not only Aliya but also their other two daughters well. I had assumed that they would be financially well off to afford education for all their three daughters in private schools or colleges. My visit to her house today proved me wrong.

I had never visited Aliya's house because I always prioritized other parents over Aliya's  considering her parents' and her own investment in her education was high. I was at Mehfooz's house when he told me that Aliya lives in the neighbourhood. I told him to take me to her house after I had met his parents.

He took me down the pathway to the street bordering the garbage dumping ground, which is  the largest in Mumbai. The stench was appalling. The lane kept getting narrower until we finally reached Aliya's house. Unlike many of my students who live in pucca houses with asbestos roofs, Aliya's house had walls and roofs made of asbestos sheet.  I removed my sandals at the doorstep to enter her house. My foot fell into a puddle as I took the first step into her house. At that moment, I realized her house had no flooring. The walls were so thin that you could hear one neighbour's television and the other neighbour's conversation. The house had minimal lighting and no air circulation.

I saw Aliya sitting on a mat on the floor and studying while her father was lying down on an old bed, that was in no better condition than the house itself.  Her father  was dressed in an old torn towel and a t-shirt while Aliya was still in her uniform. Unlike the houses of my other students, there was no storage space except a rusted metal cupboard. There were very few utensils and almost no crockery. There was no bath or toilet in the house. Considering the size of the house, I assumed only two members would fit on the bed while the remaining three would have to sleep on the uneven floor using a carpet laid out on a plastic sheet as their bed.

As I spoke to Aliya and her father, I discovered that her father had diabetes due to which his foot was in a pain. His medicines cost him Rs.1200-1500 in a month. As a result of his pain, he couldn't work with the same intensity he used to. Aliya's mother contributed as much to the household as her father, but even then they earned only Rs.12000. In Rs.12000,  they managed the cost of their daughters' education, utilities, medical expense, travel and groceries.

Despite all their constraints, her father spoke with great pride about his three daughters and his intention of sending each of them to college. He said he will do everything for his children's education because it is the most important gift he can give to them. He spoke with great interest about my own background. I shared with him stories of my sister's and my own education and work.  He urged me to stay in education and continue helping other children like Aliya. In the meanwhile, Aliya had forced me to eat something saying "Bhaiyya, you have come to my house the first time and it does not look good if you don't have something."

I was having a discussion after school with a group of my class, of which Aliya is the leader. Each student had to share a story that inspired them to work hard or work for the good of others. While other students spoke about incidents, Aliya spoke about her father. He had started working in the villages of West Bengal at the age of 8. He never went to school. However, he was one of the wisest and most hardworking persons she knew. Unlike other fathers in Shivaji Nagar, he did not want to get them married. He only wanted them to do what he couldn't - study and work in a comfortable job. I realized the respect and pride was mutual.

I had tears in my eyes after I started my journey to return home. I should have visited Aliya's house not because Aliya needed it but because I needed it. If Aliya can be excellent despite all the hardships, I certainly have no excuse to be mediocre with the comforts that I enjoy. Excellence makes no excuses.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Raising the Bar

I have been thinking a lot more about the year with my students in school. My vision for them is to leave them with a sense of independence so that they can drive their own actions everyday to become better people, regardless of how good or how bad their next teacher is. I want them to be people who go to a college, work honestly and contribute to their family, community and country. I want them to be people who are critical thinkers and strong speakers who can differentiate between right and wrong. I want them to be open to new ideas, culture and people.

I started on the right note - setting clear norms in the classroom and creating a common language among the kids. I can see the difference in the class with things being much better than they were this year - both in terms of lessons and in terms of classroom culture. However, being better is not enough. My children have to be excellent.

For being excellent, I have to change the tone from one that is negative to one that is positive. I have to change the culture from being reward and consequence driven to one that is self driven. My children should start doing things because they believe it is the right thing to do - not because of the fear of consequences or the love of rewards or recognition. My children should do things for the love of learning - learning that will help them walk on new paths and move to a world that is full of opportunities. For this, my children need to be consistently managed, but at the same time, they also need to be deeply invested.

I am fairly clear about what next steps I will take to move a step closer towards excellence. That is my own journey. While I know the path they must walk upon and I can show it to them, I cannot force them to walk on it. No outside force can lead to lasting change. Only small steps taken by their own choices can make change meaningful and permanent. While I know what they need to do, they need to tell me how they want to do it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is so holy about matrimony?

I live with a high degree of objectivity in most everyday aspects of life. On the other hand, I also live with a high degree of romanticism about certain things -  nature, friendship, purpose and poetry. Marriage falls somewhere in between the two where the lines of romanticism and objectivity meet.

On one side there is romantic love. It is unconditional and selfless. It does not have an ounce of materialism but tonnes of spirituality. It is organic, flowing and boundless.

On the other side, there is a 'ritualistic project' that has an objective of showcasing  the union of two families to the world, or at least those who they know in the world, on a scale that appropriately projects the image of the two families. Henceforth, I will call this project a marriage for the ease of reference.

Being five months away from my own marriage, I am facing a tough act juggling the two - my firm belief in romantic love and the 'ritualistic project' that is my marriage itself. I am inherently biased towards the former because of its appeal to my subjective spiritual self and biased against the latter because of its lack of sound reason. My family thinks otherwise, which means I have to constantly check the weight I assign to my beliefs in making choices for the ceremony itself.

Some say the wedding day is one of the biggest days of our lives. It is a day when the fate of two families are intrinsically bound with each other for the rest of their lives. We will tell stories from this day for the rest of our lives. However, is an Indian marriage actually focused on us - the bride or the groom? Again these proponents of a traditional marriage would yes. I differ in my views.

The actually ceremony itself is a one to two hour long ritual that does not require anyone except the bride, groom and their parents, along with a priest and some basic ritualistic material. If the believers of traditional Indian weddings  were right, then they would stop there. The wedding would still be the 'biggest day of our life', stories of which we could share for years to come.

However, we complicate matters a little - just a little. Since it is the 'biggest day of our life', we need to look good. To look good, we need fancy clothes. With fancy clothes, we need jewellery. Since its a marriage, not any but only authentic gold or diamond jewellery would do. To capture these moments for life, we need a photographer. Now that a photographer is going to be hired, we need to ensure our make up is professionally done, so all our flaws are artificially concealed - not that we look hideous but it is important to look perfect.

It is not only the biggest day of our lives but also our parents (probably because I may be their only son or daughter). In order to share their 'happiness', they need to celebrate with others. We need to call everyone whose wedding they ever attended. Phone and e-mail are impersonal - we need to make invitation cards that will be personally handed over to each and every guest.

We need to book a venue that can seat all our guests. Since they are going to be with us for a few hours, we need to serve them food. To make the atmosphere feel like one of a celebration, we need to decorate the venue - again only real flowers can adorn such an important gathering.

We don't stop at just the  marriage - there is a reception, sangeet, mehandi, cocktail party, bachelor's party - among other things. Yes, we need to click a picture with whoever was present at the wedding. Yes, we need to announce our love story to the world by distastefully dancing to the most cliched love songs that are played at every wedding. Yes, we need the world to see how henna is put on our hands.  Yes, we need to get drunk and dance with random relatives. It is after all "the biggest day of our lives." Not really - they are now the "biggest days of our life."

Logistically, we require money and time for everything we choose to do. The money we spend could be used for many other useful things - like buying a house, a comprehensive insurance plan, higher education or a rejuvenating holiday. While these things may not bring us lasting happiness, they will at least improve our personal well-being in the long run. If we have enough for our own needs, rather than spending it on a marriage, aren't we better off helping people in need? On the other hand, it is also probable that the money we spend is not even our own but borrowed, but we will borrow because it is the 'biggest day of our lives'. The alternate use of time is something I don't even need to get into - but think about everything we could do in 3 complete months of man hours given back to us.

We are social animals and we need to live within the norms of the society. We need to share our happiness with others. However, is there no other way to do it in a manner that is more meaningful? Is the magnitude of the celebration worth the hype? Is it truly the biggest day of our lives?

No, marriage is not the biggest day of our life. The logical argument to this is as follows. If marriage is the biggest day of our life, what about the day we found love? What about the day we have our first child? What about the day we lose a loved one? Another way of looking at it could be that if things go wrong on the day of our marriage, would we mourn the day we got married as we would celebrate every anniversary? If our marriage fails, will not the biggest day of our life become the biggest mistake of our life?

Marriage is a means to an end, which is a union that is socially and legally compliant. In our endeavour to live up to our own societal image, we unnecessarily scale up and complicate this act of compliance. Instead of celebrating everyday of our lives together after the marriage, we make a big deal of this one day and spend the rest of our lives reliving its memories.

Happiness is nothing but our achievement minus our expectations. If the difference is positive, there is happiness, otherwise there is regret. The very nature of human happiness is such that it can never be attained. We may be happy for a few moments or days after attaining a goal, a milestone or a materialistic possession, but eventually we will start craving for something bigger, better or newer. Think about the last time a new cell phone gave us a lasting high. A marriage is something very different, yet the high it gives us is similar to that of a new cell phone. How can one spend so much time, effort and resources on something whose effects on our personal well being and happiness are ephemeral?

 A marriage is full of materialism where as love is spiritual. A marriage is all about pleasing the ego - our own and that of others - where as love is selfless. A marriage is governed by the norms set by the world but love is governed by the voice of the heart. A marriage is a tangible event, love is an unending journey. A marriage, in its current form in India, can never be a celebration of something as pure as love. At the most, it is only a willfully, forcefully or ignorantly accepted contradiction of love.

PS: This is not an account of my own experience. However, parts of it may be true and applicable to my own case. Please read with discretion and focus on the intent rather than actions.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Letter to Humanity

Dear Humanity,
Congratulations. You have successfully shifted gears in the journey towards self-destruction. The events of the last few weeks have absolutely convinced me that there is nothing much we can do to slow things down. You have adopted a multi-pronged approach in ensuring we moving faster towards the goal of annihalation of our race. Whether it is conflict over a piece of land (in Gaza and Ukraine), whether it is fighting for religious supremacy (the Shia-Sunni war in Iraq and the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria) , whether it is killing for power over civilians (in Syria, Egypt, Somalia and Sudan), whether it is demonstrating the superiority of the male gender (rapes in India, including the rape in school) and whether it is carelessness in handling deadly epidemics and their carriers (Ebola, MERS, screw up - for the lack of a better word- by CDC), you have done it all. Like an icing on the cake, the collateral damage of your endeavours has even included the death of 298 people on a commercial aircraft that was hit by an unknown missile.

I am not saying I know who is right and who is wrong. I am not saying I know the answers to your problems. I am only wondering about your actions in response to what has happened. No matter what the truth is, nothing justifies the death of thousands of people because of your deliberate choices. I am disgusted but no longer shocked at the way you are responding to these problems.

Your actions keep reminding me that the problem is of an epidemic proportion. Your choices keep sapping the optimism that I have about the world changing for the good. It is hard to swim against the current of negativity to stay afloat in this battle for survival.

As a teacher, I praise my students for their correct choices and chastise them for their wrong ones. I spend hours teaching them the benefit of imbibing and acting with values as well as advantages of learning to act in a peaceful and orderly way. I do this in the hope that they will develop the wisdom to filter out all the negative stimuli that their world is filled with. I do this in the hope they will become a ray of light in the darkness that engulfs them.

However, for everything going wrong, there are somethings going right, that are worth celebrating. Everyday in the school, I see acts of speaking the truth, showing kindness and care, demonstrating self-control against provocation, leading by example and taking a blow for the team, winning with humility and losing gracefully. I see friendship. I see love. These moments are all worth cherishing and holding on to.

If I observe with equanimity, I know there are many more positive moments than negatives ones in the day. It is about what you allow to get to you. I may not always be the candle to light up a dark room, but I can always be the mirror that reflects it. After all, darkness is nothing but the absence of light.

Yours truly,
The Illuminator

PS: Here is some great advice I read in an article on  being positive:

  • Remember that there are two kinds of pain: pain that hurts and pain that changes you. 
  • Everything in life is temporary. 
  • Remember that true happiness begins to arrive only when you stop complaining about your problems and you start being grateful for all the problems you don’t have. 
  • You can’t make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain. 
  • You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path. And it’s worth it. So if you’re going to try, go all the way.
  • Do what makes you happy and be with whoever makes you smile, often. 
  • You might not end up exactly where you intended to go, but you will eventually arrive precisely where you need to be. 
  • When you feel like quitting, remember that sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right. Sometimes you have to go through the worst, to arrive at your best.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

What I learnt from Master Shifu

Entry two - 5th July 2014

I had the first movie time of the year in school. I showed my kids the movie "Kungfu Panda", which they absolutely loved. They have come to realize that movies are no longer just fun time. They will have to think and they will have to write. At the bare minimum, they will have to apply the skills they learn in comprehension and listening, they will have to make connections between the movie and their own life and they will have to think about values of the classroom every time they watch a movie.

After the movie was over and we finished discussing the characters and their qualities, the big idea and the examples of values shown in the movie, we moved on to discussing what we could learn from it. I asked my students to write it in their diary so that we could share it with the class. And as is the case with every time they write their diary, I write my own blog.

Being a teacher, what I learned from Kungfu Panda is the teacher can have no favourites. Master Shifu once had a favourite student called Tai Lung (the leopard). He was so dear to him that he raised him with the dream of becoming the dragon warrior (a super duper awesome Kungfu practitioner). However, when the moment came, Tai Lung realized that he was not the one who would wear the crown. He couldn't accept the reality of being deprived from the honour. His arrogance turned into anger. His anger into hatred. His hatred into violence of the highest order, so much so that he had to be put in solitary confinement. He escaped to return to Master Shifu to seek his revenge. Fortunately, in this case, fate favoured the truthful and brave Po who helped Shifu defeat Tai Lung.

As a teacher, I can have no favourites. The favouritism could forever boost the ego of the student to the level of arrogance. This arrogance could further lead to many negative emotions in their minds which will take them away from their primary goal. Moving away from their primary goal will only cause further negativity in their minds. The favouritism, thus, will send students on the path of self destruction instead of encouraging them to do better.

I get scary reminders in class itself, when my students place their self above their team and their egos above their goals. They spend undue amounts of energy and time on quarreling over petty issues instead of utilizing them on work.

Sumaiya and Mehak, the two leaders who represent the class in front of the school and  handle the role of Central Ministers, acted in a manner that led to the loss of a beautiful opportunity for their class today in the Science exhibition. They were so dejected that they simply gave up on each other and the competition. I was saddened to see such a weak display of values by the leaders of the class. Clearly, I have not held Sumaiya, Mehak and the rest of my class to the same expectations in class, which is why they couldn't demonstrate leadership and teamwork when they were put to the test.

I have to learn from Master Shifu's example, give my kids their dragon scroll and show them what they can truly become. There is no secret ingredient, only the truth within them.