A simple prayer

Amit Deshwal

You need power, only when you want to do something harmful. Otherwise, love is enough to get everything done. – Charlie Chaplin.

My name is Amit. It was in 2009, one year into a job after college that I decided to leave and spend time working with children instead. In school I had read books on Tagore and Tolstoy and found their understanding, the spaces they created around them for children and adults inspiring. I too wanted to start something similar for children. It’s been many years now and I spend my time with children, at a community learning space called ‘A Little Grove’, teaching and learning from them.

We, who work with children, are often confronted by questions like – How should we educate our kids? How can we make education relevant to life? What is the right environment we can give to our children? How can we equip them to deal with the world? These questions have existed from time immemorial and will be there with us for a long time to come. Over the past several centuries, different people have tried to explore these questions and have come up with different understandings and models and a lot of them have helped transform the lives of children.

  • Modern day schools provide affordable access to education to millions of children around the world. Here we have more or less a fixed curriculum and time table, with varying flexibility, that is decided by the educationists. Within the schooling system there has been an ongoing debate on curriculum, structure, control, freedom and connection with the community.
  • In places where people struggle to eke out a livelihood, children do not have easy access to schooling. Here one can see a lone teacher trying to give children the best he or she can with limited resources.
  • There are people who believe that along with academic pursuits, a child needs to engage actively and learn how to take care of oneself and one’s basic needs. One needs to grow not just by learning but by actively doing things like growing one’s own food, weaving clothes, cooking, taking care of one’s physical and mental health. Gandhiji’s Nai Taleem revolved around this idea.
  • Many people in many different parts of the world have established community learning spaces, where children and adults are free to learn from each other. These are democratic spaces where children and adults are encouraged to play an equal role in managing the space and where education is something that is ever evolving.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, there have been debates between these various approaches, alternative versus mainstream, freedom versus a disciplined pedagogy, etc., in an attempt to find one best solution for our children. I have been a witness and part of these debates and have spent months and years arguing against the schooling system where children are seen as mere consumers of a fixed curriculum and only encouraged to compete with each other.

Today, however, I feel that there is no single answer to the above questions, or that one way is better than the other or that the centre I am managing is a better solution than the school nearby. Rather, all the practices seem to have their place in this world catering to the needs of a complex structure and nothing seems better or worse. On the contrary, all these varied ways need to learn from and complement and complete each other. However, there is one common stream that goes through all of these, an undercurrent which is necessary to keep all of them alive. And it is this undercurrent, that I would want to talk about in this article. The one lesson that children have tried to teach me time and again is “how to truly love and care for all those around you”. The reason I wish to talk about it here is because I feel (and I might be wrong) that as we grow up, we forget what it is to truly love and care for those around us.

For many years I have been running this space for children on a ‘pay as you wish’ basis. People appreciate my work and often say that I am a kind and caring person. I too thought the same about myself. It was only lately that I discovered that I was as far from kindness as the stars in the sky. Every little thing that I did in a day, be it running a space for children or feeding the hungry, stemmed from my own self-cherishing desires and fears and had little to do with love and care. This realization left me shaken and the image I had built of myself disintegrated. I could no longer be under an illusion but had to find my way back to knowing what it really means to care for those around me.

I remember a small incident. There was this sweet little girl who came to our centre. She was also very adamant. If she didn’t want to do something it was difficult for us to turn her around. If forced or coerced, she would throw tantrums at little things. When confronted by arguments like she should also help, she would try to find her way out and at times start crying. I remember, how I thought I so clearly understood where she came from. I also had various techniques up my sleeve that I believed would help her. I would try being angry with her, or talk to her or even coerce her. Sometimes I ignored her, thinking there would be some change. Nothing worked.

However, one day she had a fight with another small child who was in tears. I heard them out but did not really listen to them. I had already decided who was wrong and what needed to be done. I simply ignored her for some time. Then I noticed that the kid who was hurt by her was actually talking to her, sharing food and laughing with her. And there I saw what I would call love and care. It was there right in front of me, not within me. This child empty of all knowledge, assumptions, judgments and preconceived notions was there understanding her, making friends with her, building the very foundation of trust and relationship.

I understood, that to love is to be completely, totally present to the person before you. To be still and quiet enough to understand and relate to another. I had, over the last many years, read and amassed a lot of knowledge and learnt techniques to work with children, developed different understandings on how children grow and learn, but had forgotten one thing that was truly needed, to be there for them completely, wholeheartedly and build a foundation on which eventually flowers of trust and friendship would bloom.

There is this 14-year-old girl, Ramya, who comes to our centre. She lives with her mother who works as a house help. She would come late to the centre and when asked she would say she had a late breakfast or that she got up late. I would talk to her calmly, trying to make her understand how important it is for her to be more disciplined and take her studies seriously, that if she works hard, she will be able to clear her tenth board exams. Her interest in her studies kept wavering. One day I gave a simple task to the children. They had to write and tell others how they spent their day. Everyone gave their version and it was more or less similar till this girl’s turn came. She would get up at 5 am and before coming to the centre at 9 am finish housework at two places, help her mother iron clothes and do her daily chores. I listened to her with a lump in my throat. I had known her for three years and yet hardly knew anything.

Over the years I have tried to change myself. I try to be there with the children, listen to them, understand and make good friends with them. It’s been many months since lockdown began. The centre is closed. I began taking classes for the children on phone and online. Ramya and I are now good friends. She says she wants to get her degree but more importantly wishes to start her own tailoring and clothes designing shop. She makes sure that she has her mother’s phone ready so that she can attend the classes. Her enthusiasm has increased and I am hopeful that she will one day achieve her dreams.

It feels good to see how truly caring can make a huge difference.

I was asked to put down my thoughts and answers to some of the questions posed above on education and its relevance to life. I had read somewhere that Buddha was once asked by someone, ‘What is the difference between you and me?’ He replied, ‘There is no difference. Just that you are sleeping and I am awake.’ My simple prayer would be to help us be awake, completely present in the moment to the being before us. If we are there, then it doesn’t really matter if we are teaching in a school, or a community space or in a small room in a slum. Love and care will flow through us effortlessly and the best that can happen will happen. We would create an oasis, a healing and learning space for all around us. This alone will suffice as an answer to all of the questions. This alone would be my simple prayer.

The author spends his time working with children and adults at a small community learning space called A Little Grove (www.alittlegrove.in). He loves making music, handcrafting things including different types of musical instruments. He is currently exploring the art of wood whittling and carving. He can be reached at [email protected].

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