What my students taught me

Chintan Girish Modi

This summer, I spent a few days at the ‘Moved by Love’ gathering in Madurai in a bright, spacious retreat house, among organic farmers, filmmakers, photographers, software engineers, teachers, healers, managers, designers, all of whom had met to share our work with each other, to seek and offer a sense of community. We were hosted by the Aravind Eye Care family who run hospitals in Tamil Nadu to serve the poor.

Our first circle of sharing focused on a simple question: What inspires you? When it was my turn, I said, “My students inspire me,”

Some of the wisest things I have heard recently have come from students in my school. No wonder I love going to school, and the most exciting part is hanging out with students. The classroom certainly can be a powerful space for learning but I have often sensed more value in the stuff on the sidelines – conversations in the corridors, over lunch, in the library, over Facebook and phone calls, and of course field trips! The unstructured nature of these spaces allows many unexpected things to emerge.

A few months ago, I accompanied some of my students to the Ekatva show at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai. It was a dance drama by 16 kids from Ahmedabad slums. I was eager to know what the students felt as they watched. Poojan, one of my students, who is a brilliant dancer, said, “I really enjoyed the show. I liked the way they handled their flaws. It was good.” The conversation went on further. I wanted to know what drove him to excellence. He replied, “When you love something, you do it with your soul.” So simple, so profound.

On another occasion, I had a similar moment with Harshil, who I think of as friend and colleague rather than student. We were having a Facebook chat, and got talking about my new role in school as a facilitator of sessions on Personal Development. I was deeply struck by something he said. “In the future, you will definitely help develop amazing personalities of the children but don’t expect them to say thank you or even realize that you did something for them. Very few notice it, and even fewer will care to appreciate. You just have to be content that you were a part of their development and appreciate yourself. This is experience speaking, loads of it! Because the role of a PD teacher is 99% giving and 1% guiding, nothing of taking except something to learn.”

Someone who doesn’t know Harshil may misread this as arrogance. My response was simply gratitude, for I know where his response was coming from – a place of mutual respect and friendship. I always tell my students that they’ve been in the school much longer than I have, and that I do look to them for help. That eases the equation, and makes it truly enriching for both.

Do children really say such things? Yes, they do. It depends on how you relate to them, the space you create with them. Of course, they are not going to spout wisdom all the time. They might be confused, cruel, competitive, cacophonous, and all that. At the same time, they also have a tremendous capacity for being insightful, compassionate and generous. So much depends upon us, on whether we allow those capacities to manifest and blossom, or get in the way with our own agenda. This is what my students have taught me.

The author works at Shishuvan School, Mumbai. He can be reached at chintan.backups@gmail.com.