That sees all forms
But does not see itself.
This is how your mind is.
Its light penetrates everywhere A
nd engulfs everything,
So why does it not know itself?
One of those nondescript days at work. Nothing unusual. This morning, I feel emotionally flat and pale, like the damp, discordant notes from the rusty, slacking strings of an untuned guitar … The sameness which I experience today is discouraging. Children scramble around towards no apparent destination in unnameable excitement.
Adolescent kids always seem so sprightly outdoors. What happens to them when they are indoors in a classroom? I wonder. Is there a problem with the classroom structure? Or maybe they have a high need for entertainment …
‘What are we doing today? May we not do the workbook today? Pleease?’ plead six voices in effortless harmony. ‘Of course! Whatever you want!’ I reply, tongue-in-cheek, but they know what I actually mean.
I walk into a class staring at the faded, much-used red-oxide floor. The same six children on the floor with feet outstretched under strange blue chowkis, closed books and wide-open eyes, are waiting for me to settle down. ‘I see your chappals outside are not kept properly; you have two seconds to arrange them, ’ I mock-threaten them. They run out and organize their chappals, mischievously displacing mine. Am I to get angry and establish my seriousness or take this childish behaviour in my stride? I smile and let it be. But it is not really over in me.
What will this mean in the long term? They will end up not taking all this seriously! I must react. No. That’s not right. Argh! Doubts and counter-arguments surface … Am I being dishonest? Must I tell them how I feel? No. I don’t have to lay bare everything. That would be irrelevant and unprofessional!
These conversations, all this inner drama, remain invisible to the students and others, and often even to myself. The convoluted thoughts, longwinded arguments, quick exasperations and, at times, deeply cynical or fragile feelings, constantly chasing one another, criss-crossing or co-existing in irreconcilable dissonance, are often invisible.
It is not very difficult to guess the inner complexities of other adults’ minds. Most often I assume they must be similar to mine, in structure at least, if not in content. Behind all those rationalizations as a teacher, adult and colleague, there stands poised the struggle with some very basic confusions and conflicts. Much of this is unspoken and sometimes underlying (maybe even driving?) many rational discussions amongst people. But we often expect children to make their inner lives visible to themselves and to us. Their inner drama is more available for our adult gaze, it seems.
Something about our daily interactions with children brings to the fore some struggles within, which may otherwise lie submerged in a seeming selfpossession that occludes awareness. These moments of talking with oneself so often bring all those happily hung, photo-framed images of being contained, mature and free crashing down to earth, shattering our delusions about self and life. And this is why I treasure teaching and working with children.
Me versus my image of me
‘Uncle, he can’t run fast only. I came first!’ a six-year-old triumphantly shares on reaching me. ‘That’s okay. We all run at different speeds. No need to compare, ’ I respond wisely. Minutes after this, a group of children run up to announce, ‘Our coordinator last year—she was so much fun!’ ‘I am sure, ’ I reply as their current coordinator, in deliberate cheer, taking an awkward glance at the mild discomfort in me, a reaction that quickly surges ahead of my awareness. We part ways after some chit-chat, but I am left thinking. How did they mean that? Did they mean their current coordinator is not good enough? I hope they were not comparing teachers! Must I clarify with them? I feel a flash of connection with the six-year-old and his keenness to win the race.
Who I think I am and what I need to be
‘I am afraid of what others will think of me, ’ says a twelve-year-old in a dialogue class. Poor thing! She must be so insecure … What others think of me: this one’s a universal. Both children and adults seem to relentlessly worry about it. I am not so afraid of what others think of me, I tell myself with relief. The same weekend, for no apparent reason, I find myself struggling with what I think of myself. Am I good enough at what I am doing? Am I genuinely inquiring and self-critical? Am I capable of quiet and awareness?
‘Why must everything in dialogue class end up in insecurity or feelings or something like that?’ an irked thirteen-year-old protests in a dialogue session. ‘Not necessary. Where do you think they must end up?’ I ask, generating no useful reply. ‘If you think you have solved the problem of insecurity completely, then we won’t talk about it, ’ says my colleague. Silence prevails. Are these issues and questions age-inappropriate? Is there a discomfort in looking at insecurity? Or is it a matter of low stamina for such dialogue? But they do sometimes have original and insightful things to say … A sense of urgency to solve the problem of insecurity lingers, remaining for a few days. Then I receive a call from my investment agent. There is some confusion with where he has put my savings and even before I realize it, insecurity floods my mind momentarily, with the fear of losing the money. Fat lot of insight I have on the nature of insecurity!
I am important too
‘He doesn’t like me, Uncle. He was teasing me! That’s why I hit him, ’ sobbed an eleven-year-old in anguish, after a petty skirmish with his friend. ‘You don’t know that. He didn’t even speak with you. You are making it up in your head, ’ I reply firmly. What a high need for appreciation and acceptance from people this child seems to have! Over the next two days, my students show consistently low interest in writing in class. One even mutters under her breath that the class is boring. We have the usual talk that such a situation warrants, but my mind has embarked on a slippery emotional downhill. How can they be so uninterested? Is it the activity that they are bored with or is it me? Is there a lack of relationship, or a general apathy specific to this group? No easy answers are forthcoming, but one question opens many doors: What is this need for appreciation and acceptance that I suffer from?
Me in control
‘Schools are not meant to be nice places. They make teachers very powerful. Teaching is a socially sanctioned strategy to mould children, where a few adults exercise control over children’s lives on behalf of parents and society, ’ a precocious student once commented. ‘Interesting analysis, but that need not be the case everywhere, no?’ I remember telling him. Is his clever commentary even partly true? What frightens us when children behave in ways that we don’t have control over? Unsupervised leisure time for students, their questions, their unpredictable behaviours, sometimes even their childish mischief, all seem to have some capacity to threaten us as soon as they are interpreted as our loss of control. Are we such frightened, fragile control-freaks? Must we decide so much for children? But surely children cannot decide everything for themselves … there will be utter chaos and indecision in the school! But how are we so sure? The same voice vehemently argues on.
Many such examples compete and tumble down when I rummage through my mind’s attic, but after a point it is all mere storytelling, I suppose. While living and relating with others, especially children, the mirror is constantly held up, though I don’t always seem to be paying attention. Sometimes, the worry about having to be attentive obscures all the things that are clearly in sight! This recurrent tension and mental wrestling, though not a deep distinguishing feature of my work in school, seems to remind me that I must always slow down, watch and at times look out for questions that lie at every corner, waiting to leap on me unprepared. But all this is not my personal neurosis, I hope. I am sure all teachers go through this. Don’t they?
What must I lay bare about myself and what must I expect of others? What must I talk about with children and their parents? What must I not talk about? What must I deem important and what must I overlook in my relationship with others? Such questions are a large part of my thinking and living. When students resist dialogue, I think they are not interested in inquiry. When a parent wants the features of this alternative education and not the questions that drive it, I think I am being used as a mere service provider. When parents are over-anxious about their own child, I tend to become righteously angry about their self-centredness. Are these unwarranted judgements, idiosyncratic preoccupations or valid questions? Maybe experience will change everything … maybe all questions and confusions will clarify themselves in time … I hope. But several years of teaching have freed me from very little of this inner tussle! Work-in-progress, I suppose.
It definitely helps to talk outside of oneself, to others. Some of these anxieties dwindle to nothing on speaking with my teacher friends, some of whom have been teaching for over twenty years now. Their questions seem similar, though of varied shades and manifestations. None claim freedom from any of the preoccupations that dominate my particular brain. However, experience has taught them awareness of these recurrent psychological automechanisms. Awareness also seems to have taken care of the dysfunction these questions and conflicts may potentially cause in one’s daily life. But is it possible to be completely free? Or is freedom just a matter of degree?
Talking with children is a constant reminder that we—children and adults—are all of the same kind but vary in degree. We are similar in our conflicts, in our being and our psychological lives. And talking with adult colleagues makes it evident that we are all similar in our professional questions and philosophical moorings. Maybe this is more so in a deliberately flat, non-hierarchical, teacher-run school, where regular dialogue is a constant leveller. Although dialogue can churn up an acute sense of difference, it mostly eases the isolation. It seems that we are all in the same boat on frequently turbulent waters.
But some people do seem wiser ... and absolute equality is a myth. No structure by itself can solve the problem of this divisive mind … the voice speaks again within.