First of all, apologies for the long absence. Also, I know I promised a surprise, and I was supposed to host a writer-friend who was going to talk about his new novel, but I went on vacation, and then he went on vacation and somehow it didn’t sort of work out. To make up for it, here are not one but two whole disjointed rambles. Do let me know what you think in the comments and share if you like them.
Last night I dreamt I was in school, going to class to learn calculus and having a generally miserable time of it. I keep having some variation of this dream at long intervals, usually at times when I am stressed or worried or sad- dreams where I go to class and the teacher has covered so many chapters of the math book that I have never studied and have no clue how to answer in the exam and then it takes me a while on waking up to remember that I didn’t in fact need to sit for that exam again. And so it was last night, except in the dream I made a very definite decision of quitting something that obviously was against my temperament and interests and then I spent some time wondering how people would react to a school drop-out. But then I remembered– within the dream that I had in fact already done school and that I taught at a college now and was in fact a little more accomplished than my subconscious fears would have me believe.
This isn’t a post about my anxiety. The point of this anecdote is that the plus 2 years were a particularly stressful time for me. I had a great time with friends, I wrote not one but two abandoned novels, helped organize Start-of-Hogwarts-term and Halloween feasts with Little Heart Biscuits and Fish Chops and Lays, was introduced to Tolkien, disowned my friends as they kept a whole train compartment awake with their dumb charades and music and realized absolutely, irrevocably that I wanted to study English Literature in college. But the other half of it involves stress, frustration, a tremendous amount of pressure and school work that had become an almost joyless compulsion. For someone used to being a good student, it was hard to become suddenly average, or below. I made up for it by being fanatically hardworking when I finally went to college- first bench every class, library every morning, reference books loaned every week, or sometimes twice a week. But the point was, when I went to college, at least the first few months, I missed school so much it was like a constant terrible ache. And although I keep dreaming about the part of those years that I dreaded and hated, I have no regrets of having gone through that road, because it helped me form ties that has shaped who I am. Which brings me to my first half-baked inference- Sometimes, we are in the wrong places for the right reasons, or maybe we think we’re somewhere for a particular reason- to further a career goal, for instance, when you’re really there to pick up the pieces that will shape you along the way- relationships, people introducing books or music, ideas, and influences. And those are the things we carry forward. And maybe, on the whole, the processes of Life work out fine, taking you where you need to go, at the right time.
Yeah, but I’m not sure I can go back to doing it all over again, though. The nightmares are bad enough.
“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Not all goodbyes come with drums and colours or heartbreaks. Sometimes, goodbyes can happen without anyone noticing, and people carry on without noticing out of old habits till one day, they realize that they don’t speak the same language any more, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t.
And maybe they stay on, speaking different languages, feeding different stories, but staying nevertheless- out of nostalgia, or fear of the unknown or the ease of habit, or out of loyalty to the myth of permanence in a world where every moment is fleeting and temporary- including the sun which sets every evening to remind us that one day it will be a cold, dead ball of gas, having spent all its warmth in all our loves and hates and strivings for life. But we will all be long gone before that, playing out our little dreams in other worlds, not even remembering that we had once bade goodbye to life somewhere.
I wonder if it has happened before. I wonder if that’s the reason farewells feel so familiar. Perhaps we’re all a collective diaspora looking for a promised realm, tearing ourselves up to claim a piece of home somewhere. Perhaps that is the reason why we are so frightened of goodbyes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. And that leads to half-baked inference number two- Saying goodbye doesn’t mean you lost out somewhere, or you failed at holding on, adding up to your tally of lost two. You were where you were when you were meant to be, to help you grow, and now you’ve grown into a different path, and that’s quite alright. Excelsior.
I would make a really bad job at starting a cult, wouldn’t I?
And now, Bonus Ramble 3, which admittedly is a brushed up piece I wrote for a blogging contest I didn’t win, but some lovely people told me that they really enjoyed reading it, so if you’ve not already been harangued by me into reading the thing, you can read it here below.
“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”- Victor Hugo
Towards a Better World, a Better Self
Long ago, a rather inept wizard who failed all his exams at magic university and had a rather pointed aversion to being even remotely heroic made a rather profound statement about creating social change: “If you want to help people, build a big library or something somewhere and leave the door open.”[i] It is quite an obvious argument that building schools promotes education, leading to increased employment opportunities, and employment leads to lesser crimes. And that is true enough, and important too. If you have a legitimate way to earn money, then you don’t need to steal or rob or kill to feed yourself or your family. Schools enable us to physically sustain ourselves. But the importance of schools run deeper than the degrees one can list in one’s curriculum vitae.
For most of us, the school is a first look at the world outside our homes, our first lesson in interacting with people we are not related to by blood. Schools are thus a practice in socialization, and also in discipline. It makes you part of a group, of a bigger world than your home and thus doing, it opens up the whole wide world for you, while teaching you how to act or behave in it. At school, a child learns to love outside the family, to share outside the family, and to be loved back in return. It is also the place where we discover our hobbies, our interests, our talents, and thus the place where we come into our own, beginning the process of finding ourselves. For those with unhappy or abusive family histories, school thus becomes an escape route, but even for those who come from normal, functional families, it offers a chance to expand and grow into one’s own identity, and to form and maintain independent relationships. Of course, a child doesn’t learn these lessons on their own. It is the job of the teacher to not simply teach letters and numbers and chemical formulae, but also to ensure that children under their charge treat each other fairly, and when they don’t, that they learn to own the consequences of their actions. For a school is not simply a building, but a doorway, and it is our teachers who hold the key to that door. Their job is not simply to unlock it, but to walk the child through its threshold, and to teach him or her how to unlock other doors on their path. At school, a child gets to meet other people and hear other stories; he/she experiences a cross-section of the world they’ll encounter as adults and finds the tools wherewithal to navigate that world with understanding and empathy. And these are the keywords in creating a less violent world, for if we can build a world where we can empathize with others, then we are less likely to want to harm them. Less crimes equals lesser need for prisons.
In his lecture for the Reading Agency delivered at the Barbican, London on October 14, 2013, Neil Gaiman spoke about a talk in New York he attended regarding the building of a private prison. In that talk, he recalled learning that the prison industry could chart its future growth by a very simple algorithm. The need for more prison cells was directly proportional to the percentage of ten to eleven year old children who could not read.[ii] Increased literacy leads to a decrease in crime, and schools are our first line of defence against the curse of illiteracy. But literacy, as Gaiman went on to suggest in that same lecture was only a stepping stone towards true education which involves reading for pleasure. Schools teach us to read, thus enabling us to read on our own, to read beyond our text books, and thus inhabit worlds embedded in print inside our heads, for letters are like secret codes that once deciphered are the passwords to distant worlds. And by participating in these worlds, not only does the child learn empathy and understanding, but also imagination and a craving for something beyond the regular, everyday mundane world that is available to us. This imaginative craving is the basis of what makes us human, of why our ancestors made frescoes on the walls of prehistoric caves or gazed at stars or crossed dangerous seas or wondered why the apple fell to the ground. It provides the impulse to make a difference in the world that is given to us, to move forward in a positive, harmonious manner towards a better world and a better self. This craving to be something more than we are, to discover something more than we know is innate to the human spirit, but education is what fires it into action. And while it is possible to receive education outside the confines of the traditional schooling system, in most cases, by depriving a child of schooling, we deprive him/her a chance at education, and by default, a chance at discovering his true self. Schools teach us to think for ourselves- critically, analytically as well as imaginatively, and it gives us the tools and language to create those thoughts. Thinking determines how we shape our world and our future as a species. Education and self-discovery are both life-long processes, but we can safely suggest that schools jumpstart the journey. To quote Gaiman’s statement on libraries that we can perhaps equally apply to schools- schools are the pathways to freedom- “Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication.”[iii] In an ideal education system, school teaches a child to ask questions and to find answers and thus begins the journey towards wholeness- and wholeness precludes greed or anger or hate.
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Thank you for listening.
Photographs & Content © Ruchira Mandal
[i] Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Interesting Times.
Pratchett, Terry. Interesting Times. 1994. Corgi Books: London, 1995.Print. A Discworld Novel.