Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The answer to 'What does he do after school?'

I've just enrolled Nino for his first 'class'. Yes, Nino, the two-and-half-year old. Before you gasp and faint, the classes will start only when he is four. Yes, one-and-half-years later. And I was told I am late for the registration, but my number was duly noted and I will be informed when it is time. 'Do I need to follow this up?' I asked, worried about my lack of networking skills in a city that runs on the word-of-mouth. 'You can, if you want to, but you don't need to.' Aah, polite slap in the face. Ofcourse you silly woman, you must call. But don't dare suggest that calling frequently is what gets you admission in the first place. Sigh.

There was a time when I protested loudly against mothers who sent their kids to 'classes' - drawing, reading, science, puppetry, phonetics, music, applied math - not tuitions, but extra-curricular stuff. Most of them do it out of herd mentality - last year, mental maths was all the rage in small-town Ahmedabad, and every kid I knew was at some of the other Hawaiian-name sounding classes. (This year I'm split between chess and art. I'll let you know the poll results soon.) There are also classes that let children do as many puzzles as they want, and for every sport under the sun or done by the neighbour - tennis, swimming, cricket, football. For the girls, there's kathak and bharatnatyam. Most of the time, it's because, heaven help us, if the kids are at home and have to be entertained, we'll go nuts.

My parents never entertained me and my sister. Though we never got bored, I believe there's a higher meaning to boredom. It's the space that allows you to innovate (ketchup and rice becomes bloody rice and you become the monster set loose), to create (ever wondered if the person who made sheep out of cotton stuck on a toilet roll really intended to make wooly sheep), to explore (cobwebs, forbidden magazines, the ant-hill below Mum's favourite pot of greens), to find out what we truly enjoy. There's a point to some idle time - and that point is not education.

Moreover, do the kids really like the classes? I doubt the parents have asked that question. So and so has sent her son/daughter and he/she is cracking math like a calculator. Or all his/her friends are going. Or it's a great way to break into that social circle that we haven't managed to so far. Some, like my sister-in-law, enrol kids because they believe such courses can be enriching. There's drawing, cursive writing, science and chess. And yes, he's five, going-on-six. Just some months back there was swimming as well. My mother-in-law rants and raves, in her quiet voice. Stop, she says, let him be. The sister-in-law's arguments are that the son not being the outdoor-sy kind, she'd rather that he go to these classes than watch tv or play with his PSP. And then the fact that the kid really enjoys all that he learns. Point heard. Our civic infrastructure has left us with no open grounds to play - no thick neem trees to climb. To discover the joys of swinging on a swing made from deflated rubber tyre tubes. Children can't be left by themselves in public areas. Every other person could be a potent pervert, a child molestor. We were literally kicked out of our homes in the evening. 'Go get some fresh air.' We don't even have that today.

Anyway, so this class that Nino's been enrolled for, is for phonetics. You know, a says aaa, b says baa, and so on and so forth. So that Nino learns to pronounce his mother's mother-tongue properly and drops his father's mother-tongue influences somewhere in between. No, no, the real reason I've fallen for it is that phonics is proven to help children be able to read faster - not read fast as per kmph speed, but read from books at an early age. Being able to read my own story book was such a huge high for me, that I still remember when I started to read. No one taught me phonics - in fact, my first brush with the Queen's Language was through my granddad who only reprimanded me in Shakespearean quotes while he showered affection in Tamil. But I remember my mother taking me to book-fairs when I was six or seven, leaving me in the children's section while she went looking for her books. And when she's come back, hours later (she's as crazy about books as I am, maybe more) - I'd have a single book in my hand. 'That's all you picked?' she'd asked, miserable that I had been able to choose only a single book. 'No ma,' I'd say. 'I've finished reading the rest.'

It's true, even if I do say it, glancing around furtively: I read fast. How fast? Very fast. My parents never sent me to a speed-reading class. I just started reading very quickly because I wanted to read more. I was allotted maybe an hour of extra reading, so I wanted to finish more than one book. I'd take books to the dining table, to the loo, hide under the covering with a torch-light. Even hide them in the school textbooks, since I'd already read that science chapter as well. When I was to be punished, they took my books away. So I read labels, social studies notebooks, even my elder sister's science textbooks. My hunger for reading drove me to do what I do now for a living - editing. I read. And then I chop, clean, and layout. Like I would want to have found it. I remember being told very politely but firmly, in a book-fair again, that I needed to pick a book and leave. 'This is not a library,' they said.

Nino loves books. I've been reading to him since he was six months old. And he's really taken to it. From touch and feel books to picture books to story books to alphabet books to I spy books to wildlife magazines - he loves looking and hearing me/Nino's Dad read everything. Sometimes even the newspaper. These days, he's been showing an interest in the alphabet. When I read something, he asks me, 'where is it written?' 'Is that a g?' (somehow, he always wants to find out a 'g'). I know very soon, he'll be ready to learn his a, b, c. And I want him to be able to enjoy the high of reading his own book, inbetween Mumma and Dadda as we read at bedtime. To be astonished at how the written word is as magical as the picture that depicts it. The grace of the curves in the alphabet. The majestic strokes. The welcoming punctuations. Because I know he wants to. He picks his books and 'reads' them, the words memorised after having read them over and over again, to his teddy and the caregiver. And he begs to buy books. Always, books.

That's why the phonics class. There are very few in Ahmedabad, this is the only one this side of town. And the waiting list is a good couple-of-years. Will he like it? I don't know. I do know that if he does not, he will not be forced to live this dream of mine - because I am secure in the knowledge that he will eventually take to reading the way I did. I never went to a phonics class and my pronunciations are perfect because of the many ruler-raps the nuns at school administered on my knuckles. Also because I love the feel of words in my mouth, the way my tongue teases them out. The high of a good, long word, pronounced in a particular way. Creating beauty, everytime you speak or read.

The sister-in-law called to inform me about these classes. She had missed out for her son, and thought I shouldn't let my opinion on classes, hamper Nino's chances. 'I've already enrolled,' I said, waiting to hear a jab about how I've given in to the 'vice of education' like I often claim she and other parents have. She merely smiled. 'Good.'

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