Too Cool for School: What I Learned from Being Homeschooled in Mumbai

POV

Too Cool for School: What I Learned from Being Homeschooled in Mumbai

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I

t’s a routine Monday morning in suburban Mumbai: All the schoolchildren have been dropped off for the day, and people are grudgingly crawling to work through hellish traffic. Then a 10-year-old girl and her mother appear on the footpath. The girl isn’t late for school; in fact, she isn’t even wearing a uniform. She fumbles with a large map in front of her, periodically making notes on it, while the mother talks about which eminence that particular road was named for and what he or she did.

You might think this scene odd, but this was an average Monday morning geography lesson for me.

Yup, my childhood was a little odd. Most kids complain about their grades, their history homework, their annoying PT sir. I complained about being taught embroidery and having to draw the entire history of ancient Rome in charcoal (in my defence, the nasty stuff was impossible to control and got everywhere). But most annoying of all was the question posed by countless annoying aunties: “Which school do you go to?”

I was homeschooled by my mother since the age of seven, when she pulled me out of a school system with which she had grown disillusioned. It was an unconventional choice that caused great consternation to well-meaning adults and busybody relatives alike. Their questions were endless. “What about exams?” “How do you know that you’ve passed?” “Who even teaches you?” “Where are your friends?”

Children, on the other hand, were more forgiving. They bounced up and down with glee at the idea and told me I was so lucky – I could wake up whenever I wanted! I could watch TV whenever I wanted! No tuition! This was not entirely true.

Having never dealt with exams before, there was a steep learning curve with long hours of soul-crushing tuition that made absolutely no sense to me.

My mother followed a system that encouraged integrated and holistic learning through music, painting, drawing, as well as practical skills. On an average school day at my desk, we built igloos out of sugar cubes (I ate them all and got sick) when studying world geography. We travelled to obscure places in India such as the source of the Godavari river in Nashik and the Goecha La pass in Sikkim. I learnt basic math through knitting as I saw the rows of stitches increasing in a way similar to multiplication.

This was all fine and dandy, but I still had to “study” like other school kids – and of course, I hated it. I wasn’t allowed computers and mobile phones for the longest time, and movies were reserved only for Sundays. I did not like the copious numbers of essay and creative writing I had to do, and hated multiplication tables on principle.

Unfortunately, I only realised how easy I had it when the infamous board exams were upon me. I was registered at the National Institute of Open Schooling, one of the largest distance-learning programmes in the world. Once again, I was just a puppet of the system.

Now having bland government-issue textbooks and very little time, all the fun and play was sucked out of learning, leaving me spending hours hunched over at my desk – the very thing my parents were trying to avoid in the beginning. Having never dealt with exams before, there was a steep learning curve with long hours of soul-crushing tuition that made absolutely no sense to me. I had to learn exactly how to write papers only so I could ace them – not because there was any learning to do there – undoing my parents’ efforts to free me from the scourge of “mugging”. To those who deal with this from the very beginning of their schooling… mad respect, yo.

Now having bland government-issue textbooks and very little time, all the fun and play was sucked out of learning, leaving me spending hours hunched over at my desk – the very thing my parents were trying to avoid in the beginning.

Today, the legitimate information available in India about homeschooling has increased, and people no longer react with disbelief when you tell them you don’t attend a regular school. As a child, I never actually used the word “homeschool” when trying to explain things, because nobody knew what it meant. Today, I’m often pleasantly surprised by an understanding reaction.

At 18, I’ve just managed to clear my 12th boards through the NIOS, but was it worth it? Am I better off for not having attended school like so many of my peers? It’s hard to say.

Spending 10 years of my life studying in solitude has made me naturally reclusive and most comfortable in my own company. When I was younger, there were the building kids with whom I had grown up, and the kids that let me play cricket with them in the evenings, but the gulf in our day-to-day experiences meant I couldn’t relate to anyone a great deal. I didn’t leave the house if I could help it, I made excuses, and stopped meeting people, which was a pretty great recipe for social anxiety.

But I also like to think that homeschooling has given me gifts I might not have received, had I been a product of the rote-learning factory that is the Indian education system. Under my mother’s tutelage, I learned to be oriented, introspective, empathetic, and creative. I can be very passionate if I want to be. Perhaps cramming for unit tests every month and breaking down with exam anxiety three times a year wouldn’t have permitted this degree of personal growth.

I know most people graduate the 12th grade with just one question on their minds – Science, Commerce, or Arts? I’m lucky to have had a different experience. My exams being over now, I can honestly say I’m exhausted. It was intense and sudden, and I’m relieved it’s over. But I’m certain I’m not even half as relieved as people who have been in school all their lives.

Ultimately, we all have had different experiences that shape us, and eventually, each one of us will get to decide how we move forward.

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