What My Kids Really Take Home From School
By Swati Apte
My kids and I are accompanying my husband on a pilgrimage: a visit to his boarding school. It has been 25 years since he graduated and yet, memories of his time there evoke in him a great joy. He takes us around to all of his old haunts and tells and retells stories of his cricketing exploits and boys’ hostel escapades. He introduces us to his old teachers, thrilled to see some of them still there. As we walk around the grounds, he keeps repeating to our children that all he has become is due to this school.
Later, we sit together in the dining hall, watching my husband relish the lunch (which, like all hostel food, only tastes good with a large dollop of nostalgia). I ask the kids what they think about their own time at school. It is almost the end of the academic year and I am curious to hear how they feel they have grown.
My son tells me he has become a stronger reader and is now really good at fractions. My daughter feels she has improved a lot at swimming and is also happy that she now knows all of the states of India by heart. I am of course delighted that all those hours in school are converting into at least some small strides in literacy, numeracy, geography and fitness. But I am intrigued that these specific skills – of all the things they have learned – remain the most-valued life lessons of the year gone by.
Our son was struggling with his reading earlier in the year. As his friends made progress and he straggled, he drew increasingly despondent. Soon, his teachers found him avoiding books altogether. He would find excuses to miss the reading hour, disappearing off to the nurse’s office with imagined aches. At home, each time I so much as pulled out a book, a tantrum ensued. We grew worried as nothing we did to interest him in reading seemed to work.
Then one day, all of a sudden, he began to bring home books from the library. He browsed the pictures first and then gradually took to reading them. We held our breath at the time, not probing much for fear of scaring him off. But as we sit at this table in a school far away from home, I learn what brought him around. He tells us his teacher confronted him on his behavior one day and made a pact with him. She promised to let him quit reading after he had tried it for 100 sessions. After a hard negotiation, they agreed that each session could be only 10 minutes long and that even the ones he did at home would count. So with an end in sight, he picked up a book. Then another, and another. To his own surprise, he moved up on the ‘reading ladder’ long before the 100th session.
He tells me he has now decided that, “You cannot say you can’t do something till you have tried it at least 100 times.”
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I feel so grateful for his teacher. She has effectively taught him about grit and persistence; concepts that are difficult for children to grasp. He has discovered that even the hardest skills are possible to master if he is patient with himself. It’s no wonder he thinks of his progress as a reader as his greatest achievement this year. I actually think it is discovering his ‘100 times’ principle, but I let that remain my secret.
I turn to my daughter. Sport has not been her strongest suit. Like all tweenies, she is conscious about how she looks to her friends, and so, is unwilling to engage in activities that she feels she is not good at. When she signed up for swim team tryouts earlier in the year, I dissuaded her, using the logistical challenge of crack-of-dawn drop-offs as an excuse. But in reality, I was worried about the potential blow to her self-esteem if she didn’t make the team.
I needn’t have worried. Her sports coach had decided that all were welcome to stay through the entire training course, whether they made the team or not. She encouraged the kids to focus not on what they could or couldn’t do, but on how much practice they were getting and how much stronger they were becoming. My daughter’s skill did indeed improve, and she loved every minute of the tryout course. She didn’t make the team, but cheered spiritedly for all of her new friends at races. While she tops her class in other areas, she is proudest of her swimming. She tells me it is because she tried something new, and her teacher tells her, “Kids who take on challenges are cool.”
My school-related conversations with my children are typically about their history projects, math exercises or essays they need to write. I am thrilled when they bring home A’s on science tests and medals from sports day. These are signs of progress.
But there are other signs, too. And other lessons. Over a simple school-canteen meal, they remind me that real learning comes not from the content they memorize, but from the values they imbibe from the adults around them. Life lessons come from the inspiration and support that teachers give through their hardest challenges. Life lessons are rooted in the friendships and camaraderie discovered in these awkward years of aspiring and sometimes not making the cut.
Twenty-five years later, they may not remember what grade they were in when they learned fractions or the names of every Indian state. But their experiences of overcoming difficulties, of finding meaning and validation even in failure, will evoke the same emotions my husband feels about his own time in school, all those years ago.