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Learning from Children – My Experience at the Maya Student Retreat

A few days ago, I got the opportunity to be a part of the Maya student retreat. Maya is a student leadership module comprising of a group of Teach For India students who use the performance arts to illustrate the concept of an excellent education.

Though I’ve been working with the organisation for over two years now, my hectic role in marketing and brand communications rarely allows for meaningful interactions with our kids. So when asked to volunteer at the retreat as a coach, I jumped at the chance. What started as a joyful morning at the Jai Vakeel Foundation slowly culminated into what would turn out to be two days of sheer inspiration.

The car ride from Jai Vakeel to Sanaya’s house (Sanaya leads the Maya module at Teach For India and was hosting the retreat at her apartment) with three of the kids in tow was one of non-stop chatter. I don’t have children of my own yet and I’ve always imagined I’d fall short of patience when dealing with them. Instead, I found myself getting drawn into AND actively participating in (rapidly shifting) conversations on aliens, music, road safety and airplanes for over an hour and half!

Once there, it was time to reflect on our morning with the differently abled and what our past experiences have helped us learn about ourselves. I haven’t led an insightful and highly personal reflection circle before and to do so with these children was a humbling experience. The stories I heard, the reflections they shared with me and the disarming honesty I witnessed.

Khushi’s dreams, Rutuja’s insecurities, Sairaj’s fears and Moiz’s wisdom. There was clarity of thought and crisp diction – things that, as adults, we usually don’t expect from children. It made me acutely aware of the power and the importance of what we do in a very different light.

The day ended with a walk to Juhu beach where the kids from my circle shot a steady stream of questions, that ranged from studies and premonitions to love and life, in my direction. Being someone who places a lot of value on meaningful conversation, I can tell for a fact there wasn’t a single mundane moment all throughout. It’s also what made me give in to the idea of spending the night at Sanaya’s place, even though I hadn’t even brought a change of clothes and there were already 14 kids and 2 adults in that 1BHK space!

Day 2 was when my role as coach kicked in. I initially intended to be a vocal coach for the kids who wanted to showcase their stories through music. But we realised that the ones who didn’t want to take up dance with Shashank (a Program Manager in Pune who was also volunteering as a coach) wanted to take up spoken word instead. So I worked with the whole group through the day on first writing their stories using different techniques and then with my circle on performing their pieces in the manner of slam poetry.

I hadn’t really prepped for this (as I’d do when workshopping with adults) and improvised the session as I went along – and through the process found newfound respect for our Fellows. The multiple roles that they play every single day for two years; of teacher, parent, confidante, friend and guide. I suddenly understood exactly what a Fellow meant when she casually mentioned to me a year ago about how she started out thinking of her students as just names on the attendance register to completing the Fellowship feeling like she’d given birth to them. Working with children isn’t easy but it is incredibly inspiring and I’m sure I learnt a lot more from them than they learnt from me.

We concluded the day with the kids showcasing the performances they’d practiced to a group of curious onlookers at Bandra bandstand. I felt a rush of pride as I saw them overcome their nervousness and perform their pieces without a shred of self-doubt. They weren’t perfect but they were still wonderful and I revelled in how beautifully they inspired audience interest in what were their incredibly personal stories.

I’ve never really known these kids beyond short interactions at Teach For India events, where they’ve led student performances, but within a very small frame of time they’ve really opened up to me and I’ve completely fallen in love with them. The warm goodbye hugs (and in some cases, the scowls because I was leaving before dinner) I received at the end of the retreat were quite something!

Now Adesh leaves me a ‘Hi Didi! How are you?’ text everyday. Homi continues to stay in touch on Facebook and Whatsapp. And I’m hoping I’ll get to see them again really soon.

I don’t know how Fellows do it. Leave their kids after the two years of the Fellowship. I only had two days.

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