You did it

My father and I share an interesting relationship. As a child, I do not remember much of him, except for his stern looks when I would do something that I wasn’t supposed to. Given the number of times I was guilty of that, I am not surprised about the stern look as a predominant memory. As I grew up, things got even more difficult. I was turning out to be the problem child. While the things I was interested in changed with time, the one constant was my strong affinity to indulge in activities that put him off. Be it staying up late at night or watching one movie too many, not coming home during the semester breaks or just binge drinking, I found just about every way to displease him. It continues even as an adult, be it the divorce or more recently, my refusing to participate in a family vacation. The only difference is that he seems to have found ways not to react.

Another and related memory for me is that he wouldn’t appreciate me. “Don’t be too proud”, and “You can do better than that”, are two messages that I would receive from him time and again. The latter being well deserved, and the former, more a cautionary note. I sometimes think that he may have held the belief that appreciating his children would put them at the risk of becoming vain. Perhaps it is culturally influenced, and as a grown up, I look back and I am able to understand him very well. I am also grateful to him & my mother for bringing me up the way they did. I ought to write more about them, I remind myself.

So, when six months into my stint at EZV, I got an unprecedented raise in my salary, the first thing I wanted to do was to let my father know. It was unprecedented, because it was done exclusively for me, before my completing a year, which is when these things happen. And I remember some people telling me that it had never happened before. I was of course excited, and perhaps mildly surprised at myself. However, I made a request to Chitra – that while I was grateful, the raise itself wasn’t so important for me. I requested her for a letter of appreciation, and she readily obliged. The only reason that I had wanted it was to show it to my father.

It has been ten years now, and it is now time for me to be doing the appreciation. With several young, energetic and committed people giving it their all, I sometimes rue at my inability to be so generous with praise. Partly, it is because I am just not mindful of the fundamental need that most people have – a pat on the back. However, I also think I may be a tough taskmaster, and my benchmarks are usually high, sometimes perhaps unreasonably so. This is only with me, of course. Chitra still is the one to quickly recognise promise, and acknowledge it publicly, even though her own benchmarks are no less. Over time, it has become a part of EZV itself. I am grateful to be working in an organisation that is quick & generous to acknowledge and even reward contributions from people. While it in itself is a wonderful thing, I am also grateful that it reminds me of what I ought to do better – be less grudging and more generous with praise.

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Conversations

I had picked him up at an important junction, near one of the exits to the city. I tend to do it, sometimes when I am driving alone. If someone asks for a ride, more often than not, I oblige. After all, I usually have the car all to myself. While on most days, I quite enjoy it, sometimes, I feel guilty about it as well. Today, it was quite early in the morning and it was just him, apart from a family at the junction. This time around, I did not wait for anyone to ask. I just the car in front of this gentleman, rolled down the window and asked him if he wanted a ride to Pondicherry. The family was larger than my car could accommodate so neither they nor I bothered.

The man I had picked up started speaking, we made small talk. I warned him that I may drive fast, and requested him to fasten his seatbelt. He wondered if it was mandatory as per the law. I told him that I wasn’t sure of that, but that he could consider it mandatory, if he wanted a ride. He just smiled and obliged. We made small talk, got to know a bit about each other. He was visiting someone over the weekend, and was curious about the place.

“I work in software”, he said, and added the name of a well known company. I hadn’t even asked him. He was a young chap, perhaps fresh in his job and was evidently enthusiastic to tell me. I did not venture to ask him what he meant by software. Partly, I wasn’t keen on knowing, but it is also about the nature of his work itself. I don’t understand much of it, apart from the fact that they write programmes to do things for other business establishments.

Even as I knew where the conversation was headed, it was his turn to ask me what the nature of my work was. For the longest time, I have shared with my colleagues that it takes some effort to explain what we do to people who may not be aware of the happenings in the domain of school education. So when people ask me, my response would depend on the situation. Sometimes, it is the end of the day and I am on a bus or a train and too tired to make conversation. Or, I may just be hard pressed for time. At other times, I can simply be moody and uninterested in pursuing the conversation. On such occasions, I try to keep it simple and say that I am a teacher or a publisher.

However, on many other occasions, it provides meat to speak about things. Interestingly, a lot of people are able to immediately relate to the work we do. After all, several of them went to school themselves, and are able to look back at the shallowness of the experience. Either that or for many, it was simply harrowing to be able to get through it all. Ask people what they liked about the school, and it is usually about friends, sports or other so called ‘extra-curricular’ activities. Learning itself is seldom perceived as fun, as an innately desirable pursuit. And so there is immediate agreement on the need for such work. Some of them even end up volunteering to help, and wonder if they could get involved in some way.

I am grateful to EZV that it allows me to speak about my work very proudly. Not only this, it has been the context for several great conversations during my sojourns across this country, the reason for which has also been my work. Thank you, EZV.

My heart’s fill

He made a passing gesture, as if to serve me some Kozhakattai. It wasn’t the sweet one, but a variant, known as ‘Upma kozhakattai’, a popular snack in some households. I knew that he wasn’t going to serve it to me; it was a perfunctory move, a mere gesture towards me while he was serving others, at about 4 o’clock this afternoon. That is because he may have guessed that I would turn it down, as I am likely to do most of the times. It isn’t that I always turn down the food offered to me. However, one habit that I have developed, which my colleagues find peculiar, is that I choose to eat only when I am hungry. This, even if some exotic or delicious dish, say a brownie, is presented to me.

One of my earliest memories of EZV, is the food. I vividly remember how in the evenings, the smell of food would waft through the office. It would be a pizza one day, vadai another. And eating would be a community affair. This, not just in the snack time. During lunch hour, groups of people would get together and all lay out their lunch boxes. There would be chats, laughs and lots of food.

I am grateful that when I am hungry, there is something to eat, at EZV. The ‘5 pm hunger pang’ is quite a common thing and one is glad to have just about anything. I am also grateful to EZV for all the food for an entirely different reason too. Sometimes, it prompts me to say no, when I don’t need it. While this may seem like a trivial thing to write about when one reminisces about a decade in the organisation, to me it is no less important.

In order that I not trivialise this matter, but also because this is something I genuinely feel about, let me add this. When I look back at all that I’ve got in the last 10 years, there are very many things that come to my mind. I have been making an attempt – however unsuccessful – to capture them. One of the overarching emotions though, can perhaps best be summed up with the following words –

अन्नदाता सुखी भव |

I realise that I may be among the few lucky ones to be provided with plenty. In a world where for the large masses, even a decent meal is a luxury, my existence certainly comes across as a huge blessing. In the last 10 years, I have always had more than what I needed. This has allowed me to live a comfortable, if not luxurious life. I am well-provided for, and I am grateful to EZV for this.

 

Where it all starts

It is one of the best aspects of our work. At EZV, we imagine a certain kind of education that we call ‘Living Well’ education. Broadly speaking, we hope that such an education will allow individuals to discover and hone their potential while cultivating the qualities required for citizenship that is guided by informed and ethical behaviour. I should perhaps write more about this, but it wouldn’t be an understatement if I said that we imagine a better world, and the way we think we can get there is through education. By its very nature, our goal may be a far cry – given the yawning gap between ‘what ought to be’ and ‘what is’. Therefore, one can imagine that any impact that we make, however small or seemingly insignificant, has far-reaching consequences.  So when a school leader changes her attitude towards her teachers and how she leads them, we feel we may have moved one step closer. Or, when after a workshop, a teacher tells us that she ‘feels liberated’, as one of them shared with me recently, we feel hopeful. At such moments, we taste victory, so to speak.

It can also be one of the worst aspects of our work. At least for me, some times. When the mind focuses on the status quo, it can inspire us to work harder. But sometimes, it can also bog us down, as it does to me. It makes me cynical, and wonder if we could even make a tiny dent. At other times, it makes me sad, that the people responsible for educating our children are being ignorant at best, and callous at worst. There may be times when I am irritated at the refusal of people – leaders, teachers and even parents – to see the need for change. And then there are instances when I am filled with unbridled rage, when we come across people who see it but refuse to change, for whatever reasons. As much as work at EZV can be uplifting, it can also lead to a feeling of despondency if one is not careful. The key is to ensure that any negative feeling only spurs us towards action. It would be easy to just criticise things and turn cynical.

Either ways, I realise that it is my own ego that contributes to such feelings – of apparent victory or despondency. It reminds me of a verse from the 3rd Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita –

प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः।
अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते॥

I am thankful to EZV for allowing me the opportunity to work with schools. Despite a reminder to myself, to keep the ego at check, it may be the school that holds some hope whatsoever for all those of us dreaming of a better tomorrow for this world and for all of us in it.

Tough nut

Some times, it gets tough. Like one summer morning, 2 years ago, when we decided to go to Gingee. It was his idea, history buff that he is. We had spoken about it for the longest time, and for some strange reason, it all fell in place one sunny day in the month of May! Along the way, he told me how Shivaji had mentioned the fort to be on of the toughest to scale. We made it to the entry point as soon as it opened, considering the day would get warmer.

While I am sure my companion enjoyed shooting pictures and wondering about the past, for me, it was about getting to the top of the fort. Hardly had we begun the ascent that he gave up. I couldn’t let it go. And as I left him behind to climb, I realised that it was getting tougher. The sun was blazing, and I had not carried any water with me. I have no doubt that my stamina was at its worst and I was slow. I couldn’t give up though. I simply had to get there, and I did, no matter how long it took.

I believe I can be pretty determined when it comes to some things. It can be with the smallest of things, but when I make up my mind, I simply stick to the job and get it done. At work too, it is so, that I tend not to give up so easily. Apart from the little tasks, this includes the idea of working in this field of education itself.

It doesn’t come easy for EZV, for what we are out to sell, doesn’t attract most people. Even those who do decide to give Chrysalis a shot, may succumb to the pressures of those around them, be it parents or other teachers. It is tough work, because it fundamentally involves changing minds of people. This is especially so when they fail to see the problem in the first place. Indeed, most believe a certain kind of education – of a mad pace, of doing ‘more’ without understanding, of quantity without quality, of competition rather than cooperation – to be ‘good’ for their children, and when we speak about Chrysalis, they wonder why it is even necessary. It is in these circumstances that EZV has been working for the last decade and a half.  I can see how slowly, despite all odds, several of my colleagues just go on with it with their head held high. How did that come to be? Apart from their own grit, I believe EZV had something to contribute to this.

I write this post after an 18 hour day that included 6 hours of talking, debating and convincing, and a 300 km drive. I am tired, irritable and sleepy. I am tempted to just go to bed, but somehow, I couldn’t give up on this month-long series that I had committed myself to. And I am glad I didn’t. I am grateful to EZV – for not giving up on the vision this far, and remaining steadfast. I am grateful to EZV for inculcating this spirit – of not giving up – in me too.

Mindset

In most instances, I am likely to be listening more than speaking. It isn’t that I am silent. I do speak on some occasions, but in general, I prefer to minimise the talk. It is more so, when I drive. That is also partly because I find that driving requires a lot of concentration and I am unable to talk and drive at the same time. Here, by talk, I mean making meaningful conversation.

So here I was, driving from from Chennai to Bangalore, one sunny afternoon recently. One of my colleagues was with me, and evidently, he was more prone to talking. It suited me fine, as I would listen to all the things he would enthusiastically narrate to me- about work and otherwise. He was moving to Bangalore, and was supposed to lead a team of consultants from there. Each of them would work with schools, with the aim of transforming learning through Chrysalis ThinkRoom, the flagship product from EZV. It was a significant responsibility for the young chap. It was also evident that he realised it.

He happened to receive a call from who I guessed was a friend. From the kind of conversation he was having on the phone, I had guessed that it was an old friend and they were catching up on each others lives.

“I am still very much with EZV”, my colleague said.

<Silence, listening>

“Glad you called, by the way. I am moving to Bangalore. I was going to tell you and the rest of the gang there that I am back in this city after all these years”, he continued.

<Silence, listening>

“What do you mean why? I thought it would be nice to lead a team. And then I get to work with a new set of schools, in Karnataka, that’s why”, he said.

I am guessing, that was a response to the something like ‘why’ he was moving to Bangalore. I wondered about the quality of his response. He could have said many things, including “I have been transferred” or “I have been asked to go by the company” or even “As part of our restructuring, I am being deputed to Bangalore” and so on. He didn’t say any of these. The way he stated his moving to Bangalore, stood out to me.

No doubt, this reflects my colleague’s attitude. And knowing what I do of him, I have no doubt about that, because he is an extremely enthusiastic and energetic person. I was inspired by my colleague’s words, in those moments, I also wondered about EZV. It struck me that perhaps, EZV may have had some impact on shaping his thoughts and attitude towards work too. It is indeed to, in my case. In all honesty, I confess to being one of the most cynical persons I know of. And I am grateful to EZV, for keeping the cynic in me in check, in various ways. I can say with quite confidence that EZV has significantly contributed towards building a healthy, positive, uplifting attitude in myself – towards work, and life in general. Thank you, EZV.

 

Deep reading

I went to engineering college. Like many others my age, back then, I didn’t think much about what I wanted to do. Just went with the flow. I ended up being admitted into a decent college and so I settled for it. Very soon, I realised that it wasn’t my cup of tea and that would doubtless reflect on my grades. Imagine the consistency – in the first year, I was ranked 49 out of around 500 students. By the time I graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering 4 years later, I remained on rank 49. Only this time, it was out of a cohort of 51 students. And the two others, had failed the course of study!

Yet, my friends would be surprised to note that I would spend a lot of time in the library. “How do you spend so much time in the library, and still manage to fail your course?”, one would ask. It is well nigh possible that someone was struggling, and I did know kids like that in college. In my case though, I would be reading just about everything else – from literature to philosophy – than the textbooks I was supposed to be studying. In some senses it was my initial days of reading long drawn texts.With time, I had lost out on reading. I am not able to pinpoint on the reasons, but that’s just how it was.

A few years back, I felt the need to engage with educational theory in a deeper manner. I had enrolled for a Masters programme in Elementary Education. Looking back now, it resurfaced my fondness for deep reading. Some of the papers that we were supposed to read, particularly in Philosophy of Education and Sociology of Education, were particularly abstruse. I would struggle with them, read them over and over again, until I could make some sense of it at least partially. And I remember the distinct feeling of rejoining in the victory of having made sense of a complex subject.

The course was quite demanding. Although designed for working professionals and therefore something that one had to devote oneself to part-time, it did pose to be extremely challenging. The two semesters that I had completed of it, had taken significant time and effort on my part, and all while I was working at EZV. It is another matter, that I finally dropped out of it, because I had to make a choice . I realised I wasn’t doing justice to both work and academics at the same time. Call it my incapability. Despite this, looking back, I am grateful to EZV for having afforded me the time and money to actually take up such a course of study. It showed me a new and interesting facet of life – of humanities education, but also helped me discover an interesting aspect of me – of wanting to read deeply and make sense of complex ideas.