There were many good things that happened last week at the four-day residential meet of families of unschooled and homeschooled children in Belgundi, near Belgaum, in Karnataka. Nearly 300 persons had come together at Shoonya Farm Retreat, a 60-room property on a 40-acre estate, to mingle, play, connect and exchange learnings on making unconventional life choices. The Swashikshan Annual Meet or SAM 2023 was a brilliant example of how synchronicity and serendipity can emerge when we are willing to embrace uncertainty and depend on trust rather than control to make things happen. Despite the hectic socialising, late-night music and games and early morning sessions, we returned rejuvenated and refreshed as individuals.
All days were divided into various 90-minute slots between meal times and participants were invited to offer simultaneous sessions on topics of their interest and expertise. Some shared skills like origami, sketching and crochet, others offered discussions on universal challenges like raising teens and toddlers and many others facilitated games, workshops and healing sessions. Often, we reminded each other of the two feet principle — feel free to walk in or out of any session based on your immediate need. Honour each other, but first be alert to your own consciousness.
Overwhelmed by recent events in my own life, I found that I did not have the energy to offer any sessions, even though in previous meets I have conducted workshops on writing — and discussions around civil society’s response to communal polarisation. This time I needed rest. I wanted quiet and solitude and often chose to go on long walks towards the nearby village to restore my balance. I paid attention to trees, admired the miracles of nests and resting cats and had random conversations with people in shops and bus stops outside the campus.
As my mind tries to sift through the experiences of participating in the SAM sessions, I am amazed at the evenness of my memory. The first session I attended on January 22 was hosted by parents, Pashwa and Jim, and titled ‘Conscious Parenting’. The last one on January 25 was hosted by Upasana, a young adult, ‘Understanding Neurodiversity.’ In between, there were sessions by Niom, another young adult on his own unschooling journey, an introduction to elements of music and on his venture titled ‘Let’s Play.’
Sharmila, a parent of three school-age children, hosted meetings on the differences between unschooling and homeschooling and the various creative choices available for those who choose to sit for school board exams without being enrolled in regular schools.
Sanjeevani facilitated sessions on healing via access bars and journaling. Hema shared her family’s journey of leaving the city and living in a rural community. Abhi, a 19-year-old, invited peers to talk about drugs and other temptations of their age. Manish organised opening and closing circles and never failed to wave his magic wand, making everyone dance and laugh, despite their inhibitions. The football ground always had players and the swimming pool was forever inviting. There were impromptu choreography lessons and karaoke sessions.
One of the most heart-warming sights was observing volunteers like Shweta, Tejas and Pashwa, who had organised the logistics of this mega get-together, respond to the needs of individuals with calm and generosity despite their exhaustion and the stress of others. Teenagers walked into the session where parents were sharing challenges and strategies about parenting teens. Parents gathered around young adults talking about their choices and experiences. I walked in and out of sessions based on what I felt called to do in the moment and nearly everything I heard and paid attention to has stayed with me like a separate layer of sediment in a jar of precious memories.
As an introduction to the idea of living a life based on autonomy, free play and self-directed learning, an excerpt from ‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell comes to mind.
“One evening, I was in my favourite restaurant, and at the next table, there was a father, a mother and a scrawny boy about 12 years old. The father said to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the boy said, ‘I don’t want to.’ Then the father, with a louder voice, said, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the mother said, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’ The father looked at her and said, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’
In his conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell goes on to say, “That is a man who never followed his bliss. You may have success in life, but then just think of it — what kind of life was it? What good was it — you’ve never done a thing you wanted to do in your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.”
To quote Dola Dasgupta, a Pune-based parent, who writes and shares magnanimously about her learnings and experience with unschooling, “Many people think Unschooling is about the absence of academics. That is not true. Unschooling is not opposed to academics, curriculum and college. It is about creating a space and pace for children to have free play, free range explorations, open-ended learning experiments… Unschooling is not about rejecting money pursuits but about developing one’s own intimate relationship with livelihoods that bring money to fulfil personal needs.
“Do parents have the patience and tenacity to slow down, to wait, to work on their own fears and insecurities around money and livelihoods? That is the real question and the real work for parents.”
Get-togethers like SAM and the annual Learning Societies unconference, where like-minded families find a peer group and become role models for each other, are like a sacred space for creative incubation. Sometimes, it can seem overwhelming, as if too many things are happening at the same time. Yet, it is also a great place to practice autonomy, to reclaim one’s uniqueness and restore boundaries. Just as we had laughed freely on most days, many of us cried freely as well. We all returned with light and freshness in our soul.
— The writer is a filmmaker & author
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