Be(com)ing a Teacher

In the monsoon of 2009, I had just begun my final year of BTech at NIT Calicut. After countless hours and days and weeks of idling about without any purpose in life, the reality slowly dawned on me that I needed to find something to do after that year. The four years that I had bought myself was about to end and with it my sojourn in the attic of comfort that I had inherited with it. I would be thrown into the world out there, whether I liked it or not. I needed to decide what was it that I was going to do, or whether I was going to do anything. I had almost a year left, but I had to start looking.

I had to look because I had obstinately decided within that I would not follow the two common paths that engineering graduates normally choose- get a job or go for further studies. That much was clear to me. The world was on a head on collision course with catastrophe. We humans had become hopelessly dependent on a crude oil that was past its peak production, pollution and disease were increasing while today’s children had hardly any idea where the food on their plates came from, the world’s poor were getting more helpless by the day, and worst of all no one around me seemed to care, or even to know.

There was no way I was going to be a passive cog in the wheel and put my shoulder also to the wheels of the machinery that was speeding the world on the path to destruction. That had been the result of almost four years of an obsession with reading about the dire state of our world through articles and books written by environmentalists, activists, philosophers, “alternative living” pioneers etc. I had no idea what I would do if I didn’t take up a job or go for higher studies, but then my philosophy was, “if you are not sure what to do, do nothing.”

Though I describe two obvious options available to me, they actually comprised a wide range of options which can be categorized into two umbrellas. There are several kinds of jobs which electronics and communication engineering graduates normally opt for. The most highly coveted and difficult to get is in chip design/signal processing which is described as a “core job” in engineering college lingo (‘core’ because the job is supposed to be related to the core courses you undergo in college). The next kind is a software job in the countess companies that now operate a variety of services. The third is a job in public sector companies like ISRO, BARC, DRDO etc.

These distinctions were irrelevant because I wasn’t motivated to take up work that any of these organisations did. Besides, I had decided as far back as twelfth standard that I will not live in a city. One smart way to be living in a place away from cities seemed to be to become a professor. Most institutions of higher education seemed to be located in beautiful places. Which brings me to the second umbrella of options.

To do a masters. But in what? The easy option would be to do an MTech, for which one had to clear the entrance exam called GATE. But my interest in my BTech courses had been sporadic at best. The other option would be to do an MS abroad. Which would be more glamorous and flexible. You needn’t stick to what you did in BTech. But what else could I do? I hadn’t developed any serious interest in any particular field by then.

I didn’t want to do any of these. I wanted to do something different. Not for the sake of doing something different, but because it seemed like doing any of these would essentially mean saying to myself, “Well, the world is what it is, and there’s nothing much you can do about it, so stop cribbing and move on”. I did masquerade under the guise of preparing for GATE, but deep within I knew I was going to do something different.

And my reading slowly shifted from reading about the problems of the world, to people and organisations who were actually doing something in real life to explore a different way of living. Thanks to the internet, stories of dozens of such people are only a click away. Without this wealth of information I would never have gathered the courage, without knowing that there are so many people who are living a saner life.

There were so many fascinating stories of people who had set out on their own paths in life. I was often bursting to talk about them with someone. I used to do that with a few of my friends who were sympathetic to my concerns, but were intensely sceptical about my intentions to do something in real life, given my extreme passivity and reputation as a sleep maniac. At every opportunity they took a jab at me, calling me a future greenpeace activist or even a Himalayan monk!

Though they were just friendly jabs, they brought home to me the fact that I had taken virtually no concrete steps to fulfill my ambition of finding a different path for myself. It was all empty thought and talk. And the months were passing by.

Meanwhile I had taken an initiative to search out people nearby, who had done something different in life. I visited a man named Roy Jacob, who had left his job in the US to do farming in Wayanad. I visited another man named KB Jinan, who had revived the traditional pottery in Nilambur. I had read about both of them on the internet. It was great to meet them in person, and talk to them about my urge to find my own path in life, and hear from them about their own journeys in life. At the end of it I was inspired but still without any concrete idea of what to do.

That was when I came across the Krishnamurti Foundation schools and other alternative schools in India. I had been concerned with the problems with education along with everything else, and had been reading and thinking about it quite a bit. Also it was one thing which I had a lot of first hand experience, having been on its receiving end as a student for much of my life so far.

Though I had been a “good student” and had done well in school, during the last few years I had become quite fed up with it and had begun to realize that it had done little more than prepare me for taking exams. It all seemed to be pretty pointless. I also felt that the numbing of the mind due to the education we get is one of the reasons why we fail to look beyond our own narrow lives and respond intelligently to the situation our world is in. In short, it makes us incapable to do anything but follow the rat race.

So here at last I had something that I felt some connection to, something that could be a serious option to consider after college. I had several questions in mind, of course. Most of these schools, even though they had an unconventional outlook and philosophy and offered a different environment for children to grow in, they still had structured classes and subjects and their students did take exams conducted by some board or the other. Was this option a path that was fundamentally different? Wouldn’t I be serving the same machinery, only a different part of it?

Being a teacher in one of these schools seemed like an attractive option nevertheless, because these schools were all located in rural settings, “close to nature”. Anyway, I would need a job to support myself and what more could I hope for than the opportunity to work with people with a similar outlook of life and education.

My biggest doubts were over my own ability to assume the role of a teacher, young as I was, with virtually no experience of working with children or handling a classroom or planning a lesson. It was definitely going to be a challenge, especially given my virtual isolation from everything around me for the last four years or so. I would be putting myself in a situation in which I would be forced to connect with the people and activities around me. But I believed that was the way to go.

Thus I set out looking for a job as a teacher in a residential school run by the KFI, 70 km from Pune, on the top of a hill on the Bhima river. I eventually joined the school and am half way into my second year as a teacher there.

If I’m asked to name one significant challenge I’ve faced so far, I would say it’s been how to relate with the role of being a teacher and all that it entails, in the context of the questions and the discontent that brought me here in the first place. Without that connection, it’s a floating, aimless existence. It’s been a struggle, and I’m still in the midst of the struggle. That’s as far as I can say at this point in time.

One can only look back later and say in retrospect, “Ah, this is what this experience did to me!”

Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.