Because I love the feeling of receiving stars, I’m really generous in giving them out too – be it rating an app on my phone, an Uber driver or students in my workshops, they can count on me for free stars always. But some stars are brighter and more lasting than others. It happened recently in a storytelling session organized by Influent Learning. I had forgotten to carry the sheet of star stickers to an interactive storytelling session where I give out stars to the listeners for both asking and answering questions. The idea behind these sessions is to get our young listeners interested in books and inculcate in them the habit of reading. Influent is invested in stimulating young people to think for themselves and be guided by strong creative instincts in their learning and expression.
So, In this storytelling session at a school in Delhi, after setting the tone for interaction by giving out a few stars, I realized that the sticker sheets were all used up. I saw the eager faces in front of me; hands raised, bubbling with answers and I felt mortified. I had raised their expectations but there were no stars to give!
We had just finished a story full of magic, imagination and friendship… So I dug my hand in my bag – and said, ‘I’ve run out of these paper stars, but guess what, I have lots and lots of imaginary stars in my bag…’ With that I threw a tiny imaginary star towards the student who had just answered a question, he promptly grabbed it and pocketed it safely. After this everyone enthusiastically answered questions and I generously distributed my imaginary stars. You could tell how bright those stars were when their light reflected in the happy eyes of the children and the way they sent tingles to my heart through my fingertips when I pulled them out from my bag.
But then there are times when some student gently drops a star in my lap in return for my paper stars – these stars are so rare that if not careful you might just miss their glow.
This happened with a group of slightly older students – Pre-pubescent. I was reading from Alice In Wonderland this time. We were all quite invested in Alice’s progress through her bewildering wonderland – We weaved our way through tiny doors, a sea of tears up to the talking caterpillars and then I stopped… The idea is to generate enough curiosity for them to seek out the rest of the story and by extension the world of books for themselves.
Quite a few hands went up when I asked if they will get the book and find out what happens next. At this point, we opened a discussion about ‘imagination.’
“Imagination”, a young girl said, ‘is a place that is only mine and only those I want can enter it’.
“My imaginary wonderland’, another student said, ‘would have a tree which will make whatever anyone wants in their heart.’
“But trees need water and minerals from the soil, oxygen and sunlight from the atmosphere to produce nourishment, what will your tree use?’ I asked.
“Dreams, laughter and love from my friends’…
The answers popped up and floated like little bubbles of joy around us. I usually try to ensure that the quiet ones or the ones who take refuge behind other students in the group feel safe or engaged enough to speak up. I had spotted a girl who was actively listening and responding non-verbally, but when I tried to elicit an answer from her she was uncomfortably tongue-tied, so I moved on to another student.
After the session, as everyone was filling out and I was collecting my stock of stickers, chashma and water bottle, I saw this girl separate herself from the group and walk up towards where I and the other In-Fluent facilitator were standing. She shuffled, looked ready to change her mind and then found the courage to speak to us – ‘I want to share something, too.’
‘Sure go ahead,’ both of us said.
‘You asked na, about imaginary land…’
‘I have one too…’
‘Can I share now… but the class is over…’
‘Don’t worry about that, tell us… I really want to know.’ I said.
She gulped, fidgited and then said, ‘Can I say it in Hindi.’
‘Sure… it’s you imaginary place after all… Hindi main bolo…’
She smiled. ‘In my imaginary world…’ she said and then lost her thread of thought.
I felt an urge to hold her hand or hug her. But I knew that wasn’t what she needed. What she needed was our patience to let her words and thoughts make their way up to where they can find expression.
She apologized awkwardly and said, ‘I forgot…’.
I was suddenly transferred back to my own school days. I was a troubled child with serious unaddressed emotional issues and bad academic record, which added to being further ridiculed. I remember the feeling of wanting to become invisible as my nervousness would swallow up all my words whenever asked to stand up and answer a question in the class. I would feel helplessly responsible for the collective disappointment and impatience of the teacher and students. I’m a voracious talker now and can hold forth in most situations. I also have a tendency to cut off people and barge into a discussion sometimes inadvertently but at other times deliberately when someone holds forth without allowing others time to speak. But thankfully I have learnt how to respect silences which are choking with words.
I held her eyes. I let her know that I can wait. I silenced everything in me, even the words of encouragement that were impatiently trying to blurt out. She struggled, her cheeks burned with the effort, she finally accessed her words through whatever had clouded them and said, ‘In my wonderland, no one would bully anyone.’
‘She is an early bloomer’, her teacher told me. I could relate to that, being an early bloomer myself – I know how terrified and ashamed you can be of your body as if it’s somehow your fault that you are turning into a woman and making others around you feel awkward, greedy or both. This girl, I was told, is socially withdrawn and would hardly ever speak up in the class. She never volunteers to participate in any activity and had deliberately missed the group photo session recently.
I was honoured that she had chosen me to share about her wonderland. I told her, I would love to be invited to her wonderland. I shared with her how I had felt bullied when I was in school.
’What did you do?’ she asked.
‘I made friends with books.’ I said. ‘Read, explore, read about girls who grew up to be successful women.’ I think I mentioned Maya Angelo – she has a big hand in helping me find myself and I recommend her to all young women struggling with questions about who they are and what they can be. I told her that she must spend some time daily in the safety of her beautiful Wonderland where no one will bully anyone. She can take her books there and populate her Wonderland with characters worthy of being there – characters she can trust. There was obviously way more on her plate than can be handled through a storytelling session. But books do have a way of building staircases out of confusion… and I hope I managed to plant a seed of that thought in her heart.
I took out a sticker sheet and gave her a star for sharing her thoughts with me. But the star she dropped in my lap, by trusting me to share her thoughts, though intangible, is way more long-lasting than the one I gave her.