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  • Pierre Smith Khanna

Exploring With Students


“... Gea, Helen, India and Timo. You are Total Freedom. You'll be with Lujing in the West Wing lobby. Last but not least: Adele, Alan, Alex V, Antton,Bruno P, Eloïse, Harold, Jakob, Jono and Minouche. You guys are in Flight of the Eagle – you'll be with me in the sitting room.” So began the first 'Reflection Time' sessions ran by the Mature Students (MS) at the end of June when we were invited to create a schedule for the school from the 20th to the 22nd.

Sitting in the study with all our ideas scribbled out on a sheet of paper a week before the event, we were surprised at how much we'd already come up with in such a short period of time. The sheer variety of our inputs pointed to what we then adopted to be the theme of our MS schedule: inquiring into what it means to be human.

Workshops were offered throughout day one, both student and MS lead, ranging from bender-building to improvisation techniques and dreamcatcher making. Collective pieces of art were made as part of day two – a large paint mandala on the South Lawn and a Nature mandala out in the Grove where we'd had the morning's Assembly. A sunrise walk was also organised – starting at 4:30 am – in honour of the summer solstice. Attendance, it was remarked, was higher than for Morning Meeting. Play coloured day three as we teamed up with Inwoods for a morning of old fashioned games (potato bag races, wellie wanging, cherry-stone spitting and all sorts of other ridonculous games).

Time was also set aside each day to reflect on what it means to be human in small groups of a dozen or so (the aptly named Reflection Time). To spur these sessions on, we handpicked short stories for each student to read. These ranged from Kafka's A Hunger Artist to the first chapter of Malcom X's autobiography, a story by a New York cab driver and Maupassant's Fear. Once in our groups – named after Krishnamurti’s books, which, we discovered, make for excellent team names – with one MS acting as a moderator, students were invited to share their story with the others (they each had a different one). What were their reactions to its characters; did they have anything in common with them? What did it bring up for them?

What we found was that there wasn't much need for a moderator at all. Discussion took off fairly naturally and at times turned into a heated debate, as well as into sensitive areas rarely explored in group settings.

The Impossible Question, the first group I got to sit in on, began and ended with only one story being shared. It was that of a naturalist who described setting up a shelter beneath a tree one night. It was a windy evening and eventually a storm broke out. He decided to leave his shelter, climbing up to sleep in the tree instead. The following morning he discovered that a branch had fallen onto his shelter and crushed it. Listening to the tree's calling had admittedly saved his life.

The student who received this particular story thus related it to us, explaining that she liked it. She admired the man's way of living and wondered why we ourselves do not have such a strong connection with nature. The other students in the group were not particularly compelled by it all – probably having heard many such stories before – and after asking a few more questions I was ready to move on to the next story. I decided to ask the girl sitting next to her, who looked remarkably disinterested, what she thought. Startled out of her slumber, she cut in: “Well, I don't think trees can communicate. They can't talk to humans.”

Someone else quipped “that's obvious but it's been proven that they can actually communicate with one another through signals via their roots.”

Unfazed by this, she continued: “Trees aren't conscious. If they were they'd defend themselves against humans who come to cut them down otherwise.”

This elicited a strong reaction from several people who joined what was now a discussion about what consciousness plant life might have and why it might be different from our own. This goes on for about five minutes, at which point a student interjects.

“The real question for me is, how does this guy (from the story) go from the observation that a branch fell over his shelter to the conclusion that the tree communicated with him? It doesn't make sense. Perhaps it was a coincidence. But there's nothing to say that it is a sign that the tree spoke to him.”

The reaction grew stronger at this point and all joined in. Attempting to avoid a binary debate however, the students themselves re–framed the question. What was really at stake here was the nature of reality – or “actuality” as it was termed – and whether it existed and if so how can we learn about it.

“It's perhaps the case that I see one reality and you another. But what is *actuality*? What is *actually there* and how do we find out? It seems as though up to now we've made all this progress precisely because we've gone and observed, tested and corroborated things out there in nature. It doesn't rain because God makes it so. We've gone and figured out it's because warm air cools and condensation occurs. I just don't see how this guy's tree–theory is related to actuality. It's not based on anything.”

“You say that. That you want to find out what actuality is. But you've already made your own conclusion about it. You've already dismissed his view of things without considering why it might be relevant or valuable.”

“I just want to know whether we can all be looking at the same thing. Because if not, then what's the point of any of it?”

For an hour and a half they spoke, often with much animation. Of the nature of knowledge. Of God. Of how we share the same reality. Actuality. And it was amazing. No longer a moderator, I found myself joining in the conversation and wondered how we might engage with students like this on a more regular basis. K classes simply don't have the same energy in them, yet here we were thinking and talking about remarkably similar things.

This was just a snippet from one of the groups. The Ending of Time with whom I was the following day managed to share several stories and spoke of care – inspired by Hemingway's A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. What do we mean when we say we care for someone; whether we really do and how we feel about it when we realise we mightn't care all that much. This was also a topic with The Future is Now, the last group I was with, who discussed Somerset Maugham's version of The Ant and the Grasshopper. Other groups reported having kept going well past the allotted hour and a half and often brought the conversation to the dinner table.

At the end of the three days we asked everyone to write their own story – something personal that would be kept anonymous and then shared with the school. About twenty students wrote something, as did a handful of MS. They are fascinating stories, of both depth and humour, which we then printed and bound into small booklets we handed out at the end of year Dinner Dance. “Please” we asked, “do not be afraid, embarrassed or squeamish about the content of your story or the way it's written. As we'll no doubt see – when given the chance to be honest – much of what we feel are unique fears or worries are in fact common to us all.”

Here is one of them:

My mind is blurred.

I am searching for the now

Something real

That present that will lead me to action

But this world's immensity full of miseries confuses me.

I hear this voice that tells me misunderstanding and confusion are normal feelings at my age

That I am at a stage where everything is remodelling inside me.

But that doesn't help me, I want to understand

Why? Who am I? ...and why do I even question?

I can't answer

Because I don't know!

And I really want to know

I am being selfish I know

But I'm not as stupid as to feel empty inside

What I experience is a feeling of nonsense

I can't look any deeper when it's about finding purposes about life

By working with the mind to figure out ideas

When I do that I'm just playing on the surface

And there's nothing deep behind it.

I see everything will be going fast

I will become an adult and by then nothing will be solved either

So what am I to do?

I really want you to understand.

#Article

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna