When I left for Pallikoodam, my head was filled with lot of biases and prejudices. Back home my relatives in Kottayam who heard I was visiting Pallikoodam had mixed responses. Some where in awe of the school and could not afford such education for their children hence saw it as an ideal school where their children ought to have been. Some others said "what’s the big deal children can study anywhere, if they got brains"."And if we had an option we would send our children to government schools but it’s this societal pressure and standards that make us send our child to an ICSE school". Some others said “Oh Pallikoodam, the school where the principal dresses in mini skirt and snobbish spoilt brats study”. "Now what good is a swimming pool and dramatics to our kids? You and I did not learn any of this are we anyway less educated?" So I began my journey with mixed feelings but praying they don’t interfere with my research work after all I had read pages on how Researcher’s bias could ruin the research ( How much deschooling I required !!!!! ).
Right from the Bus stand at Kottayam anyone I turned to for directions, seemed familiar with the school, Oh Mary Roy’s school said some, Corpus Christi referred many others. When the auto stopped in front of a bakery it just looked like any semi urban locality I had seen in Kerala. The rubber trees,pepper creepers and coffee plants in the compounds of houses was a typical Kottayam I had read and known. A stony path led me to a red brick structure, I expected a glossy building but this was just a red brick structure with lot of plants and trees. Had it not been for Heidi Baker’s Aesthetic strokes the school looked like an estate tepee. What struck me when I stepped inside the school was its interior design, it wasn’t just some fancy art depicted, and it was art which was showed the taste of the students. I could see a worli painting with peacock and butterflies embossed with some pieces of mirrors. Every cupboard, bathroom doors was designed using crayons. Classrooms had no segregation except for wooden screens decorated with paintings again. For colour lovers it was a wonderland. Classes were divided into blocks of primary, upper, primary, high school and higher secondary. The construction seems to be innovative and eco friendly which was done by Laurie baker on the agreement that his daughter Heidi be educated in this school.
I was greeted by Ms June Jose the administrator who gave me an interview and took me around the school. Pleasant faces greeted me with ‘Namaskaram’ a greeting I never used or had received earlier. Children in the lower classes were so engrossed in their work that they did not bother who was walking by. The teacher introduced me to a student of class 3 who won Camlin painting competition at national level. His father was a student at Pallikoodam who was a fashion designer. Since Onam was arriving, the students were involved in drama and dance practice. Senior classes had board exams and seemed busy with it. But the atmosphere was filled with an air of joy, enthusiasm and elation.
The most fascinating place in the school was the last corner of the campus with art room, cookery class, tailoring class and a small courtyard for dance class facing the swimming pool. Each pillar around the swimming pool was painted and decorated by the students, which took away the look of a trendy, conventional swimming pool.Each corner of the school was owned by the children and it showed. The art room had very few displays of the students but the teacher explained the kind of work done. Cooking and stitching was compulsory for students and for both genders, she said. “Our children experiment everything from biriyani to payasam and boys never show any inhibitions to learn cooking they realise it’s a skill required to sustain oneself and an art in itself”, spoke Ms June. “When we introduced stitching and tailoring we were not very sure how boys would take it. But we are happy we did it because if not for those classes we would not be able to bring up a fashion designer an alumnus of ours who went for fashion designing to France. Any free time he found he would be here creating patterns on fabric”, said the administrator. Students also seemed to have maintained compost pits to utilise the waste on campus constructively. I met some students who were asked to direct me to the main building. They started off a conversation asking me if I was Ms Rema’s daughter.
Ms Rema was their dance teacher and it was she who told them thiat I was her daughter and I was to be guided to the Administrative building. I told them I was Ms. Rema;s friend’s daughter. And then they asked me if I was a journalist who came to visit their school. The conversation trailed off to what made them feel I was a journalist and then one of them said she wanted to be a journalist and how she hated science. All of them seemed inquisitive to know about Chennai and the weather, culture and food habits of people there. And I asked them about the school, how they felt it there. One student said, “We know things are not the same in other schools. Students can’t speak openly to teachers. Here we can speak anything we wish to our teachers and we don’t worry how they would judge us”. “When we go back home”, said another student, “we see how tensed our friends in the neighbourhood are with their homework, they don’t seem to love school. We love being here.” They did not seem to be children unaware about happenings outside the world as many often pinpoint while trying to find faults with alternative schooling.
What is your ambition I asked them, an age old question perhaps they attempted essay writing on from 1st STD. “Well can’t decide like that but don’t want to take up anything conventional”, said one girl. It felt nice to listen to her confident statements. “I would do something like environmental science, law or photography” said another. There was joy written all over their faces, quite a different picture from my own school days were school bag saddled with books and a water bottle hanging we walked like camels in desert.
It’s not that everything I heard from Pallikoodam were rosy stories. I had read about a controversial incident concerning a student of the school. While talking about recent incidents it came into the conversation. The teachers feel students who have studied all their years in Pallikoodam have picked up the culture and hence there has never been an unhappy incident. But mostly students who came for a year or two found it hard to adjust with the culture of the school.
"There was a student who joined in 11th STD. Right from the beginning he was addicted to pornography and was given warnings. His camera was confiscated and complaints from his own class mates whom he tried to lure to such activities made the principal take stern action. But the student’s parents being politically involved twisted the story and turned it to a harassment of the boy by school authorities and he wrote his exam requesting police protection making the news more sensational", said the administrator. But from what I heard from the teachers and parents I met, I felt the story was not true. Though the school did not issue a conduct certificate to this student he wrote his board exams.I was hearing just one side of the story and I wish I could learn the other side, but since my interactions were limited to the administrator I left with very little I could learn.
As I started to leave the campus I could hear drums and gongs , drama practice had begun and on the other wing small kids were practicing”kuttanadan punchayile” the boat race song , pretending to be boat men they enacted it with the fervour of boat racers at Nehru trophy. And that’s all about my unrecorded field trip to Pallikoodam.