“I see no difference between a village child and an Aurovilian child”, says Newcomer Bertrand Magne de la Croix of the Free Progress Boarding school at New Creation.
Bertrand with some of the children
It is a late summer morning at New Creation community. The school is closed for the holidays, the playgrounds are empty and all is quiet. The stillness is broken only by the raucous calls of a lone crow or the flash of a mynah taking off in flight. But one corner of the community is buzzing with activity. In the art room of the Free Progress Boarding, young children are working with red-ochre palettes, bowls of gooey mud concoctions which they are using as paint. From a circle of studiously bent heads, a little girl sits up carefully holding a still-wet work on paper. The slim young art teacher stops to admire it. “Renault, c’est Kireet (Renault, that is Kireet),” the girl points excitedly to a figure in her painting. A tall man in a big hat appears to lead a line of children through a canyon landscape, its surface criss-crossing like multiple camel humps. Bertrand translates for my benefit. “Last week, the kids went on a canyon walk with Kireet, and they brought back some red earth to paint with.”
“I did not at all expect to do this work,” says Bertrand Magne de la Croix of the Free Progress Boarding school in New Creation with its 22 children aged from 5 to 9 years. “I had come to spend a sabbatical year in India, to rest…” He needed to recover from a burn-out from his previous job as a teacher in a school in the Réunion Islands. “And what was meant to be a year’s break will soon be 3 years!” he exclaims.
When Bertrand arrived in Auroville in September 2002, he offered to help André with his Boarding school. André had started the project to provide a unique living and learning experience to underprivileged children from the bioregion. “The philosophy was that children learn best what they live day to day. The basis of the project was that children would leave their families and come to live together in a special nurturing environment in the residential school.” At the start of the project when André made the announcement in the villages requesting families to participate, he got an overwhelming response. “Many children, all in the 3 to 5 year age group, were sent by their families to participate. But after a few months, he couldn’t manage. There were just too many.” When Bertrand joined, there were 22 children. “When I decided to stay longer and help, I asked André not to take anymore for the present as I was alone. More children would have been impossible to manage by myself.”
The cosy book corner, a welcoming space for reading. “The children love books,” says Bertrand. “Picture books, fairy tales, and encyclopaedias – when a new book comes, they are all ready to pounce on it!”
What motivated Bertrand who is not a father himself, to take up the full-time role of a foster-parent to about two dozen children? “Before I came into teaching, I was a physical therapist in France working with adults and children. But I discovered in my work with the children that there is a different reality. Children, because they are more open, can get to the root of things right away.” It was this discovery that pushed Bertrand to leave his then profession, take up teacher training, get formally certified and move into teaching.
In Auroville, Bertrand got deeply involved in the project, which received the name of ‘Samskara’. “Samskara in Hindu philosophy means a kind of transformation,” he explains. “These are stages in a human being’s life which sanctify the body, the intellect and the spirit, and integrate the individual into the society.” This, he shares, is the image that he holds inside, and that which gives him energy in his work.
The project is both ambitious in scope and experimentation. The children stay in the boarding for almost the entire year, and all their needs are met. They are allowed to receive their families once a week on Sunday, and twice a year (during the festival times of Pongal and Deepavali), they are permitted to go home to their families for three days. This makes it an intense and full-time work for Bertrand, which he is ready for. “I hope to stay with these children till they are independent,” he declares passionately.
The Samskara project now includes 22 Tamil children from the ages of 3 to 10 years. “Last year we had to take in 5 extra children. They were all emergency cases.” There were 2 sisters whose mother was in a desperate situation. “She had been thrown out of her house and was homeless. She had been to several orphanages in Pondicherry but none would take her children. She finally came here and pleaded with us to take her daughters in. And we couldn’t refuse.” For Bertrand, it is not easy to forget the background from which many of the children have come, but he chooses instead to focus on the positive and what lies ahead.
The children are divided into two groups based on age, occupying two homes in the New Creation community separated by a cow shed. “We soon hope to build a large gymnasium-styled hall for physical activities, and have a boys’ wing on the top, now that the children are growing up.” The houses appear sprawling and child-friendly, designed to fit their small-sized residents. A private courtyard with trees and a garden adds a cool green touch. Two young Tamil women, Sivakala from Edaiyanchavadi and Ruth from Pondicherry, are permanent residents playing the role of ‘house-mothers’ to the children. In addition, two assistants help with the housekeeping.
The day begins for the children at 6.30 am when Bertrand takes them out for sports activities, sometimes swimming at the nearby New Creation pool. Then it is time to get ready for school. School involves both formal and non-formal instruction. Children have classes in arts, languages, music, and general studies. The school follows a triple-language policy, with the primary language of instruction being French. Tamil and English are the other languages taught. “People are often surprised that we use French as the teaching medium. But you’ll be surprised at how quickly children pick up new languages.” Will this language policy not alienate the children from Tamil culture? Bertrand explains, “The children have Tamil classes, where they get instructions. They interact with Tamil people, and between themselves they converse in Tamil so there is no loss of culture. There is in fact an enrichment.”
The football team of the Free Progress Boarding School
Besides classroom activities, field trips, discussions, circle sharings, nature walks and cycle trips within Auroville are common. “For me, the ultimate goal of this project is to impart to these children the ability to arrive at their own truths. It is not about ‘knowledge’ but ‘wisdom’. I would say that the main focus is on techniques of communication.” Once a week, usually on Saturdays, Bertrand spends time with the children exploring the events that have happened in their lives. He uses several alternative communication tools during these sessions. “Like the ‘relational scarf’ where the relation between two or more beings are visualized using scarves; the ‘talking stick’ which is an ancient tribal ritual where the holder of the stick calls for attention and respect. Then there is the ‘inter-personal dustbin’ where children are encouraged to have a breathing space to keep negativity from invading them. So we are trying to give them many tools that will allow them to express what they feel inside.” He observes how quickly the children have picked up these techniques and use them with ease.
How does Bertrand respond to the prevailing doubts in Auroville about village children being ‘plucked out’ of their native cultural milieu and brought up in a predominantly Western manner. Will this not be disruptive to a child’s emotional grounding, will it not alienate them from their native culture? He disagrees. “Take the example of the young Tamil Aurovilians. One can see how well integrated and grounded they are. All of them grew up in Auroville and many of them passed through Andre’s New Creation boarding.” He adds, “One cannot make a differentiation between a village child and an Aurovilian child! Children have a level of awareness irrespective of social strata or background. This means you can take any child – red, white, black or yellow – from any level, put the child in a supportive environment and he or she will blossom like a flower to the sun.”
Young swimmers testing the waters at the New Creation pool
The house environment at the boarding is seen as a very important learning space. Bertrand explains how the children are encouraged to take care of each other and run the place. “Here, there is much freedom and at the same time, responsibility. We have recently introduced a democratic process where they are given responsibility to make their own rules, like who is to keep the book-corner clean, who collects the dirty clothes for the laundry, who arranges the flowers and changes the water and so on.” The house rules seem to be a unique blend of Eastern and Western values. Eastern values like sharing of resources and caring for the collective property, and Western values like privacy. For Bertrand, the concept of privacy is very important and has been a challenging concept to introduce. “I remember the first time I was here we bought them their own beds. But they refused to sleep in them. They preferred to sleep together on the floor, pell-mell. And it was not easy!” But Bertrand believes that privacy is very essential for the children. “It is only in a private space that one can rest without people looking at you or touching you, and without outside interference. Last year we went a step further, and put curtains around each bed. And the rule is ‘when a curtain is closed, don’t look inside’, and they respect that. There is one boy who to this day, takes his toy car, goes to his bed, closes the curtain, and stays alone playing! The closing of the curtain is very symbolic – ‘I come inside, I am in my space and I am in myself’.”
Despite the good will and enthusiasm, Bertrand like many innovative ‘idea-holders’ in Auroville, faces the universal challenge of finding a steady support base, both monetary and in human resources. The boarding school currently does not come under the SAIIER outreach education umbrella, as it is separate from the New Creation Day School. “There has been some support mainly from AVI France for infrastructure only,” says Bertrand, “The day to day expenses are met from the guest house contribution from New Creation, a few Auroville units, and friends. I know I should be doing some fundraising, but I have just no time for that.”
Bertrand’s official status in Auroville is that of a Newcomer. Asked about how he views his relationship to Auroville, especially since his project is not openly recognized by Auroville, Bertrand has this to say. “For me it is not a question of Auroville or not Auroville. I have been working with the principles of Sri Aurobindo since the very beginning. And we all know that one can practice one’s yoga even in the subways of Paris. But it is here in Auroville that I have the opportunity to do this great experiment. This work that I am doing with the children is just not possible to do in France. It is incredible! When people visit me from France and look what we’re doing, they are amazed. In the Reunion Islands, it was not possible to manifest this work, and I was even stopped! So I have a lot to thank André for – the confidence he placed in me and for entrusting me with the children to attempt this work.”
As for the dreams for the future, Bertrand is down to earth and pragmatic. “To get pleasure in the work I do, to be happy every day and to be with the children. If people are coming to help me, they are welcome. I don’t need specialists – just people working from the heart.”