It was about 2 ½ years ago that I joined Last School as a teacher. My connection began soon after I had a student from Last School come to attend the ‘O' level biology class that I was then offering at Future School . She was one of the youngest in the group with a limited background in the sciences, but she quickly stood out with her curiosity and maturity. I remember I asked each student to come up with any question they would like to be discussed in class, and hers was unexpected – how does the mind work? She had me stumped and I had to go back and do some real homework!
Soon she dropped out as the logistics of travelling between the two schools, just to attend one class became unrealistic, but not before asking if I would come and teach at Last School . Perhaps more students would be interested, she said, as they did not have a teacher in the natural sciences.
And so I found myself teaching at Last School.
The Last School children on a weekend trek to the Gingee hills
The school building is a delightful design of Roger Anger – round and bubble-like with port-hole windows, and painted ochre and white. It feels welcoming and cosy in its unusually diminutive scale. Inside it is beautiful – an open courtyard with ferns and a cluster of tall areca-nut trees shooting straight up, a little pond with hyacinths popular with the dragonflies, and a stucco Ganesh amidst the greenery. The classrooms are laid out around this garden in an oval layout. Along the walls are delicate scrolls of calligraphy with Sri Aurobindo's mantras and The Mother's words. I was already sold. And the class had eight eager faces – four from Auroville, three from the village, and one from Pondicherry – together representing six nationalities. What was remarkable to me was their easy companionship and helpfulness towards each other. They seemed like a family.
Last School states its aims as being (1) to experiment with free progress so that the students progressively take over the responsibility for their own progress, (2) to unify the education of the instrumental nature (mind, life, and physical) around the aspiration of the soul, and (3) to design an Aurovilian syllabus, free from the pressures of the certificate systems.
It has taken a while for me to even begin to understand what this means. In my own class, I find the students mature beyond what I expect of someone of their age. Despite their limited exposure to the sciences – it is the arts and the humanities that are Last's School's strengths – their understanding is intuitive. Their questions are deep, observations pointed and everyone participates with ease, without shyness – something that I found refreshing. They seem a confident, grounded and happy bunch
Recently as my class was watching the movie What the Bleep do we Know? I noticed one student making notes in her journal as the scenes rolled – “It's for later reference,” she said noticing my curious looks. Another made a remark after the bit on quantum physics. “That sounds just like what the Kena Upanishad says.” A seventeen year old in the 21st century (and French) talking with ease about an ancient Indian text! I was stumped. When I shared this with Deepti who teaches Indian culture and philosophy at the school, she did not seem surprised. “If you asked them what the difference between the Brahman and Ishwara is they would, with some effort, probably be able to give you an answer.”
To suddenly find myself in such an atmosphere was liberating. No set syllabus to follow, no dead-line to meet, no questions to ask and re-ask in preparation for exams, no information to summarize and spoon-feed, and no bored students to entertain.
Looking back, perhaps I did turn a tad crazy over the first few weeks, but the students were tolerant and did not complain. We went on nature walks exploring the canyons behind Aspiration – clambering down the steep ridged walls, filling pockets with edible berries, examining termite mounds and tree fungi, collecting broken egg shells of unusual pastel hues… just immersed in the surrounding wilderness. I had not felt that alive in a long time or as excited about Auroville as I was then. There was always something new to explore in that wild green campus and beyond.
Later, our class began to meet at the Pitchandikulam forest to learn about tropical flora and medicinal plants. It was as if the greater Auroville, a live and teeming laboratory, was just waiting to reveal its mysteries. Was I prepared for it? Not really – because the material available is so vast. One could easily spend months just looking at one aspect of it and getting lost in that microcosmic world. Of course, in time we all settled down and formal classroom sessions also began where we studied human biology or discussed the emerging issues of biotechnology.
Time, as a resource
When I look back over my two brief years at the school, what stands out is the availability of time. No one seems to be rushed to ‘complete portions' and move on. Time seems to be an abundant resource allowing one to explore any topic for as long as it takes, and as deeply as one wishes.
Sometimes I wonder what motivated these children to choose and remain in Last School . Aren't they afraid to face a future unarmed with certificates? Aren't they ambitious to leave Auroville and see the world? While the majority of their peers have opted to pursue more conventional programmes, what gave these children the courage to step outside the box? Why were they unaffected by peer pressure?
I asked them if it was a hard decision to make. “Yes,” said one. “In the beginning I was not sure if I'd miss out on something without a certificate. But very soon it didn't matter – I am very happy with my choice.” She has been in Last School for over three years. Another boy, the only one from Transition School who joined the programme this year adds, “Certificates seem important mainly to get jobs – it doesn't mean learning. And in my opinion, one can get the job one wants as long as you know the right people and have the right connections!” But the real reason he chose Last School he says was the strong fine arts programme there offered through the Pyramids.
The school's strengths lie in philosophy, Indian culture, humanities, the languages, and the arts. Students at their own request have started studying Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine. Specialized classes have also been given in the Dhammapada, Vedas, Upanishands, and Tantras. A lot of hours are dedicated to learning languages – everyone learns French, Tamil, Sanskrit and English. ‘Current events' is a core subject to which much time is also devoted – “It keeps us in touch with the contemporary world,” explains a teacher. Mathematics and natural science are also part of the programme. The arts (drawing, painting sculpture, crafts) are taught at the Pyramids Arts Centre, where art is pursued not for its own sake, but as an ‘instrument for self-education in an aspiration to harmony'. All students participate in the Dehashakti Sports Programme offered in the late afternoon every day.
But what I have still not understood is why this school, that seems to pursue the concept and spirit of Free progress as expressed by The Mother, is asked constantly to justify its existence. Just because only a few students have opted to study there, does it make it less valid? The teachers say that they all feel much joy in doing what they do. “We will continue to do our work as long as we have students,” they say. “But the reality is that we may have to wind down. Auroville does not seem ready for this yet.” Next year, two students have planned to leave for a year of travelling. “That will leave us with only four children, unless new ones join,” they add. (The school does take in children of visitors and has a couple of Korean students who attend a few classes.)
I remember the beginning of this school year. I had showed up on what I thought was my first teaching day, but the school was empty. Everyone is at the Pyramids, said the amma. And there they were, the entire school, teachers and students, all working side by side on art installations. “Didn't you get the message?” they asked. The first week of school had been set aside to get in touch with the inner creative. Everyone was involved – painting, drawing, constructing, creating. And that included the shy Tamil teacher who had made an enchanting strip of marching red dinosaurs…
If this is what school can be like, can I please be a student again?