Reema, Vice President, Mother of 2, CA
Reema is a Vice President and mother of two. She lives in California and was interviewed by her friend, Catalyst Callie Turk.
Think about a child that you care about, it can be any child. It doesn’t have to be one of your kids or it could be one of yours kids. Just a child that you really care about. Tell me who that is and what you think makes him or her unique and special.
I think I will pick Aadi. He is my older son, he is twelve years old, goes to public school entering seventh grade. What makes Aadi special, at least from the perspective of my family, is the gentleness of his disposition. A lot of our family members do not have the easygoing nature that Aadi has and so I find it very unique to him. He is certainly an outlier within our family. I worry about him more and I also feel lucky that I have him. I would say that it’s his disposition, more than anything else.
When did you first notice this about him, that he had that disposition?
I think he was in kindergarten and his closest friend at the time was pushing him around and I happened to see it. I did not want to intervene because I think that kids need to learn to manage themselves. I talked to him about it and he said that he would tell his teacher who is Mr. Blumberg. And he did, so he asked this other student to sit out during recess. Aadi spent the entire recess sitting with this kid so that he would not feel bad and he kept asking him “Are you OK? Don’t be sad, this will be over and we will play again.” So, a lot of times even when he is wronged, he feels sympathy for the other person. Over time I’ve seen in several instances people will come and say something to him or they will behave in a mean manner and he will come to me and he will say, “I feel sorry for them because they don’t know better.” So he doesn’t hold a grudge, he doesn’t get angry so I would say that’s the theme I’ve seen with him throughout.
Now I want you to imagine Aadi in his 30s. Take a moment; think about what he might be like. He’s going to be out of school. He’s in his adult life. I want to know what is it that you hope for him in his life? What do you think would make it a good and successful life for Aadi?
I want him to not become cynical as he gets older. I think we all develop a level of cynicism about the world, about relationships. I would hope that’s pushed out by him. That he has positive experiences that make him retain hope and retain that disposition that he currently has. Because I think he’s happiest when he’s like that.
So more than anything else I want him to be comfortable in his skin and to be happy with his lot, however that may be. A lot of people would say that that is defined by success. Whether that’s financial success, or academic success. I hesitate to define it because my definition may be different from his, but I want him to be happy in what he chooses to define his success as.
When he’s in his thirties, I want him to care enough about other people and not put himself before others. I think that makes for a fulfilling life.
What do you think happy looks like? How do you think that might be different from how he might define happy?
For me happiness comes from family. Definitely doesn’t come from money. I think money up to a certain point is important to meet your needs. But after awhile if almost feels like its counter to happiness. When you have a loving family, when you have people who provide you strength, that is the biggest source of happiness. I would think that he would think like that too because he is a homebody. So, he likes to be at home, he likes to tell me – even now he will say “I need to tell you this because I will be unable to fall asleep if I don’t.” So he’s got that bond and I think that he needs that emotional anchor and I think that’s how he would define happiness. If he had somebody who he was in love with and was in love with him, I think that would make him happy. If he knew he had parents who would stand by him no matter what he did that would make him happy. That’s how I would define happiness.
In terms of thinking of that ideal good life and what you hope for for him, what role do you think his schooling should play in helping him get there?
I think there are two ways the schooling should help him. One is the obvious – the academic challenge. I think it’s very important because boredom causes a lot of problems. I have seen it as early as first grade with him, and he has gotten in trouble because he was bored and I think academic challenge is one of the two main critical experiences that a student should have in their schooling.
The other one is finding a peer group that he can call friends his whole life. I still know people that I went to elementary school with. I may not be in touch with them but they knew who I was, they know the foundation. Even if you meet after twenty years you’ve got that common ground that we can build a bridge over. I think finding friends for life is very, very important as part of his schooling experience.
Do you think that the schools are playing that role for Aadi now? Or will they play that role for him?
Academically, elementary school was almost a negligible academic challenge. I was forced to supplement every year he was there. I feel like when students are spending a majority of their waking hours in an environment that is where their challenge should come. But despite being in one of the best school districts in potentially the country, I have found that to be not the case. I think a lot of the problems that we see in this academic culture in this country come at the elementary and middle school level.
They’re not at the high school level. When we look at our school district the high school is fine. But a lot of people are too stressed out when they reach high school because they are not challenged when they are younger. So they are not used to perseverance, they are not used to resilience, they are not used to failure. If they see only easy things, then when they encounter something difficult they fall apart. I think that’s a problem in the academic system generally I think in this country.
Where I grew up, the academic challenge was not necessarily there, but the value of hard work and the value of good study habits was drilled into us at the age three, or at least it started from age three. So, by the time you’ve started college you’re well equipped. I think we are making current students of this generation less equipped to handle adversity and that is all happening in elementary schools.
So, no academic challenge. In middle school it has improved. So, sixth grade math there was enrichment; he had to seek it, but it was there. Then the work that I saw at the end of the year – there is research, they are being made to think. I want him to think as an individual, not just memorize and then regurgitate it out. So they did do that. At the end of sixth grade he took a test, and he has tested out of seventh grade math. So he is going to do eighth grade math. I was gratified to see that it is finally showing in the way that he is doing school, because he has been doing that stuff for a couple of years now. So I think it improves as you go through middle school, but elementary school no way.
What would you like to see them do at the elementary level? Cause I think people can interpret challenge in a different way. So I think it would be nice to hear from your perspective what they can do in the elementary school to help to build that more in.
I think the challenge should come in smaller groups of students who are clearly well ahead of what the school system is providing. If you build in a system of small group instruction, there is a whole movement pulling kids out who are struggling and working with them in small groups. There is not nearly as much emphasis on pulling kids out who are ahead and working with them in small groups. So I think that would be very useful. We have seen that sporadically in the elementary school, but that is all teacher specific. It is not the system that is encouraging that. So, one year you would see that enrichment and then the next year it washes away completely because the teacher changes, but I think small group instruction is absolutely critical to providing the appropriate level of challenge.
They could do – so let’s say math, for example. They could work on things that move away from just simple calculations – word problems, scenarios, and think outside the box. We are lucky to live in the area that we do, there are a lot of opportunities outside the school but I would like to see them provided in school. So, whether they are talking of math small group – give them word problems, give them problem-solving skills, intricate problem solving skills. In science, do the same thing. In language arts, do the same thing. If a student is very clearly writing and expressing their emotions that is well ahead of what you would expect their age group to be, they need to be given material or a topic which they can think more about and get challenged and work on it. It encompasses all subjects I think. There is potential to develop that problem solving ability in all subjects
Different teachers are doing different things. So my younger son Siddh was lucky enough to get a teacher who recognized his writing skills, and that year he grew by leaps and bounds. In that same grade, Aadi did not get that teacher and his experience was dramatically opposite. So, his view was, “Why should I learn something beyond my year? I was bored this year I will be bored next year.” Whereas Siddh was applying all the things he was learning and his writing was of the level that would amaze me and his teacher actually kept his work to show as examples. However, when you go to third grade, it’s back to third grade. Yes, it’s teacher specific.
When you think about what a successful life looks life in your thirties or that kind of picture you paint for Aadi and what you want his life to be like, do you think schools play the role they should for all children getting them to where they need to be?
I don’t think it does that for most children. I think real life skills are not taught enough. Our school does do a commendable thing by doing something called Project Cornerstone, and I am in big admiration in that project because it teaches them to deal with adverse circumstances. Problem solving? It does not teach kids. Whether they are struggling to be in a grade, or they are ahead. It caters to the middle of the pack and so I don’t think it meets the needs for a majority of the kids who go through the school system.
When I ask other people these questions, do you think they agree with your perspective? How much do you think other people agree with you on the different perspectives that you have to share?
I definitely know that there are parents who don’t agree with me on the academic challenge aspect. I have heard that from parents of students as early as in kindergarten. So yes, there’s a difference there. So, the difference in opinion is when students are in kindergarten they are supposed to write a page of three letter words, which my son will do in a certain amount of time but the other parent would say this takes more then two hours for my child to do and this is way too much, they need to be children. That perspective is very different from mine. My view is yes, they need to be children, but they also need to have their brains be exercised. So, I have met people that are across different dimensions. I have a friend who pulled her son out from another elementary school in our district, put him in a private school and then put him back in the public elementary school after one year because she didn’t want the specialized instruction he was getting at the private school. She said, “I do not want him to learn ahead of his grade level.” So she’s pulling him back and putting him in the elementary school. So there are different people and there are different strokes for different folks. So on that aspect yes, I think a lot of people would disagree. I don’t think I’m the majority. I know there will be people who will agree with me and there will be people who will disagree with me.
When you think about the way you defined happiness for Aadi in his thirties, it was a lot about family and having someone he loves who loves him. Do you think that that’s what most people hope for for whoever their special child is; do you think people agree with you that that is a successful life and a happy life?
I would like to think so. I also think when people set expectations for their children, it is driven by their own experiences of what has worked for them and what has not worked for them. So, if I had to define success for myself, where I am has come from academic success, which has led to financial success, and I was lucky enough to have a family. When I see all those things, when I put them in perspective I know that family is far and above the most important thing. So for me that is the definition. The other two also need to go there; whereas if I look at my parents’ perspective, they struggled all their life to make ends meet and they put our education at the highest level, so nothing would jeopardize our education and they were willing to go without things for extended periods of time. Their definition of success is financial success. So I think every parent’s perspective goes into their expectations for their child.
I think a lot of people say, “You’re overanalyzing it. They’re children. They learn. They don’t even know what they want right now. Just let them not worry about things. Let them be happy in whatever circumstance they are in, and let them figure it out, so don’t overanalyze it.” I would hear that. There would be people who said, “You’re right, that environment doesn’t foster the development of relationships,” and there would be people who say, “They are inseparable friends whether that stays or not only time will tell.”
I’d like to hear some of your most empowering educational experiences; it doesn’t have to be in school. It could be something that happened outside of school or something that happened after school, whatever you think of as having been empowering educational experiences for you, personally.
I’d say there are a couple. The first one was, I had completed my education. I started a new job. As part of the job they sent us – I was with a bank – they sent me to their regional headquarters in Singapore for what they call a training program. It’s a three-month program where new trainees come from different countries. So, there were thirteen countries that were represented. For three months there was classroom instruction, there was project-based work. That was one of the most fulfilling experiences until then for me, because I realized I was a leader at that time. I found myself teaching my peers a lot of the things outside of class if they would struggle. I developed some really good friendships; within three months we were all hanging out together and very inseparable. The bank recognized that fact and I think that was a very empowering experience for me. I did not learn anything so much as it was about life, more than anything else. How to be part of a team, how to cooperate to achieve something. So that was one.
The other one was when I did my CFA, which was after I got married. I guess I was not done being a student, so just a chance conversation with someone who said, “You should go for this program because you could really use it and benefit from it,” and I took it on. The third year my father passed away. I was pregnant and he passed away when I was seven months pregnant, and I took that last year exam when Aadi was three months old, and I made it through. The amount of hard work I put into it made it so much more satisfying to get that degree and that’s something I tell my kids. No matter how brilliant you are, you never will be able to substitute hard work. That was a really enriching experience and that degree has defined my career over the last twelve years. It was a completely different trajectory before that.
The definition of an educated mind is to entertain a thought without accepting it. You have to be able to accept that there are people who will disagree with you and still work through it. I think that’s what I learned in Singapore. We all have different abilities, yet we may be given a common goal. How do we use all of it to come to that goal? I think that’s an important life lesson, which I was fortunate enough to learn.
You went to school in India; you’ve had your kids in school here in the U.S. I’m very curious to know your perspective on what you think the purpose of schooling is for individuals but also for society more broadly.
Yeah, so I think in an ideal scenario a school education should enable individuals as they grow up to have a solid foundation in whatever field they are going to pursue and at the same time learn to persevere. They don’t have to be an expert knowledge in everything. Over time, the system should allow them to be able to find what they are passionate about. That may be in college, that may happen in high school, that may happen in graduate school, it may happen in elementary.
That may happen in a second grade classroom.
In a second grade classroom, right?
In the right second grade classroom.
It can happen anytime but the school should provide opportunities for kids to explore and develop that questioning mindset and have that foundation with which they can solve problems in their chosen field. Very vague answer, sorry.
No, it’s supposed to be broad, that’s great. So those are all the questions that I have prepared to ask you. I want to ask one last question: did any of my questions spark ideas or thoughts about something that you haven’t talked about yet?
That’s an interesting question, let me think about that.
We have until you’re planning on going to bed.
I think I never really consciously thought of whether I hold the majority view or not. Yes, when you think about it and you put words to your thoughts you realize obviously, I can’t be, my opinion can’t be the only opinion out there, but we don’t nearly think about that often enough. It would be interesting to see what responses are to these questions from a broader community and you’ve picked people that would clearly have different perspectives. It would be absolutely great to see what different people think about these things, because at the end of the day all of our kids aren’t in the same environment and they are being shaped by different perspectives at home. So how do we bridge everything together to provide that one harmonious environment for everybody? I think it’s a pretty ambitious task but it’s long overdue I think.
Another question I have is I hope teachers get involved in this. I think some of these questions teachers need to ask themselves and their superiors and by superiors I mean their managers. There are very important questions here that need to be voiced and that need to get proper answers, or at least thought about. So I think, I hope educators in general ask these questions, or are exposed to these questions so, if I have the opportunity I would ask the teacher. I would pick a teacher to ask these questions.