At Sarang Alternative School, C is not for Cat but Cooking, F not for Flag but Farming, T not for Telephone but Trees, V not for Violin but Vegetables. Welcome to Gopalakrishnan-Vijayalakshmi couple's laboratory of education or school of experiments at Attappadi in Kerala's Palakkad district.
Started in 1982 as an alternative to the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ method of education, Sarang, which doesn't even boast of a sign board, imparts life lessons, not calculus classes, to children in a free, democratic and nature-friendly environment.
The school's proud possession is its classroom — a 12-acre forest on the slope of a hill, which was once barren with a dried out stream but later turned into a thick jungle by the teacher couple.
Children here learn their Mathematics, Science and languages from the nature with the company of wild boar, rabbits, squirrels and rare species of frogs.
Gopalakrishnan, 68, from Vellathuval in Idukki district and Vijayalakshmi, 60, from Ranni in Pathanamthitta quit their teaching job at government schools 30 years ago to pursue their dream of helping children shake off the burden of schoolbags. Their first student was none other than their own son Gautham. Later, Kannaki and Unniyarcha followed their brother. Gautham, now 37, surprised his parents by joining a Bangalore-based media start-up as a web designer in 2017, once again proving the couple's methods of teaching were right.
Even though their concept of a school without classrooms drew global attention, the couple's love for each other is yet to be revealed. On Valentine's Day, they bare their heart out for Onmanorama.
Q: How did you meet and fall in love?
Gopalakrishnan: After my primary education, almost eight years I roamed around, taking part in the theatre movement. Later, I joined a teachers' training program where I met Vijayalakshmi. There were 30 women and 10 men in our class. Vijayalakshmi and I always questioned the outdated textbooks and study material imposed on us. We started discussing our views on an ideal teaching system and elaborated on our concepts with own experiences. Within those two years, we developed a level of mutual understanding and similar social outlooks. We became inseparable.
Vijayalakshmi: We hardly thought about love and romance in the beginning. We had a social duty to perform together. We were busy planning strategies to teach children in a better manner. We discussed students' psychology, cognitive learning and study material. By the time our course ended, we felt that the society needs us together to revamp this age-old system of formal education. Thus, we decided to start a life together.
Q: What made you to choose a life together? What were the challenges you faced in coming together?
Gopalakrishnan: Before we parted after the TTC program, we took a decision to get into government service as soon as possible. Vijayalakshmi cracked the PSC first and started her teaching career at a government high school in Wayanad. Both of us moved to Wayanad and started our life together. We conducted additional tuition classes for underprivileged and weak students at our own rented accommodation. Hardships began when our families came to know about our relationship. Vijayalakshmi's family expelled her. My parents were supportive of our decision. We were very busy with our rural education programs at that time. We hardly got any time to cry over personal problems.
Vijayalakshmi: Salary from a government job couldn't support us. Goji (Gopalakrishnan) did several jobs, including daily wage work. Soon, he also got a job as a government school teacher. Our colleagues and school authorities raised complaints and suspicion about our new education drive. But we were giving home tuition without accepting a single penny. Yet, we were challenged in courts and we had to fight a decade-old legal battle to end it.
Q: How do you strike a work-life balance?
Gopalakrishnan: Within some time, we realized that public education sector is a poor platform to implement a creative and participative learning system. The system doesn't want teachers who do their job through innovative ways. It wants passive puppets who spoon-feed the children with wornout syllabus. I quit my job after five years of service. Vijayalakshmi held on for six more years. Later, she also resigned when Gautham was seven. We taught children at home, picked up daily-wage jobs and worked with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to support our family.
Vijayalakshmi: Once we were out of professional responsibilities, we spent quality time debating and discussing our concept of alternative schooling. We co-authored books and implemented our model of education with our own children. Our daughters Kannaki and Unniyarcha were born by that time. A few of our neighbours also sent their children to us. We all lived together as a single family without any formalities of teaching and learning.
Q: Have you faced any situation where your personal and professional commitments came into conflict?
Gopalakrishnan: Right from the time we started our career as teachers, we had a long-term dream about starting an ideal educational institution. As a youngster, I believed that it is the insincere teachers who hijack our flawless formal education system. My misconception was reversed after Vijayalakshmi started working as a teacher. Her constant struggles against the defective system convinced us that there is some serious problems with the system. In 1982, we started a private educational institution called Basic School where we extended formal education to the underprivileged children. But soon, our personal views came into conflict with our professional commitments and we parted ways with the framework of formal education.
Vijayalakshmi: There were no major conflict of opinion between Goji and I. We engage in constant discussions and rectify the differences in our views. We always opted for a middle point. Perhaps, there was a consistent urge from our environment to fill gaps in our views. We had larger missions to achieve together.
Q: As a couple, what's the best thing you have done for the society?
Vijayalakshmi: The best thing we have given to the society is the concept of Sarang Alternative School. We believe that every child has a specific database within their DNAs regarding their interests and subject choices. We just have to give them enough time and exposure to discover it. Every child may not acquire writing skills at four and reading abilities at five. Learning would be a hectic process if you put every child in the same mould. Sarang is neither a forest school nor a mere community space where children aren't looked after. It is a free, democratic, informal education paradigm where children learn life lessons rather than we teach them.
Gopalakrishnan: All what we have done with our life is to formulate an effective, specific and alternative system of elementary education. I am 68 and my partner is 60. We decided to hand over our ambition to the next generation. Gautham and his partner Anu are passionate about the concept of alternative schooling. We conduct workshops and interactive lectures on need to revamp our formal education system.
When we bought this piece of land in 1981, it was a barren forest without much vegetation. Our sole condition before buying this land was that it should have a dried up stream. We purchased this 12-acre plot in Agali, planted trees and kept watering the land with the help of our children. Now, we have a beautiful forest with a rejuvenated stream that flows round the year. We regard it as a gift we've given back to mother earth.
Q: What is the core of your life together?
Vijayalakshmi: A shared social mission. We wouldn't have been together unless we had that urge to change the existing system. We were discovering and rediscovering the love and care we have for each other by working hand-in-hand for our ambitions. The urge for an academic revolution is the core of our beautiful relationship. We believe that love without a social commitment is just lust. Lust is nothing inferior but such a hollow romance would end soon, bringing in a disgusting boredom between partners.
Q: What's the one thing that hooked you the most in your partner?
Gopalakrishnan: Courage and sincerity. Vijayalakshmi has always taken strong decisions and followed her will. At the same time she is very childish. She is more childish than Gautham's toddler Chinmayi.
Vijayalakshmi: Goji has always been a rebel. He stood upright for his truths. He has a clear vision about topics he gets indulged in. And look at his long beard, I love him for that too (laughs aloud).
Q: A word for the youngsters?
Gopalakrishnan: Every emotions, feelings and frameworks in this world need to be updated according to the social changes. The concept of romance that is prevalent in the society is a wornout fabrication of institutional marriage. Today's romance is not the old, stereotyped, marriage-oriented fairy tale. I wouldn't blame youngsters on that. It is the elder generation hesitant towards change. My call to the youngsters is to break all such chains and spread their wings to achieve their ultimate social ends.
Vijayalakshmi: Do not live for love. Live for your vision. Take up a mission and work hard for it. You'll find shoulders to rest on along your journey. Share your cause and fight for it together. At the end when you look back, the sight of graceful love life you lived would surprise you.