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Last month, an unfortunate news of suicide by 16 year old national swimmer Saira Sirohi shook the sports world. Her father, who is reported to have taken early retirement from his police job to support his daughter’s passion, was shattered. Her 11 year old sister, who spoke to her just hours before she hung herself, was in disbelief. Her coach, who says it was a privilege to train such a dedicated athlete, felt a deep sense of loss. Saira, who at the age of 8 swam for 15 hours non-stop, had over 110 national medals to her name by the age of 16 and was all set to participate in 2020 Olympics. With so many laurels to her name and such bright prospects ahead, why would she take such a drastic step?
It is not surprising that her parents and coach have both confirmed that she was afraid that she would fail in her upcoming examinations at school. She had already missed quite a few tests previously and the school had threatened to expel her if she failed in the coming tests (as per media reports). The school officials, on their part, are saying that they always supported Saira’s talent and allowed her to take tests according to her schedule and they are not taking responsibility for her mental state leading her to commit suicide. If that really is true, then who is responsible for the loss of a beautiful life? Did the school really support her dreams? Were her parents not tuned in to her emotions? Too many questions left unanswered. But one thing is clear, that with timely support and encouragement, this story could have ended differently.
Even as we talk about changes in the education system and a more child-centric, experiential –learning approach and emphasis on life-skills development in the 21st century, I still feel that as a society, we are strongly tethered to the older beliefs of A-grade student, excelling in entrance exams, becoming Engineers and Doctors as the ultimate achievement of a parent, child and also that of the teacher and the school. So, it is not just the child that is under pressure to perform and excel in academics but also the parent and the school. They inadvertently end up imposing their fears on the child, who is then highly likely to have a break-down. Even though schools nowadays have counselors for students who are weak in studies or need any guidance otherwise, but I am unsure of how many schools proactively offer counseling and support to students who are excelling in co-curricular activities. I also don’t think there are any regular guidance sessions for parents to understand their child’s true interest and tap into their potential without simply pushing them in the only direction they may know.
Being a parent to a child and seeing a lot of children in my extended family too, I am only in awe of the varied skills and competencies that every individual child possesses and how unique they are. It would be a pity to not acknowledge these bright minds and give them freedom to reach for the stars. I saw a quote recently that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, then it will live its whole life thinking it is stupid. Schools and parents need to be sensitized to this concept and a proper structure needs to be in place for students with exceptional talents too.
I recently saw a video of a young boy aged 28 called Varun Agarwal, who went from failing in Engineering to co-founding a million dollar company and authoring a best selling novel. His journey was full of ups and downs but he braved all the negativity and opposition and emerged a happy and successful person. Unfortunately, the same could not happen for Saira.
I feel, as parents, our focus should be on helping build a strong foundation of virtues such as integrity, hard-work, focus, dedication, learning and experimenting and we should pull ourselves out of the practice of choosing the exact career path for our kids. Many parents would disagree with me, saying that children need guidance and that parents always have their child’s best interest in mind. However, my only response to them is that we need to trust our kids and we must acknowledge that they are capable of a lot more than we can even imagine. I can only hope that Saira’s death does not go in vain and triggers a healthy debate in our country regarding systemic reforms with the focus on learning outcomes, value-building and career support more than mere grades.
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