The Secret School

By Tanay Bhattacharjee

April 29, 2024

I ran away from home, my destination being The Secret School. Let’s rewind a bit. Before I begin narrating my adventures at The Secret School, a quick recap of how I happened to reach here is in order.

I was 15 years old, studying in a normal school, Std – IX. I was the class introvert, the guy who sat quietly in a corner, trying his best to avoid attention. I never spoke unless required. I basically didn’t know what to talk about. All the other kids seemed to have such exciting lives, but when I heard what they talked about, it didn’t seem that exciting to me. Soap operas on Doordarshan? In such a situation, I feared that if I talked about what excited me, I would get laughed at. Ruskin Bond stories? Open blue sky? Sitting idly beside a pond watching tadpoles swim around? Naah. I kept my mouth shut. I had this mortal fear of being laughed at. But I digress. Here is what happened:

One fine day, our English teacher announced that I (of all people) would be delivering a speech on the importance of protecting the environment on our Annual Day. I knew she thought she was giving me an opportunity to come out of my shell (she knew I wrote good essays). What she didn’t realize was talking in public was my worst nightmare! I could have protested and withdrawn myself from the dreadful event. But when Miss made the announcement, I was my normal tied-tongue self, and naturally, everyone assumed that silence meant a ‘yes’.

Then, the dreadful day arrived. I walked up to the podium with the speech totally memorized. I was confident I was going to hit the ball out of the park. But as I looked at the crowd of thousands – students and their parents – my tongue tied itself. I managed to utter something unintelligible, and then nothing. My mind went blank. The crowd erupted in laughter. Tears rolled down my eyes as teachers escorted me off the stage. It was on that day I decided not to go back to school again. School was a dreadful place; one could learn on one’s own if one so wished.

***

I first came across The Secret School in a newspaper article. The article was about an adventurer who, while trekking in the Himalayas, was hit by an avalanche. When he regained consciousness, he found himself in what appeared to be a monastery at first, but later discovered it to be a school curiously called – The Secret School. It was a school like no other.

The article went on to describe his month-long stay in the school. It was run by people from various countries who seemed to have discovered the place by accident. The author said that he was under oath not to reveal much detail about the school but mentioned that there was no fixed syllabus or tests. Students pursued their own interests and tried to come up with solutions for the problems in the community. He said he didn’t quite understand why they were making such a secret out of it.

After I stopped going to school, stories of the Secret School kept coming from one source or another. I was reading an account of a writer who lived in the foothills of the Himalayas, and there was a brief mention of a Secret School. Sometimes I came across interviews with scientists, businessmen, filmmakers, actors (a huge superstar from the South) who said they had been away in the Himalayas teaching their subjects of expertise to students. But they didn’t reveal anything more than that. It was as if the school was beckoning me, and the whole universe was trying to move me towards it.

Almost a year and a half after dropping out of school and spending my time reading books, I decided to leave home in search of the Secret School. I felt it was at that school that I could find myself.

***

I wrote a long letter addressing my intent to my parents, kept it on the dining table, and sneaked out of home, taking the first bus out of town. I won’t narrate my six months of adventure and struggle in trying to reach the school. That is another story. This is going to be an account of my five years spent at the school, with permission from the founder of the school who doesn’t want his identity to be disclosed.

For long, he has tried to keep information about the school from reaching the outside world. But now age has caught up with him, and he remains unwell for most of the time. Also, he feels that the experiment that he started with the school has largely been successful. He now feels that his way (which is not ‘a way’ in the strict meaning of the phrase) is far better than the formal system of education practiced in the country. Now it’s time to adopt this system as an alternative and better approach.

***

Upon my arrival, the first thing that was made clear to me was that there were no Class I, II, III..and so on. One doesn’t get admitted to a particular class. Here, subjects were taught by teachers, and students took the courses based on the level they were at in that subject. For example, suppose one knew the basics of Physics, like the laws of mechanics, electricity, magnetism; then he would be put in Level II of Physics. Same went for all the subjects. One could be in Level III in one subject and Level 0 in another.

“But how am I supposed to know which subjects to take?”, I asked the Kumaoni lady who was to be my counsellor.

“Aha,” she said, “look within. Take this week. Think it over.”

The first few days I spent just roaming around the campus, soaking in the surroundings and eating free food in the canteen (which was run by the students). The week passed, and I hadn’t yet figured out my subjects for study. I was a voracious reader. I read anything and everything, and I did write in my diary. So, I decided on English literature. I was also keenly interested in Physics. I mulled all these over when the counsellor appeared.

I was scared that she would give me some kind of ultimatum to finish up or to get lost. But nothing of the sort happened. Rather, with a smile, she said, “Don’t worry at all. You don’t have to figure out your life. None has figured that out. So, relax.” That comforted me a bit.

“We have a few quizzes that might help you find out the kind of person you are. Personality tests. There are things about us that we don’t know ourselves. These tests help you identify those. Every student here has taken those. They will help you choose your subjects. And the best part about choosing your subjects is that you can drop them anytime you want. You see, the school recognizes that we don’t have fixed interests. Of course, you won’t be getting the credits. And one more thing. Here, assessment is very, very different from what you are used to. More about that later. For now, let’s go and take the quiz.”

I was already feeling liberated. She took me to the huge library and gave me a set of papers. It took me about an hour and a half to finish them. She collected the papers. “We will discuss the results tomorrow. Till then, you can drop into any class and listen. Here, you can drop into any class you wish to. You can drop into any class for a month before deciding to commit to the course.” I was led to the computer in the library. My counsellor opened a program and showed me the list of classes available in the school along with the teachers running them. I decided to drop into the creative writing class to spend the afternoon. The teacher was a ponytailed Spanish man in his mid-thirties. I was welcomed into the class as a drop-in. The class started with a few of the students reading their essays. Then the teacher asked the other students to rank the essays. Everybody assigned a rank (including me), then we all noted down and averaged the ranks to arrive at the final rank. Then the teacher asked the class to discuss why one essay topped and another was at the bottom of the rank. What emerged was a beautiful discussion on what constituted good writing. It involved the clarity of thought, originality of ideas, honesty, style, and various others. I thoroughly loved the class. The results of the tests had come.

* * *

My counsellor told me that I was an INFJ personality as per the Myers-Briggs Test (MBTI). It was the rarest of the personality types, she told me. INFJ stood for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Judging. It meant that I had difficulty mixing with people. I only got along with certain “types”. That I was an empath. I was good at creative and lateral thinking. That I was an idealist who looked for deeper meanings in things. Based on the results, she suggested I take up Literature, Physics, Computer Sciences, and Creative Writing (no surprises). She said, although the school did not have any restrictions on the number of classes to be taken, students usually took five to six. More than that, there arose scheduling problems as timings clashed. I thought about the mix of classes the whole night! One wasn’t used to making such decisions. Because in normal schools, things were already decided for you. Here, it was expected that you will take your decisions. I finally chose – Creative Writing, English Literature (Level 2), Physics (Level 2), Maths (Level 3), and Computer Science (Level 2). There were minor classes that lasted for a few weeks to a few months like Carpentry, Photography, Hydroponics. For the moment, I didn’t opt for any.

* * *

The teachers followed an exploratory style of teaching. For example, in the Physics class, the teacher asked us, the students, which topic to explore? After much discussion, we settled on the Works of Albert Einstein. The teacher said that was for Level 3.0, but he gave a brief outline of his works and also told us about his life. In fact, before starting the lecture, he wrote on the blackboard – “Name the Indian Scientist who co-authored a paper with Einstein? Wrong Answers only.” Everyone laughed. But one by one, everyone gave the names of Indian Scientists. All wrong though. But it broke the ice, and everyone relaxed. None was expected to be correct all the time. Once the teacher gave us a simple problem – measure the height of the building. We were divided into teams. We were free to look up our books or ask anybody. We could not come up with a solution the whole day. The next day, one team did.

* * *

They tied a rock to a long rope, threw it from the top of the building, marked the highest stretched portion of the rope, and then measured it. “Ok,” said the teacher, “can there be another option?” Somebody came up with another solution – by measuring the angle the shadow of the building cast and using trigonometry, the height could be calculated. The teacher was impressed. “But,” he said, “there could be an even easier solution still.” He proceeded to explain Newton’s laws of motion and derived the formula S=ut+1/2gt^2. “All one has to do now is to throw a stone from the top of the building and record the time it takes to hit the ground. Since u=0 in this case, the formula reduces to S=1/2gt^2. We know the value of ‘g’ – the gravitational constant; S= distance can be calculated.” The Computer Science classes were even better. They asked us to come up with programs to solve scheduling problems of the classes, to manage the accounts of the school. Although I was not much into sports, these too had credits and levels of excellence. I took a few minor classes during my stay – farming, carpentry, bike/car repairing. I actually did farm with a farmer in the village, grew vegetables. Repaired bikes in the village motor repair shop and made furniture for the school.

* * *

The school did not have written exams. The belief was that written exams tested only memory. Students were tested through multiple ways. One was the quality of the projects that one did. Like I worked on the farm, worked as a beat reporter in the local newspaper. A portfolio of one’s work was to be maintained. And these were assessed by multiple teachers. Also, from time to time, one-on-one interviews were taken. When one moved from one level to another, a detailed assessment sheet was given. There was no fixed end date for a level in a course. Some students took more time to complete, some took less.

* * *

I stayed in the school for five years. How did I pay the fees? Since I wasn’t getting any money from home, there was a system the school had in place – I could teach other students. Although I did odd jobs as I said before, they were not enough to cover the fees. Teaching was the most viable option. Only one thing stood in the way – my fear of speaking in public. I confided in my counsellor. She gave me a simple advice – I either do it or quit the school. It was the only way to pay the fees without asking my parents. There is no better teacher than life itself. I not only learnt to teach students I also became valedictorian of the batch that left the school at the same time. I won several debate competitions as well.

* * *

During my time at the Secret School, I came in touch with its founder and grew quite close to him. I cannot reveal his identity but let it be known that he was a billionaire entrepreneur, who started this school after retiring from his business. He has now aged and in his death bed. He treated me like his own son and entrusted me the work of spreading the ideas of the school across the world. He said that Education needed a disruption.

The author holds managerial post in a public sector bank.

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