Monday, June 11, 2018

The Sailing Leaf

Manmeet Narang is the founder of Sailing Leaf, a program that works with children for creative expression. Here is her story. 

I had an unhappy childhood, in the sense that I had a lonely childhood. I didn't have many friends, and books were my companion. I didn't have many books, either. I have a short story around this. I remember I had been to a friend's place.  I still remember her book very vividly - it had the image of an incubator on the cover, with a bunch of chicks in it. I was very fascinated by the book cover, and really wanted the book. This girl was almost five years older than I was - and I had this one book at my place. So I decided to barter the book with her, and exchanged it with her. I used to read that book for hours and hours. My first brush with reading was with that book. Since then, I have been reading all kinds of books. Even though books were my only companions, my childhood didn't have many books.So I don't have memories of reading Enid Blytons or Famous Five.It is funny that now I am reading all books under the ambit of Children's Literature. May it be picture books or Roald Dahls or Katherine Applegate, they give me such insight and joy. I can go for hours on end, reading books for children. I find myself wondering how these books can impact children's minds. This void is what lets me work with children. On some levels, I've also felt that if I had something handholding me in my childhood, maybe I may have stood on my feet sooner than I have, and come into my own with the understanding that certain things are all a part of growing up, and that this confusion can also be a basis for creativity. Had I had a song in my childhood, it might have been fun. 

The journey into founding Sailing Leaf began with my own children. My daughter is a voracious reader, and writes very well. I thought that having someone to guide and give her a push would be a good idea. Being a trainer, writer and facilitator, I realized that I had the skills to pull it. The idea was fair, and I wanted to, and I had put those little eggs in the incubator. I was already working with kids on a range of themes, and conduct sessions for children on topics like body image and comprehensive sexuality education. In the midst of this I had the chance to take on a project - it was a perfect one for me, really - where I got to venture out into self-expression with kids. One night, I decided to take the plunge. In the day that followed, I designed the entire curriculum and launched a workshop by the name of "The Story of Emoticons," where the primary focus was to come out with your emotions, delve into them, create stories and write letters. The very next day, I launched it on Facebook - without a second thought. That's how the journey began. The name, "Sailing Leaf" was not even coined then. I had no plans then, and till date, haven't had any plans in place - except that I knew that this is important work for children, who go through a lot of emotional upheavals. At the end of the day, pain is what leads to creation, so if you are going through an emotional upheaval, let's bring whatever there is inside out, and create something. The first two workshops, strangely, went full. It's strange, when I look back, and see people who struggle to find associates, find children and advertise - but I haven't struggled since the day I began. It seems like the universe has been with me. I didn't for a second question anything - everything has been instinctive and out of passion. With this unplanned, unscripted route, I never feel tired. I do a lot of work on myself, and I spend time meeting with people - which is training in itself. 

On the last day of the training, I give the children deflated balloons and tell them to blow air into it. I tell them that they have to puncture the balloons of others, but at the same time, they must protect theirs. After they are done playing this game, we have a round of debriefing. A lot of people in the world will try to puncture their balloons - so you have to save your own. At the same time, instead of trying to puncture others' balloon, work on saving yours. Look at what you have, rather than try to compare yourself with others and expect to be like them. I keep a bunch of deflated balloons in the center. Once their balloons are punctured, they are all the more aggressive about puncturing others'. So during the debriefing, I ask them what stopped them from picking up another balloon - and point out to them that their energies are directed towards puncturing another's, instead of making an effort to groom their own. The world out there is going to tell children that they are not good enough or they cannot do something - but it is important for the children to take home the fact that only they know what they are, and should make an effort to be their authentic selves. I leave no stone unturned in making them see and take home the lessons they learned. I tell them that it is their job to move ahead, and to take along those who can benefit from the privilege of learning alongside them. I teach them to see that their parents may not share the new views they learn because they have grown up with a conditioning peculiar to their times - and so, instead of looking upon their parents with anger for not aligning with them, they should aim to take them along in the journey of moving ahead in life. 

Each program ends with a session with parents.So they are also being enrolled and educated about creative processes so that they can provide a conducive environment at home for kids to blossom. I receive beautiful messages from the children and parents after my sessions with them. But there's this spark in the children I work with that keeps me going, and tells me not to give up on this journey. I take only 12 kids in my batch - but in my first workshop, a mother approached me for her daughter, who was in class five. The age group I was working with was between 11 and 14, so I refused the mother. But somehow, something about the mother made me give in and take her daughter in. By the end of the workshop, the child came out jumping. I saw the mother crying - and I was surprised. The mother told me, "You gave my child back to me." I was surprised, and asked her what she meant. The mother told me that the child was being bullied and was rejected at school - and that workshop had changed her life altogether. The mother is still in touch with me, and the child has done nearly all of my workshops since then. To the child, attending these workshops is much like visiting a place of faith, as she comes there to connect with herself. I do this thing in my workshops where I get the kids to pick up a pebble each, and ask them to make a promise that they will implement their lessons learned in their everyday lives. This little girl carries all these pebbles with her, wherever she goes. Recently, on one of her holidays to the hill station, some cousins teased her - and the pebble fell out of her pocket. That night, her parents searched for the pebbles - because that's how important it is for her. This is just one story, but there are many more. However, I am only a medium, a catalyst - the children themselves are being the change, themselves. Even if the children don't continue to write, they find their own ways of self-expression and that matters. 

People have been very generous and supportive so far - my daughter designs my creatives, my husband helps me with all things tech. I don't have a marketing plan, I'm just going with the flow. In January 2016, when I launched my workshop, I didn't think this much work will get done. I believe in physical proximity and working in the same physical spaces as the children I am working with - and I make it a point to create enabling spaces. If I was given a dark or dank room to work in, I would make it a point to create bunting, posters and such for the decoration all by myself. I place a lot of value on emotions, on physical presence and on engaging in person because all that matters a lot.  

As much as children need a facilitator, a guide or a mentor, we equally need these children. The kind of confidence in these children and the change they went through validates my work. As a one-woman army in this work, I handle everything and it gets taxing. But the change I see in these children, I find that it is all worth it. I need them as much as they need me. Every breakthrough is energy in my blood.