Whatever else he may be remembered for, in history books or otherwise, Mr Obama will certainly be given credit for reminding the human race of the idea of its power to shape its own destiny. In three little words, spoken without melodrama in South Carolina in January 2008, he summed up the defining/distinguishing factor of human existence. Yes, we can.
As a facilitator of education, I thank Mr Obama for giving me this pithy phrase – for, in my calling, it has proved to be more useful than long pedagogical treatises… with a minor change in the pronoun. To innumerable students in the past few months I have said, “Yes, YOU can.” There was little Flora MacMaster, directing the first play of her life – frustrated by recalcitrant classmates unwilling or unable to work as a team. Then there were the IGCSE Drama students grappling with Brecht and the dubious joy of designing the production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. One cannot forget to mention the highly befuddled IGCSE English group that had much trouble understanding a four-women-character play… My marvellous TOK gang had to wrestle with the concept of “truth” and come up with a smashing presentation on it. And finally, young Rahat who played the mime in Acting Without Words, directed by Ossama, last month: beset by doubts, Rahat wanted to drop out after every rehearsal.
To each of these students – in groups and individually – I said, “Yes, YOU can.” And indeed, in most instances, they proved me right. Rahat went further: he now wants to act in a “challenging” solo performance for Founder’s. “A BIG solo production,” he told me, and has asked me to write and direct it.
However, the true power of those words have been brought home to me in my own learning over the past few months. Perhaps my friends and family thought I had taken leave of my senses when, shortly after turning 42, I decided to learn to play squash.
Whatever Gyanendra (our esteemed squash coach) thought of it, he kept to himself. What he did say, though, constantly and continuously was, “Yes, YOU can.” Gyanendra’s encouraging words have provided the impetus to continue to kick myself out of the house at 6 a.m. every day to practise my shots at the squash courts. And when you see the enthusiasm with which the school’s squash team practices well beyond the evening games time, it isn’t difficult to imagine that he often says, “Yes, YOU can,” to all his students.
Those who wondered about my sanity when I took up squash must have concluded that I should be certified the day I decided to learn to play the violin. Didn’t have a choice, actually, since my uncle gifted it to me with the stipulation that I would learn to play it. For quite a few weeks my daughter was in much auditory pain. Being a musician, my initial “bowing” must have been nothing short of Chinese torture for her – waiting for the next wrong note, with her auditory nerve being jarred horribly when I hit it. But she was supportive, teaching me to be patient, pulling out her flute and playing alongside. My neighbours too (both musicians – Jaki and Gemma) bore with it, though they must’ve heard every appalling practice session through the paper-thin walls. Finally, a visitor to the school compared the sound to that a cat might make when being strangled! I discovered then that playing an instrument badly is somewhat like having bad breath – other people are bothered by it although it’s right under your nose!
Finally, much to everyone’s relief, Himalika agreed to give me regular lessons after the Mad Music Day on 22 April got over. The following weeks were complete bliss (for me). They were probably ghastly for Himalika. But, even as I was scratching and screeching with the bow (you had to hear it to realize how bad it was because adjectives fail me!) she smiled through it, made helpful suggestions and repeatedly said, “Come on, you can do it…” She even made excuses for the dreadful sounds by saying, “New violins sound like that till you have played them enough.”
Recently, I posted a violin rendition of “Annie’s Song” on Facebook for my friends. The comments ranged from “wow” and “great” to pas mal – and even Himalika said she was impressed. Of course, she did not realize the powerful effect her words had had on me each time she said, “Yes, YOU can.” It made me realize how vulnerable we are as learners: one negative remark would’ve probably had me hang up the bow for ever. When you notice the swelling ranks of violinists in the school orchestra, it’s not difficult to imagine how inspiring she must be for the children!
Last month Mr Tim Benton conducted an inspiring workshop for students of Grades 9 and 11 at PWS – on Goal Setting. Two things he said to them repeatedly, come to mind. The first: “You can, if you believe you can.” To this I humbly add – “You can, if just ONE other person tells you that you can.” The second: “Figure out who the fire fighters in your life are, and who the fire lighters are.” Those who say, “Yes, YOU can,” are your fire lighters; give the others a wide berth.
As this academic year draws to a close, I look back to evaluate my strategies and approaches to education. Without any empirical or statistical data to draw upon, I can’t of course claim anything with scientific certainty. But I’m quite willing to put my money where my mouth is and place the YES YOU CAN strategy right on top of my list.
Consider this: You lose nothing by offering this magical phrase to someone floundering in the shallows; it could, however, be the difference between sinking and swimming for the other.