Up The Down Staircase
Author: Bel Kaufman
Genre: Epistolary novel
Tags: Realistic. Humourous. Unconventional.
My cousin – a school teacher – never stops raving about this book. So I finally got my hands on it. And no wonder teachers love it, because no book explains the life of a teacher with all its trials and triumphs as well as this one.
Set in a school in the New York area in the 1960s, Up The Down Staircase rings true even today. The book unfolds in different voices, in the form of dialogues between people; notes between teachers, from the trash, or the suggestion box; letters between characters; scribbles on papers and so on. This lends authenticity, landing the reader smack into the life of a teacher, with all its challenges and rewards. It also makes for an interesting read, as you experience school life from various points of view. We see the growing pains and difficult lives of certain students, the insecurities and pettiness of some of the staff, and the dedicated teachers who truly love their profession. There are plenty of little stories sprouting around the main theme. Even fifty years later and continents away, one can relate to and enjoy Up The Down Staircase.
Mad About Boys
Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
Design by Committee
Picture this. A large, cool and comfortable room. A group of men sitting around a conference table. Everyone is at least 50 years, or older. Most of them are academics, or have worked in universities, often in administrative levels, most of their lives. They have requested 3 young designers to come and 'share their expertise' with them. A quick summary below --
The task at hand: Designing the university certificates.
The design tools: A projector, and a university employee with a laptop.
The design solution (as desired by them): Anything that looks 'good'.
Definition of good: Widely debatable.
As we sat at that table (yes it was two friends/colleagues and me at that table), we very rapidly realized the blokes in front of us don't really know or understand what design is. We can't blame them for that. After all, design is still shrouded in mystery for most folks. Putting it mildly, they did't really have a clue, and they haven't the foggiest idea of what we can do for them. We were regarded by some with suspicion, and by some with relief.
Initially, it seemed as if they wanted us to guide the man working on the laptop, as he typed in the various nuggets of information that would appear on the certificate. We could all see what he did on the projection screen. The gentlemen were constantly giving him advice, designerly and otherwise, but mostly designerly.
"Use Algerian font, it's the best.", "Should the logo come on top, or should the university name come first?", "Should we have English or Hindi first?", "University naam curve pe dal (place the university name in a curve)", and many, many more such golden words of wisdom was freely shared. It was both hilarious and tragic at the same time, besides being mildly bizarre. Why were we designers called? To be witness to the 'design by committee' process perhaps, and give it our stamp of approval. At any rate, it proved very hard to explain to some of the gentlemen there what design was, and how it happened. It ideally did not happen in an hour, on a projection screen, with everyone giving their opinion on it. Most of the time we just sat quiet. This caused one of them to laughingly say,"They are not revealing their trade secrets." Yes, if by trade secrets he meant we don't design by popular vote, he was right. Another gentleman, who was more understanding conceded, "No they will do it on their own, when we give them the content."
This university logo was a strange, convoluted being. It was a product of some quick Google searches, Illustrator live-trace option, and ad-hoc colour selection. When we asked who the designer was, there was no clear answer besides, "Ermmm..". There was no question of re-designing this poor logo, yet, "Do something so that it looks nice." Basically, apply a Band-Aid on it when it actually needs major surgery, or complete reconstruction.
There are numerous people, organizations, institutes, and bodies like this, where design is a mysterious word. Or design is simply beautification. How does one explain design to someone, who doesn't have a clue as to what design is? How does one explain its value, its process, its role and importance? How can you tell someone that design is more that just its tools? Needless to say, we didn't get into it then and there.
A Real School
Most of us complain about our education systems, with colonial approaches, and boring curriculum. We rarely consider the value of our education, or what it has done for us. Recently, I got the opportunity to visit a rural school for tribal children at Igatpuri, a small town in Maharashtra, India.
Igatpuri was a major railway junction in days gone by, but is hardly visited nowadays. It is a sleepy and charming little town. Thankfully, it hasn't been touched by urbanisation, so no malls, multiplexes and parking problems. It's midway between Mumbai and Nashik. It is well-known for one thing, the famous Buddhist Vipassana Centre.
An NGO, Aseema, that is based in Mumbai has been working in the area for some years now. Aseema works for the education of under-privileged children, and now educates children in 3 municipal schools in Mumbai. Their rural school is 5 kms away from Igatpuri, near the village of Awalkheda. Though only around 3 hours from Mumbai, this area is one of many in India that has been forgotten. There are 5 villages near one another. Roads were recently constructed here, and though there is plentiful rain in the monsoon, there is no water harvesting. As a result, people (women and children) walk miles each day to get water from one common well. Though the land is fertile, the lack of water means there is very little farming. Many youngsters leave in frustration and migrate to Mumbai to do menial labour for a pittance. Most people here eat one proper meal every two days.
Aseema has been working in the villages around Igatpuri for some years now, and I had been with them on their initial forays into the area, when they were looking for land. It is a challenge to buy rural land in India, as a lot of it is owned by tribals, adivasis, and strict laws govern sale of such land. Families also tend to keep splitting the land between their sons, so each successive generation gets progressively smaller plots. All land deals are in Marathi, often illegible, and the local government is often reluctant to cooperate unless the appropriate palms are greased. On paper the boundary of a certain plot maybe at a certain place, but in reality it might be very different. Despite all hardships, Aseema did succeed in acquiring land after years of perseverance.
Against this backdrop, Aseema first started helping the local Balwadi (kindergarten). The Government provides a mid-day meal, but the food is often bad, spoilt, or inedible, and gets wasted. One can't expect children to learn on an empty stomach. Aseema provides the daily meal, trains the local teacher, and provides teaching aids. Most parents are happy to send their children here because they get to eat one meal a day. Education for much of our country needs to be so much more beyond books and exams. People have to be fed first. Development that is getting you the latest mobile phone, while ignoring the hungry millions is one-sided.
Training the local teacher is crucial, as she understands the local context, is from the area, and knows how to deal with things. Transplanting the average city teacher there would provide its own challenges. On the flip side, most local teachers employed by the Government are class 6 or 7 drop-outs, and may not even be perfect at spelling themselves.
After a few years, and a struggle to acquire funds, Aseema has built a wonderful school at a beautiful location. This is a primary school, and the oldest children are not more than age 4. I was lucky to be there for the simple yet moving inauguration. There was a performance by the children, and lunch for the villagers. Almost 700 villagers came for the occasion. There was a tree-planting in the school courtyard. It filled one with a feeling of hope, joy, and anything being possible.
The school has a well on the premises. The appropriate use of the landscape as well as the construction of a series of bunds has already increased the water table in the area. This ensures the well has water even through the summer when the common well run dry. Now many women from the nearby villages have to walk one tenth the distance, as they can use this well. And this is in just one year. World economies run on petrol, but water is the real liquid gold. It's the life blood of our planet, our communities, our lives. Water can transform areas of acute poverty to sustainable agriculture, water can change poor communities to well-fed ones. Water can prevent frustrated people from leaving their villages to enter the cities.
Primary education is the most important part of education, yet the most ignored. Millions are pumped into higher institutes of learning, but the crucial years of one's life are the initial ones. At that age, education can inculcate good habits, better understanding, and so much more than chemical equations. Aseema uses the Montessori system of education, which is a fascinating and holistic way to teach. It is a way of overall human development. It is amazing to see how children truly want to learn. In Montessori, the teacher is more of a guide, just watching the students and nudging them if needed, never force-feeding them information, or making then write endless lines of senseless alphabets in the quest for 'good handwriting'. Children automatically go to what they need to learn that day, and learn by self-initiated activities. Conventional education kills this love for learning. We need to urgently re-think and question the entire concept of school education, as it exists right now.
There is huge scope for designers to make a difference to rural India. But design education being what it is, and design being perceived as styling, the shift is not going to happen soon or easily. Heavy student loans make it impossible for a lot of students to even consider doing socially responsible design work, which can't pay as much as your average corporate job.
There is only one thing that can propel India into the 'developed' category. And it's not 3G technology, Audi cars, multiplexes, malls, consumerism, and it's not design either. It's good, solid, holistic school education and sustainable community development.
Inauguration of Aseema's School was on 26th March 2011
Photographs: Armeen Kapadia
What's the biggest difference between working by hand (illustration for instance), and working on the computer? It is the absence (or presence) of Ctrl Z. When you draw by hand, you can't undo things easily. The thing drawn remains drawn (dammit!).
The Ctrl Z (or undo option) has changed the way we work and the way we think. Since everything can be undone, sometimes nothing is done very seriously. On the other hand it emboldens us to try new things, however stupid they may seem. Ctrl Z is forgiving. It tells you, you are human, you can do it again, don't sweat it. When you work by hand, you are slower and surer, because you have to be. It is old-school. Working by hand takes the examination first and gives you the education later. If you fail, you start all over. Ctrl Z has taken the edge of drawing. It has given us a plan B. Ctrl Z (Command Z) is a state of mind, which becomes a whole way of working. You can take three leaps forward, because you know that you can always reverse in minutes. Ctrl Z has created a culture of impatience, but also a culture of limitless experimentation.
The digital camera has been the Ctrl Z culture of photography. Previously, people used film. It had to be loaded, used, wound, spooled, developed, fixed, and finally printed into a contact sheet. The long process ensured that we carefully composed our shots, and only took a shot if we were pretty sure that was what we wanted. You ended up with photos that were fewer in number, but better in quality. With the digital camera you may shoot hundreds, and still may not turn out with a great one. That's because we shoot without thinking.
Ctrl Z has made us (among other things):
Since humankind is at that incredibly exciting stage of leaping from the Gutenberg era to the iPad era, both eras stand to gain the best from each other. And in the process both are evolving almost faster than we are.
In this day and age, we can't imagine a designer without a computer. It's almost impossible to function. Unless the designer is that rich or famous that she/he has an army of design slaves to execute their design ideas. And even then they will need the computer for basic communication. Still, there are extremes even in this.
Recently I had the opportunity to meet a German professor, who was trained at Ulm. He uses Indesign in a very different way. He actually codes the software to do exactly what he wants, when he wants it, so there is very little manual work. He believes that it is a machine, and hence built for the level of precision that we humans can never master. The human brain/hand is always liable to make a mistake. So why not use that precision to advantage? He rarely places objects manually in files, but has trained the software to carry out commands, all purely mathematically. The workspace looks different from a conventional Indesign screen. Of course, he can do all this because he has miles of experience behind him, is a true master of the grid, and understands coding and computers. It does make sense, to actually make full use of the computer as a machine. He gives the commands, and Indesign obeys them, laying out the publication. The computer is his slave.
At the other end of the spectrum are some students of typography in Jaipur. A friend visited them recently. There are a few in the class who have never worked on a computer before. To the extent that a couple of them don't know of the very basic computer interactions. For instance, they had no concept of a drop-down menu. The teacher first had to teach them that. It is akin to teaching a student how to hold a book, open it, or how to use the pencil. This means that we take our relationship with the computer for granted. We intuitively know where the drop-down menu is, where the buttons are, and we can react accordingly, without thinking. But for a newbie, who perhaps has never worked on a computer, it can be learning from scratch.
The computer has become the tool most fused with the human brain and hands. But it still can't substitute the real tool of the human mind. Designers need to develop that tool first, to make best use of other tools. Only the intellect can think of ideas, concepts, and weigh them. Creative thought comes from humans, not machines. Microsoft Word can't write the Ramayana by itself.
Working on the computer should not become working for the computer.
There are books on design, and then there are books on design. Some books on design simply showcase design work. They are compilations of the glitziest and best in the field, be it industrial design, typography, or illustration. Editors have worked to collect and collate the best work. Most designers tend to gravitate towards these books, especially in their design education. They seem to be the benchmark to aspire to. But in reality, these books teach little. They do affect style a lot, which may not always be desirable. This invariably creates a whole bunch of us who sub-consciously or consciously creating work that looks like the showcased work. Because like it or not, the human mind is like a sponge. Our eyes feed on things that get transmitted and processed in our hard drives (brains), and affect the kind of images and designs we later create. Meditating on the Logo Lounge book while doing a logo design job is not a great idea. Somewhere, even if we fight it, we get affected by the forms we have seen, and they tend to creep into our work. The downside is, it doesn't help original thought. Most of these showcase kind of books are nice to browse through at times. But they don't provide many insights, and they don't really teach anything of real value, about design.
The kind of books that make a huge impact are of a different pedigree altogether. They don't just show work, they challenge the way we work, and create new ways for us to think. One is, A Smile In The Mind by Beryl McAlhone, a must-read for any graphic designer. This is an excellent book to help one understand how to create images (images=any kind of visual communication). It explains the different kinds of images, visual puns, visual metaphors and so on. By studying the book one can analyse and understand images around us better. It helps to create images, and develop different kinds of thinking to create images. The book explains creativity, humour and visual wit, and their roles in design.
Another great book is Visible Signs by David Crow. As consumers of visual art, people have become advanced readers of signs and signals. We decode meaning from images on many different layers. It is important for designers to have an understanding of how meaning is formed, and how it changes perceptions. Our desires, and our sense of our own identities are moulded and manipulated by signs and images around us. Communication has hierarchies that are deeply embedded in our societies. This also holds true for visual communication, different media carry different messages for us regardless of the content of the message. Visual language spans the full range of cultural and economic activity. Visible Signs makes us aware of implicit communication everywhere.
Designing Design by Kenya Hara does showcase his design work, but in a much deeper way. Unlike most books which just show a final outcome, he shows and explains the entire process behind each piece of work. Not only is his design work phenomenal, but his writing is interesting and lucid. He gives many insights into Japanese culture, which is strongly reflected in his work. Change By Design by Tim Brown (a founder of IDEO) talks about the design work IDEO has done through the years. It has few images, but many lessons and insights. It is a great book on design thinking, and shows the power of design in systems.
Designers rarely talk about the business aspect of their profession. Shel Kerby's Talent Is Not Enough is an eye-opening book. It has got everything a designer would need to know about actually running a design business, charging clients, making proposals and so on. Few of these things get taught in design school, so this book is an essential read. John Heskett's A Short Introduction to Design is a good read about what design encompasses. The Vignelli Canon by Massimo Vignelli is a superb summation of the process of designing.
For graphic designers, especially publication designers, the big daddy of them all is The Grid System by Joseph Muller Brockmann. This book was published sometime in the late 1960s, but it is still a Bible for graphic designers today. The principles of good design don't change easily, and this book has been written by one of the masters. This gentleman practically invented the grid system. He then also articulated it and made it easy for mere mortals like us to understand. These same principles are differently applied on the web, iPad, and any device today. This book explains the skeleton of good design. You never see it, but without it everything collapses. The grid is so important because it creates the system. The system creates hierarchy and consistency. These two together gives the reader essential cues. The cues help the reader read.
One kind of book is the icing, while the other is the recipe for the cake. Many books strongly influence style, without really educating. Few books actually make designers. If design is problem-solving, these solid books are educators in their own way.
The write kind of teacher
Watched Freedom Writers a couple of days back. An inspiring movie about the power of teachers, and how one person who really makes an effort can create such a difference in their immediate circle. There is no substitute for passion, drive, initiative and going beyond the call of duty. It's hard even for the rigid system to resist that. And of course, a teacher is so much more than a teacher. A good teacher is also taught by the students. It is a movie about the cathartic effect writing has, and how it lets people come to terms with the hardships in their lives, and move beyond them. Hilary Swank (perfect casting) is the idealistic, strong-willed, and enthusiastic school teacher, who won't let anything (not even her marriage) stop her in her way of actually 'educating' minds. She makes the classroom much more than a classroom. Like any great teacher she takes learning beyond the book. Her greatest gift is that she doesn't take no for an answer. And few teachers have the ability to hold up a mirror for their students' minds. For what is education but to know yourself before we can know more from books?
Freedom Writers is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell, a white teacher in Long Beach, USA. The movie reminds us of one the world's worst mistakes — World War II — and its good to be reminded of that. Just so that it is never repeated. Freedom Writers is definitely worth a watch. There are always people for whom wealth (and other such trappings) are secondary, and they have the fire to blaze a path even in the darkest forest. There is nothing as unstoppable as an idea whose time has come, or a person with a real mission.
To lead the people, walk behind them. Lao Tzu
A-school or D-school?
There is an age-old debate, especially in design schools about art vs design. There is a strong need to differentiate design from the arts, especially the visual arts. Many a time, designers have reacted strongly when they are referred to as artists, with a vehement 'No we are NOT artists' kind of reaction. There is a need for design to be recognized in India as a stand-alone profession, without any of the old bedfellows.
'Art and design' is a term in itself, coined over time. Many colleges and courses refer to themselves as 'Art and Design' schools. My under-graduate programme in Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai was an Art and Design programme. Applied Art is another term commonly used to describe Graphic Design in particular. It stems from the older days of the profession. It was art, that was applied for commercial purpose. Prior to Independence India did not have any 'design schools' per se. The closest thing to design were the art schools, with their Fine Art and Commercial/Applied Art and perhaps Architecture Departments. So art and design seemed like natural partners. Post-Independence India saw the rise of D-schools. In the West too, Bauhaus and Ulm were the real forerunners and pioneers of pure design, unallied with any other profession.
Still, it's a bit perplexing when designers recoil from art. Design and art can feed each other in a healthy manner, instead of being kept strictly apart. Reminds one of the old days of Convent education when boys and girls were not to interact with one another under any circumstance. In the same way, its unnatural to keep art and design at arm's length from one another. It is like trying to separate maths and science. Each can be studied in isolation, but they share certain core principles and at the basic level it helps to study both. Visual communication would gain immensely from a little more hobnobbing with art. An exercise in the various print-making techniques would help students in understanding of colour, form, and composition among other things. Great artists, though not designers, have design sense. And great design is as beautiful as any piece of art.
The New Yorker