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Real life stories for character formation–

A teacher’s perspective

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September 8, 2015

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Real life stories for character formation–

A teacher is always in touch with students as well as adults, that is, teachers, parents and the public at large. It’s a truism that teachers are engaged in the noble work of education. But no one is quite sure as to what education really means. There are as many definitions of education as there are many people who have expressed their views on it. My favourite definition of education is that by the Marquis of Halifax: ‘Education is what remains after we have forgotten all that we learnt in school.’ His emphasis is on the civilizing and humanizing aspect, in other words, that of character formation. You may forget maths and history, but you remain the good human being that you have become.

As principal of a school, I’ve had numerous occasions to address children in the morning assembly, classrooms, value education classes, seminars, workshops or functions of various types. They’re ideal occasions for telling stories. Stories appeal not only to children, but also to adults, for as Dr. Seuss has said, ‘Adults are obsolete children.’ Real life stories and anecdotes captivate the interest of children and adults alike because of their immediacy and relevance.

Educationists agree that character formation is the very essence of education. Sudeshna Sinha , a noted educationist and social worker talks of the need to improve the teaching content. She further adds, ‘The use of fables has faded somewhat in today’s world. The necessity is perhaps to look for new stories from the very life situation of the students in our millennial classrooms.’ Dr Karan Singh, Chairman, Indian Council for Cultural Relations(ICCR) laments the curricula and insists on fundamental change and adoption the Delors commission of which he was a part, identifying the four pillars of education as ‘ Learning to know, learning to do , learning to be and learning to live together.’ He elaborates the last: ‘Fanaticism, exclusivism, hostility, enmity and feuding have no place in a society that is bound together now by instant communication, satellite technology, and conceptual convergence.’ Fr. T.V. Kunnunkal, a great educationist, calls for a culture of peace and non-violence. He defines culture as ‘the way an individual and especially a group of people live, think, feel and organise themselves, celebrate and share life.’ He concludes by saying, ‘Historically culture and religion were closely linked as inter- dependent realities.’ He realises the necessity of periodic review of culture, lest we ‘go on clinging to a past that does not make sense.’ He sees the fundamentality of dharma. Kunnunkal goes to its root dhr, which means ‘to hold together, to integrate or bond. Unity in diversity is embodied in the very concept of dharma’. If this is understood and followed, peace and non–violence will be the fruits, and a national regeneration can come about.

As an educator, I am aware that real life stories illustrate and enliven the meaning and scope of character and character building. One day, it may be about courage to do what’s right. So I tell the real life story of Nisha Sharma, the brave bride, who dared to call the police minutes before the wedding ceremony when she was pestered for more dowry. I tell the inspiring story of K.J. Alphonse, the IAS officer, and a former DDA Vice Chairman, who took up the broom and swept the streets when the sanitation staff went on strike illegally in Delhi.

I narrate the story of Gandhi ji who fought injustice in South Africa and India and suffered. I talk of the brave woman Mrs. Staines who forgave her husband’s murderer and prayed for him. These are real life stories of extraordinary courage. Character is a broad term and involves many traits, such as patience, perseverance, justice, respect, truthfulness, honesty, kindness, helping those in need, humility, etc. One story that goes down well with children is that of a young orphan boy of Connaught Place, New Delhi. A foreign tourist was strolling down the inner circle. He then bought a sandwich for his brunch. Almost from nowhere an urchin no older than seven years appeared and begged for the sandwich. The tourist was moved by the plight of the hungry boy and gave his brunch to him. The boy didn’t eat it, but ran off with it and disappeared round the corner. The tourist, out of curiosity followed him. He then saw a most moving sight. The boy sat near another emaciated little boy sitting there and shared the sandwich equally. His unusual act of caring and generosity earned him the admiration of the tourist who, there and then decided to do something for him. Today, this boy is studying in a boarding school in Delhi and his expenses are being met by that tourist.

Living together requires that we respect the rights and feelings of others, and also possess civic sense. How about the story of the young man who used to put on loud music in his house, disturbing all his neighbours in spite of their gentle protests? He never cared about others, but suddenly, one day, the music and noise ceased. Did the young man realise his folly? No. He had become completely deaf. There are numerous real life stories inspiring courage in the hour of peril. Once, a child was sitting at the edge of the school ground during the recess when a snake suddenly climbed on his leg and coiled around it. The child screamed for help. A crowd of teachers and students gathered but nobody dared come forward to help. His class teacher heard the flashed news and rushed out to the playground with the newspaper she was reading. This lady teacher had presence of mind. She grabbed the head of the snake with the newspaper and freed the child. I also tell the sad story of one of my senior college mates who sacrificed his life in trying to save his classmate who had accidentally slipped and fallen into a fast-flowing river. Without wasting a moment, he jumped into the water and saved his classmate but was himself swept away by the current. Such courage is an important trait of a strong character.

History is a subject that is full of anecdotes for one’s edification. There are many real life stories in history based on the lives of rulers and the common people that one can learn from. An imaginative history teacher can increase the pupils’ knowledge and also contribute to the edifice of character building. When talking of the evils of flattery and sycophancy, I love to narrate the story of Akbar’s Ghazi who was left in charge of the capital at Agra when Akbar had gone on a long campaign. On his return, the Ghazi proudly reported that he had passed the death sentence on a man (whom even the emperor did not like) and had had him executed. He expected Akbar to thank him for getting rid of that troublesome man. But Akbar became sad and said to the Ghazi: ‘You were the judge and final authority. Could you not have found some extenuating circumstances to save the life of that man and forgiven him just once more.’ Why is it that the construction of the Qutub Minar ( situated in Delhi ) started by Qutubuddin Aibak was continued by his successors, while another tower meant to be twice the height of the Qutub Minar started by Alauddin Khilji was abandoned? No one wanted to contribute to the building of a monument conceived in cruelty and arrogance!

It requires great courage to forgive someone who insults us. Yet, we know that forgiveness is the only way to reform and win back the foe. I tell children the story a military officer who had become an alcoholic and for this his superiors had issued severe warnings. One night at a party, he drank excessively, and then confronted his immediate superior, who had a grudge against him, as he had imagined. He went to him fully drunk and abused him in front of other officers. The next day, he arrived late to office, but now being fully sober realised the enormity of his action and expected dismissal from service. He was summoned to his superior’s office. They chatted over a cup of tea as if nothing had happened. The offending officer then realised the greatness of the man who had really forgiven him. This act of forgiveness changed the life of this young officer. He quit alcohol and became a model of good behavior.

In these days of scams, dishonesty and corruption, real life stories abound about men of character. M’d Hussein, a taxi driver in Chicago, noticed a bag that had been left behind in his taxi. It contained expensive jewelry. He realised it belonged to the two men whom he had dropped off at a hotel. M’d Hussein returned to their hotel with the bag and gave it back to them. For his act of honesty, he was awarded a handsome cheque and a Citizen’s Award by the Mayor of the city.

There are innumerable real life stories of children who were obedient to their teachers and elders, or had been able to develop good habits when young, and later achieved success. Here is an anecdote about an interschool competition held for senior secondary students. None of the senior students were able to answer a tricky science question put to them, although they came from some of the most prestigious schools of Delhi. Finally, from the audience, a child of class V gave the correct answer. The assembly was stunned. Being a witness to this incident, I asked him how he knew the answer. He told me that he was a voracious reader and had read many science–fiction books written by Isaac Asimov. In the bargain, he had also read a book where mysterious science facts had been explained.

The reading habit enhances the reader’s personality, transforming it into one that’s humane, benevolent and civilised. The reason is that in books one comes across varied ideas and situations: meet good, intelligent and interesting characters. When I ask the question, ‘What is a library’, the answer I get is, ‘It is a store house of books.’ But I tell my students that for me a library is ‘an assembly of the greatest minds that have ever lived on this earth.’ A reader, therefore, mingles with these minds. ‘If we encounter a man of rare intellect,’ said Emerson, ‘we should ask him what books he reads.’

Reading enhances and ennobles one’s character. Eminent writer and columnist, Khushwant Singh reported an interesting incident. Once, an acquaintance of his phoned him to say that Khushwant Singh’s best friend, Mr. X had been arrested for corruption. Mr. Singh thought for a moment and said, ‘It’s impossible. He can never be corrupt.’ ‘Why so?’ asked his acquaintance. Khushwant Singh replied with confidence, ‘Because he is a reader.’ Mr. Singh was proved right, for soon it turned out that it was a case of mistaken identity and the corrupt person was another man having the same name.

Stories culled from the media, biographies of eminent persons, and every available source, will stimulate a love for books in young people and will help build character. No doubt, real life stories are a powerful tool in the classroom and beyond.

Mathew Panamkat holds Master’s degrees in English literature and Linguistics, and also degrees in Philosophy and Education. He is Director of Laurel High School, Pitampura, Delhi. A writer of children’s books, he also conducts workshops for teachers, parents and students on the inculcation of the reading habit. Email: mpanamkat@yahoo.com

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