I used to often hear my father mention “finishing school” when I was a little girl. We were a typical middle class Odia family but my father has always been a sophisticate and aesthete at heart. Coming from a family with thirteen siblings meant leading a deprived existence in the 1930’s and onwards; with a disciplinarian father, the focus was on education and except for the barest necessities there was no access to anything remotely in the realm of luxury. My father often recollected how they used to wait for the once-in-a-while occasions when their civil servant father used to order goodies from Kolkata, because it was only then would they have a few indulgences like butter, cheese, margarine, marmalade, and fruit cake. Since my grandfather was a civil servant under the British regime, he regularly hosted dinners for British officers. On these occasions, the table would be dressed with lace and the finery of glassware and tableware, and my very traditional grandmother, trained by my grandfather, would churn out the most delicious Indian and Continental dishes for the guests.
The fuss and frills on these occasions must have impacted my father’s young mind because as he grew, he developed a penchant for all things sophisticated and artistic. His friends and junior officers often relate how as a young SDO in a far-flung district interior, his little official quarter would be spartanly furnished, yet perfectly spic and span, with harmony and symmetry in every nook and corner, dining table perfectly laid out and the cooks trained to cook multicourse meals. He was so particular about the fit of his clothes that he could never wear readymade clothes in his entire life – even today in his eighties, his clothes are tailored to the perfect fit. My mother tells us that after marriage, she was like an intern, skilling under my father on all finer aspects of life, understanding etiquette and grace, and all of this hinging on the most crucial value systems of giving, sharing, generosity and empathy. He was like a onestop finishing school. Our home therefore has always been about unfailingly ingraining life skills and a world view, seamlessly adopting the values of sharing and caring, and adhering to etiquette in formal and informal settings. Our dining table would be laid out perfectly at meal times, covered with a pretty floral table cloth, mats, crockery and cutlery perfectly in place. Meals were simple but plated in style; in the early 70’s we had a trained Afghani “khansamah”, who not only was a chef extraordinaire, but knew all about food styling as well, four and a half decades ago! We were not allowed to have dinner in our nightwear; we had to be dressed neatly, hair combed, and brighteyed on the dining table. Gratitude for meals, respect for food, and table etiquette were sacrosanct. My father was very particular about the way we looked, walked and talked. We were made to walk on a straight line drawn on the cemented floor of the portico, balancing a book on our heads, to cultivate the perfect gait. We were also made to hang on to a suspended bamboo pole every morning to gain height. When I was in Grade 1 in the local Convent School, my father ensured that my Anglo-Indian class teacher Miss Jenny came home after school to tutor me in English as he wanted me to speak the language with the proper accent.
My father, however, wanted no shortcuts and no compromises. Aspirational as he was, he was determined to send me to a public school so that I’d have access to the best of opportunities for gaining a global exposure. He knew that such institutions would be natural finishing schools because of their very character. After much research and discussion, he decided to enrol me at Maharani Gayatri Devi Girl’s Public School (MGD) in faraway Jaipur, in Rajasthan. So, a month before my ninth birthday, I arrived at my new school in Jaipur, a school that was to be home for the next five years. For a scrawny nine-year-old from a small town in Odisha, to be suddenly catapulted to an atmosphere that reeked sophistication was confounding to say the least. Girls from royal families, from India’s top business families, daughters of diplomats and bureaucrats – MGD was an amalgamation of the best of cultures and traditions from around the world. It was an institution that fostered the idea of being the best version of your own self rather than competing with others; the spirit of excellence was driven from within to carve out a niche based on innate talents. There was never any talk of what one wanted to be in life. To excel in whatever we chose to do was gently underlined, but ambition was not the goal of the spirit of excellence towards which we were propelled. Being multi-skilled, holding on tightly to values, and gaining wisdom to handle situations in life was pre-eminent. All of this was layered with a patina of sophistication, typified by the Rajmata Gayatri Devi herself, at whom I would stare at in open-mouthed wonder every time she came to school, draped in her trademark chiffon sarees, pallu over the head, perfectly coiffured bob and a smile that sang genteelness. Even though I shared the dorm with real life princesses, I couldn’t believe that I was seeing a real queen in flesh and blood, enamoured as I was by her fragrant and charismatic presence. Within the periphery of those high pink walls were constant lessons on perfection, grace, conduct, etiquette – Principal Lilian G Lutter, OBE, was a renowned educationist, a Britisher, who brought the “propah” English dimension. From the dining services to the sports grounds, garden prayers to weekend socials, library readings to concerts and performances, and from excursions to Inter Public School Meets, it was about ongoing lessons in wisdom, skills, coping, resilience, social graces and values. Thirty-five years later, I can say with overweening pride that my persona has been carved and polished by my alma mater.
Having therefore understood early on about the need to polish the personality of children and provide them with a worldview naturally through the education system, I always wondered how my learning could be translated into practice in my state of Odisha, where children from middle class homes could hardly access such opportunities in the existing educational institutions. Since most middle-class parents do not have the exposure either, their children do not get to pick up these notes of enhancement of personality in the home environment as well. Also, in smaller towns and cities, sophistication has often been mistaken for snobbery rather than refinement, which was probably the reason why it was never integrated into mainstream learning in home and school environments.
Setting up a kindergarten school in Bhubaneswar in 2018, we made conscious efforts to curate a model of learning that went beyond a defined curriculum. The idea was to broad base the learning system with seamless integration of a programme that inculcated skill sets, value systems and problem-solving by harmoniously blending traditional curriculum with the latest international trends. Looking back, the constant affirmation from parents, and the confident little personalities that have emerged three years later like the prettiest butterflies, bear testimony to the success of what we had set out to achieve.
Venturing into the primary grades this academic year, there was no doubt that we wanted to take the finishing school concept forward, more tangible and scaled up. It meant devising a formal finishing school curriculum, strategizing separate training modules for mentors, and then finding a way to slot the modules into the regular school schedule. I was pretty firm on the thought that while the curriculum would be curated by the team, it would also be transmitted to the children by the same team instead of procuring standardised modules and professional trainers from outside. I gently broached the idea to the core team, apprehensive about their reaction. I presented it as a replacement to the run-of-the-mill summer camps that put the children through a jaded regimen of activities that are superficial in approach and simply designed to be time-killers. To my delight, the team leaders were ready for the challenge, even though time was short for the volume of work at hand. We decided to announce the finishing school programme as an allied programme of the mainstream academics, which was a novel concept in our state, and subsequently we did so through billboards and digital media announcements. Now we were committed. Since the concept was fresh and unheard of yet, we did raise a sense of anticipation. Some intense team brainstorming sessions followed after which the passion was ignited enough for a top-of-the-league finishing school curriculum, curated in less than two months, and now in the process of transmission to the students through exhilarating online sessions. Purely homegrown and passed on perfectly with the personal touch.
Covering seven broad areas of interest, customised for pre-primary and primary grades, presentations and audio-visuals were created for sessions spread over twelve days. While each presentation reached out to our young ones online, parental information was factored into the module by sending the beautifully prepared presentations to them in order for them to refresh and enhance their own knowledge and support their wards towards continual learning. Our credo – let’s take this forward, together. Today when the watchword is “global”, education cannot be confined to traditional ideas of learning. The approach to education needs to be revolutionised through the amalgamation of a world view with the academic curriculum so that children are seamlessly ingrained with 21st century skill sets including critical thinking, and gain expansiveness of thought and expression.
Today, only knowledge is not adequate for leadership; leadership positions demand a multi-skilled individual who’s a listener, sets examples, solves problems with wisdom and resilience, and is the best version of his or her own self in order to be emulation and respect worthy. A perfectly “finished” individual, “finishing” being a continual process of adding value within and without, through life’s journey. As we come to the close of the introductory module of The Wisdom Finishing School Programme, we hope that parents would rest their faith in our undiluted efforts of making available a world class education programme for their children right here at Bhubaneswar.
My heart swells with pride at the character of a fine team, Team Wisdom Tree, that’s brimming with positivity, passion and action even in these darkest of times. Together we move forward with a promise of imparting holistic learning in the truest sense, giving back our best, and keeping the faith that the unique approach to education at The DN Wisdom Tree Global School would facilitate the creation of many changemakers and leaders of the future.
PANCHAMI MANOO UKIL
Vice Chairperson & School Leader