There is something so striking about co-creating a space of trust, openness and creativity - it melts the imaginary boundaries of you and me - and the “We” emerges stronger than ever.
I have been taking week-long electives with the second-year students of Symbiosis Institute of Design for the past 3 consecutive years. This space is especially close to my heart for several reasons -
This is the college that made me who I am today.
I can truly understand the predicaments that the students might find themselves in, as I was once where they are now.
It is a dream of mine to amalgamate Expressive Arts in undergraduate and graduate schools.
All three times, this experience has strengthened my belief in my practice and how it can serve in colleges, amongst students. However, this particular year, the experience stands out remarkably and here’s why - we are extremely isolated, we are unheard and unseen more often than before, a lot more of us are experiencing social anxiety, and we are shaken to our cores all at the same time.
Might I also add that I write this blog post, because this year’s elective was a greater teacher to me, than I was to the students?
Day 1 started with faceless grey boxes with names smeared on them - all of them giving sporadic responses with timid voices, and a whisper of off-handedness. I, the facilitator, began by setting the tone for the sessions - what this space demands of each of us combined with this need to get prompt responses and validation from the participants. It’s hard to hold space when you are not in the same room with the people you want to build the space with, it’s even harder when you can’t see them. In this digital age, where everyone is connecting, communicating and corresponding online, the only way of feeling connected with someone is by looking at their faces, the space around them, or the clothes (nay, tops) they are wearing; and that was all absent in this space. So it took a lot of effort from my end to stop myself from judging, insisting, or feeling demotivated when I couldn’t see the very people I wanted to connect with. Or so I thought.
I decided to trust my practice, trust the space, trust the people on the other side of the screens because this is one of the first things I introduce in the space - the only way we can build a safe and honest space is by trusting each other. But before this moment, I never knew how hard it was to have faith that Expressive Arts has the ability to seep through irrespectively, and that the students on the other ends of the screens will meet me halfway at their own pace and comfort levels. I could sense my judgment creeping in, probably because I know their position in some ways, and I based their behaviour on what I thought 19-year-olds behave as. There was a voice inside me yelling - “They have no interest in this elective”. Anyway, I found the will to somehow continue and went on to explain how we check-in in Expressive Arts, and although it took patience, each one found their way of doing the check-in. “Can’t turn your camera on? Not a problem, you can unmute yourself. Don’t feel comfortable unmuting and talking? No worries, you can use the chatbox.” From the very beginning, I started to give options of how we could show up. As the day went on, I started easing into the faceless interactions, the voice that was yelling inside of me began to dim a little and the students began to show up, respond, and create together.
On day 2, I noticed that most of the class had promptly arrived at the said beginning time - 9:30 am, and some had their videos on without me insisting or inviting them. Instantly, I sense a surge of energy in my body and in my presence. I smile as I look at some of the faces and we begin our day with check-ins and activities. As we progress, our interactions shift from personal to professional and everything in between. They confide in me what it’s like to be a student during a pandemic - they mention how they have never been to college, have never met their classmates, how they are in front of their screens day in and day out, how isolated they feel - and all this hits home for me. I personally find it easy to empathise with people, and when they narrate something that I haven’t experienced myself, I find it relatively simple to imagine their situation. However, this? I couldn’t imagine this. It’s been about two years now that the students have been learning online. They mentioned that initially they all embraced the situation, kept videos on, and were as proactive as they could be - but all that began to fade as the months turned into years. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was making this about me, whereas all this is supposed to be about them.
My stance completely changed. From a slight undertone of desperation, to “I am here with my video on, sharing, creating, holding, responding, emoting, and I’d like to show up like this - but you show up as best as you can.” We started touching base on the chat box, with emojis, with voices springing from various grey boxes, and through the week, the Arts enabled us to connect like never before. The students made friends, wrote poems they never thought they could write, did movement as a way of communicating to themselves and to others - it was nothing short of magical. We showed up as our raw selves, being honest about what we were feeling, who we are, and connecting with gusto. It felt like that digital Zoom room was an organism in and of itself, one that rhythmically moves towards each other and towards each one’s authentic selves all at the same time.
The students of second year Symbiosis Institute of Design taught me the following things -
We each learn in our own ways and time;
We each express ourselves in our own language.
We all have demons and voices yelling inside of us.
When held gently, even the most anxious of us can show up as who they are.
We all have our own way to get our needs met.
We all have boundaries and we want others to respect our boundaries.
Each and every one of us wants to connect but it can only happen if we truly make the effort of listening and not talking, of responding not reacting, and of accepting not judging.
Lastly, have faith.
When we make space for every single one of us to strive, it can result in something so cohesive that it feels like one organism, just like that Zoom call. An organism made up of all of us, made by each of us taking space as who we are. You are you, and I am I. You are I, and I am you. You are us and we are in you.
Although that week was draining because of all the screen time and holding space - I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It made me realise that when I have the courage to be flawed but stand with my arms open, ready to soak up an experience and trust that it will only teach me to be better tomorrow - it inspires everyone sharing that space to do the exact same thing. And suddenly, we are a room - albeit a digital room - of cells exuding realness, exuding ourselves to make an organism laced with strength, vulnerability and infectious energy ready to embrace the change and be the change.