An Interview with Nitai Deranja, founder of the Ananda School
Q: At what age do you to try to explain something like the World Trade Center attacks to a child?
Nitai: The age of the child makes a big difference. For younger children, 6-12 years old, when something like the World Trade Center attacks happens, you mention it to them, you let them know what’s happening, but as simply as possible on the verbal plane. It’s best not to show them graphic images of violence or to expose them to adults who are emotionally upset. One of the worst things for a small child is to see violent images over and over again.
Children from 6 to12 are wide open and very vulnerable emotionally, so at our school we shield them as much as possible from the storms and extremes of life. It’s like cultivating a garden. Children at this age don’t have a lot of defenses, and can be hurt deeply by violence of any kind.
Q: What if the younger children have already seen violent images?
Nitai: Then it’s important to find other images to reduce the impact— beautiful scenery, nature, animals—and especially scenes of compassion related to the event such as images of people helping each other or praying for the victims.
Q: What about the children over 12?
Nitai: Our junior and senior high school students knew right away what had happened and we discussed it a number of times.
Q: What were the main concerns?
Nitai: They wanted to know what in the Muslim religion would make people want to do something like this. So we brought in a member of the Muslim faith from our local area to discuss his religion. He explained that the people who committed these acts were unbalanced and weren’t acting from Muslim beliefs.
Q: Had you done any thing before September 11th to help the teens learn how best to respond to challenging events?
Nitai: In fact we had. In our “Understanding People” course, we studied how different cultures come into contact, how natural it is to have differences, and how these differences sometimes lead to conflict.
A particularly powerful experience for the students was studying Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s responses to discrimination and injustice. The students read books on their lives also watched the movie Gandhi. They learned that when faced with injustice, or with any challenging situation, we always have a choice. We can embrace the challenge and expand and grow, or we can push it away and be afraid and contract. The challenge, of course, is always to find a way to expand.
Q: I guess the lesson is that a contractive attitude can lead to the kind of acts that occurred on September.11th?
Nitai: Right. When you stereotype the other side as devils, it’s easy to think that whatever you do to them is okay because you have God on your side.
Q: How do you help teens choose the direction of expansion?
Nitai: This question is especially important when working with teens. They’re outgrowing their little enclosed world of childhood, the secure garden you tried to provide for them. It’s a time in life when they need to develop their will power, and challenges are an important means of accomplishing this.
For example, there was a boy in our school who tended to freeze mentally when confronted with new situations, academic or otherwise. One day I handed him the book Affirmations and Prayers, and said, “I want you to find and memorize an affirmation that will help you get through these blocks.”
He picked the one on “willingness” that goes “I welcome everything that comes to me as an opportunity for further growth.” We also made a list of all the “I can’t” words and phrases he used as negative affirmations and focussed on removing them from his vocabulary. From then on he started making progress. He began to see that he could deal with algebra, with learning to debate, and with the many other challenges that are a part of life. Gradually that new attitude became part of who he is.
Q: I imagine that teaching teens how to serve is also important?
Nitai: Very much so. We have problems with teens in our culture partly because there are so few ways for them to get constructively involved in life’s challenges. When kids reach their teens they become aware of life’s problems and have a deep need to do something about them. Young teenagers especially are very open and idealistic. If they have ways of expressing that idealism, they learn how to find solutions to life’s challenges instead of being upset by them. But if there’s no outlet for their idealism, they become cynical and angry.
So we get the students involved in service projects that involve working with handicapped kids, homeless people, the elderly and other needy groups. This type of one-on-one service is very helpful to teens. They begin to see that change can happen. The experience of giving food to a hungry person or of playing with a handicapped child affirms the teenagers’ self-worth because they’ve been able to be an instrument to help others.
When hard times hit whether it’s economic turmoil, terrorism, or some other difficulty, we don’t want to contract in upon ourselves. There’s a simple formula for transcending that—and that’s doing something for others. It’s a very important part of a young person’s training.
Q: Where does God fit into the picture? Is there any particular age at which a child is more receptive to learning about God?
Nitai: There’s a lot of individuality but also certain patterns. I’ve seen incredible devotion in children during the feeling years, 6-12. They will just fall in love with Krishna or the baby Jesus. This is the positive side of their being so open. But this type of devotion generally comes to an end around the age of puberty.
The natural focus of teenagers is on exploring the outer world, so their spiritual growth comes mainly in this domain. Our high school is based on adventure, service and self-discovery. Through adventure, students feel the expansion and empowerment that come with overcoming limitations. With service there is the tangible experience of upliftment in helping others. Both lead to a greater sense of self-discovery which is then supported and deepened through meditation. But for teens the primary focus is “God in action”. Their spiritual activities must reflect this.
Q: It seems that Education for Life tries to help students become strong in themselves —to be able to meet whatever life brings?
Nitai: Yes. Even when we’re not dealing with September 11th events, these are still troubling times. You can’t get away from it. We’re training the children to be spiritual warriors, to learn to respond with creative, solution-oriented energy and not to become discouraged when there are challenges in life.
Michael (Nitai) Deranja founded the first Ananda School in 1972. He currently serves as Director of the Living Wisdom High School at Ananda Village.
The Living Wisdom High School at Ananda Village combines college prep academics with life skills to offer a balanced education that prepares students for the joys and responsibilities of life. The school is now accepting applications for boys and girls 8-12th grades, boarding and day students. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. or (530) 478-7643.