Just Look! I Went to Miquon! Ajay Meswani ’78

By Brenda Lange

Ajay Meswani clearly remembers how his young, energetic and outdoorsy self experienced his first day of school at Miquon.

“I just wanted to run and climb and explore, and during the first day, a group of boys asked me to do something on the monkey bars, and when I did, they determined I was the second strongest boy in 1st grade,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I was quite proud of that standing.”

Classroom Excellence

But it was the ongoing excellence in classroom work, along with the teachers, whom he remembers as “very creative and patient,” that made the most lasting impact on Meswani. In fact, he grew up to become a teacher, himself, and models his approach after his Miquon hero, Tony Hughes, the school’s science teacher.

“Tony always did so much that came straight from his heart,” he says, “and I often consider him today in my classroom, and think, ‘What would Tony (and his wife, Lynn, who was also a Miquon teacher) Hughes do?’”

Initially, Meswani’s parents visited another elementary school with their son, but decided Miquon would be a better fit after he spent the summer at its camp and loved everything about it. (Several years later, they also sent his younger sister, Suji, to Miquon.)

“As long as you did your work, you could do it outside, sitting on a rock, if you wanted,” he says. “Or do the work at a table with a friend or while lying in the loft. I just loved the way things were done. Of course, the playtime was fantastic, when we could go into the woods, play in the stream and catch crayfish, while always listening for the bell,” he says. “Then we would come back and do something interesting.”

And by interesting, he means that all subjects were taught in a way that illustrated their interconnectedness and used each student’s individual passion, creativity and imagination to stoke their desire to learn.

For example, he says “building stuff in science was a big deal.” He remembers an experiment when the students were directed to heat water using the sun. All the kids had different ideas—using boxes, tin foil, curving the surfaces to reflect light and so on. “Everyone was building and sharing ideas and all focused on completing this project and were so excited when it actually worked, and the water running through it was warmed by the sun,” he says.

Another science experiment involved learning how to tan animal hides, using a technique similar to the one practiced by the Native Americans they were studying, to make the skins pliable so they could be used for clothing, tools and more. “For a kid like me, it was the most fantastic science lesson ever.”

After Meswani graduated from Miquon in 1978, he attended Germantown Friends through high school and graduated in 1984. Although he recognizes it as a great school, he didn’t catch on quickly and the adjustment wasn’t easy for him. His strong interest in music led him to attend the Berklee College of Music to study jazz, which he did for two-and-a-half years until he left because he decided his talent wasn’t enough to reach the level he desired.

“I was unmoored for a while after that, and drifting,” he says. “I tried a few other things to pay the rent, worked in restaurants, as a house painter as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice.”

An Inspiring Path to a Career in Education

Then, Meswani discovered a development aid organization, Development Aid from People to People (DAPP), and traveled to Angola, in southwest Africa, as a volunteer on a project that was a combination of construction, social outreach and education. Along with four other Americans and several groups of Scandinavians, he helped transform an abandoned chicken factory into a school. Because of the ongoing civil war (this was in 1991), many of the local children had received only a year or two of formal education. The young volunteers found these kids and got them into school, where they were taught by Angolan teachers with the help of the Americans.

“That’s where I got really interested in education and decided I wanted to be a teacher,” he says.

He chose to study education and get his teacher training in Denmark where the DAPP project leaders had studied. So Meswani attended The Necessary Teacher Training College in West Jutland, Denmark, and acknowledges that their “radical” approach provided unconventional experiences, to say the least.

“During our first year, we converted former public buses into campers that included kitchens and small libraries and drove them to India and back, as a living lesson in geography, sociology and general skills,” he says. During his four years of study in Denmark, he met and married a fellow teacher, Riitta Lavonen. After graduation, the couple traveled to Mozambique, in southeast Africa, where they taught at a DAPP teacher training college for a year.

Ajay '78 and Riitta Meswani Ajay Meswani ’78 and his wife, Riitta Lavonen-Meswani, relax near their home in Helsinki (June 2019)

Living and teaching in Africa presented many challenges, and although the two thought they may stay, they changed their minds and returned to Philadelphia where Meswani found a job teaching in a private Quaker school for special needs children.

In 2000, Ajay and Riitta packed up and moved to Finland, Riitta’s homeland. Four years and two children later, (Wilma was born in 2002 and Ellis in 2004), they agreed on the many benefits of living and raising children there, and decided to stay.

Today, at 53, Meswani teaches at a public school in Helsinki, the same school that hired him in 2000. He teaches all subjects in a classroom that is the equivalent of an American middle school. “In Finland, the approach is similar to an [American] public school, but with the possibility of a Miquon-type experience,” he explains. “The new curriculum, established in 2016, emphasizes thematic education, rather than rote memorization, and digital skills. It is student-centered and self-directed.”

He also is clearly able to make the connection between Miquon and where he is today.

“My way of interacting with students is perhaps less a product of my teacher education and more a product of thinking what Tony and Lynn would do [in a given situation], and did do for all of us over the years,” he says. “My relationship with them carried me through difficult times in junior high and high school. And I’m able to say that school can be a fantastic place. Just look! I went to Miquon!”