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The Alma Mater

Continuing on the theme from my last post on fitting in – takes me back to school – to the source of that feeling of being an outsider.

My parents had always said to me, “No one can demand your respect, they have to earn it”. And that applied for everyone, from elders to teachers. Now this is shocking and the exact anti-thesis of good Indian upbringing, but I heard it often enough at home, and I believed in it.

The problem wasn’t the believing, it was the execution and the repercussions. I remember the first ever incident I faced in school, when the disillusionment of a perfect kindergarten experience shattered before my (back-then) innocent eyes. After my first day in Grade 1, I came home cribbing to my dad that the desk I was assigned in class was unsteady. It shook when I wrote, effectively making an already difficult task for a 5 year old almost impossible. My dad suggested that I tell the teacher about it, like any normal parent might do. Unfortunately, I still remember the vicious reply I got, complete with a long bony finger pointing at me, “You must have broken it!”. Oh, how I bawled that day when I got home. It was incomprehensible to me, why this new teacher, the most important authority figure in my life would accuse me of that. There were a couple more incidents in primary school that made me lose respect for most of these teachers, these supposed role models that came into my life. Granted, I wasn't an easy, well-adjusted child, nor probably an exemplary human being. But I would assume its part of a teacher’s job to treat everyone alike, at least on the face of it. But that wasn’t the case in my school. While I enjoyed being treated special by some teachers, I noticed how some others went out of their way to pull me down. The ones who called out publicly in class that the donations given by my parents was peanuts in comparison to someone else’s. The ones who insulted my hair. The ones that called my parents “sly and crooked” because I missed an extra day of school, and they refused to believe the reason provided. And so many more. With my furious temper and outspokenness, these incidents only became episodes where I thought ‘fighting back’ was the only option. Big surprise, they didn’t end well, perpetuating a cycle of unpleasant experiences. As the repercussions kept coming, I started believing that my temper was my biggest weakness, and tried very hard to curb it.

In high school, I think my problems with authority peaked. I couldn’t tolerate the injustice anymore, or ‘partiality’, a word we used nearly every day and I’ve almost never had to use since. But in high school I also opened my eyes, and pulled my head a little bit out of my own a**. I saw that I wasn’t the only one being traumatised. There were others whose things the art teacher ‘confiscated’ and never returned at the end of the year. There were others whose hair was insulted even more than mine was. The ones that were picked on by the same teacher every day, for different invented reasons. Teenage girls being cheated out of their rights – to whatever – being prefects, RSP leaders, annual day announcers, dancers or whatever. Sure there were instances where I think, “oh the school/teacher should have handled that better”. Like when the singing teacher had try-outs and put all the non-singers into a group he lovingly (not) referred to as ‘duds’. But that’s not what killed me. It was the unfairness meted out on a daily basis, the absolute unwillingness to leave in peace anyone who refused to be obsequious. There was no question of allowing us to just be us. No, we had to be moulded into obedient, girly women. And if you didn’t possess the right talents, i.e. single minded dedication to your books, dance and probably debate, there was no chance you could be a teachers’ pet. And that meant hell to pay. Of course, I could have, with my ‘star’ sportsperson status have managed at least to be my P.T teacher’s favourite, but that didn’t work out either. Apart from the fact that sports wasn’t exactly a valued skill at my very convent, very girls-school, by the time I had to sugar up the new P.T teacher, I had long lost interest in doing so. I had decided to be a rebel, because its what came more naturally to me. Definitely more than not speaking my mind in the face of these very huge (perceived from a teenager’s eyes) injustices. I don’t particularly care anymore about or blame individual teachers, its more the cliché of hating ‘the system’. Children are vulnerable, the impressions made on them last very, very long. Not to mention that they are the future. Shouldn’t we re-evaluate the kind of citizens and leaders we are breeding?

I remember clearly the ‘shaving-foam incident’, because it epitomised everything that was wrong with my school. It started at an unlikely beginning, in Hindi class. We had to all perform, in groups of 3 a skit or play. My group had to perform Ram saving Sita, and for some reason, my group member had the brilliant idea of drawing a Laxman Rekha with shaving foam in class. However, the Hindi teacher didn’t show that day and a full can of her brother’s shaving foam was suddenly being sprayed on me from across the class. All hell broke loose soon enough, with nearly the entire class of 60 jumping around, throwing things and shrieking. What a fun few minutes, until of course we were visited by the class teacher. Here’s where it got sticky – the age old trick – divide and rule. The teacher asked who started it, and if we gave up the person only they would be punished. You know the spiel. Our class stuck together for the time being, and no one said a word. We withstood the immense pressure they put on us, to rat out a few to save the other’s skins. I was so happy, that’s the way it should be, we were a team. Us against “them”. We bravely faced our punishment (we had to stay indoors during the 15 minute snack break) and the day dragged on. After school that day was the showdown. Of course there were a few who believed that they shouldn’t have been punished when they didn’t start the fiasco. It was intense and bitter, but in the end us ‘the culprits’ were supported by most of the class. Everyone knew they had all enjoyed the thing, and most had joined in. Most importantly, we remained a team that day. But it was inspite of the teachers. They never thought to teach us team spirit, even though they talked a great deal about ‘instilling values’.

That’s the thing I realise I missed out the most going to a girl’s school. I imagine in a co-ed school, a boisterous girl like me wouldn’t stand out that much, and be made to think there’s something wrong with her. I think it would have been easier for me, to not be in an oppressive environment that punished me for not conforming. The ‘temper’ that I’ve tried for years to curb I realise today, also protects me. Anger is that voice inside our heads telling us that somethings not right. I’ve learnt the hard way that I shouldn’t ignore that voice. Whether its for myself or for someone else, I should speak up when things are unfair. Of course its not possible to have a fair, perfect world, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try at all, right?

There’s another thing that strikes me now, when I look back. Yes, I was notorious, a rebel and a little bit infamous. But at least I was something. There were so many girls in school who were treated like they were invisible. They were never encouraged to come out of their shells, never in 12 years given a chance to shine. I look at them now (stalk them on facebook) and they have grown up to be such strong, passionate women. Standing on their own 2 feet and in their own right. I wonder if they resent school like I do, or whether they were just better at making peace or blocking out the things that bothered them.

I’m sure a lot of people will not relate to this at all, and many will probably even be indignant that I would ‘defame my alma mater’ like this! But that’s just the point – this is my story, my past, my life. Its not about you, and maybe you went to a completely different school than I did. Or maybe you went to the very same one, but just in a different world. I survived school, maybe you cherished it and yearn for those days again. Let’s just agree to let everyone be themselves, and have their own opinions. That’s what true freedom is, that’s what I wanted back then and that’s exactly what we all need right now. Go be whatever religion, sexuality, profession (except a murderer), personality, colour (that one’s not really a choice), weight that you want to be. I’m not here to judge, and I hope you aren’t either.  

P.S. I’ve completely left out the amazing teachers I have had along the way, they don’t belong in here. They helped me grow and helped me become me. =) And my mom, whose students love her so much that I’d be jealous as a kid! And dad who kindly passed on his habit of speaking his mind. 


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