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As parents, we put a piece of our hearts out into this world and into the custody of the teachers at school and tuition and can only hope and pray that they treat them well.
Trigger Warning: This speaks of physical and emotional violence by teachers, caste based abuse, and contains some graphic details, and may be triggering for survivors.
When I was in Grade 10, I flunked my first preliminary examination in Mathematics. My mother was in a panic. An aunt recommended the Maths classes conducted by the Maths sir she knew personally. It was a much sought-after class, one of those classes that you signed up for when you were in the ninth grade itself back then, all those decades ago. My aunt kindly requested him to take me on in the middle of the term, despite my marks in the subject, and he did so as a favour.
Math had always been a nightmare. In retrospect, I wonder why I was always so terrified of math. I’ve concluded it is because I am a head in the cloud person and the rigor of the step by step process in math made me lose track of what needed to be done before I was halfway through. In today’s world, I would have most probably been diagnosed as attention deficit. Back then we had no such definitions, no such categorisations. Back then we were just bright sparks or dim.
And so, I began attending the classes after school.
I was not the brightest spark in the class. I had the unfortunate tendency to drift away, until one day a duster flung with force hit me hard on the forehead while I was in the middle of a wonderful day dream. Words like ‘Duffer’ ‘Idiot’ ‘Donkey’ etc were hurled at me. For a brief moment, all went dark in front of my eyes.
I don’t remember if the duster caused lasting damage or not to my forehead, but the words caused lasting damage to my soul. The laughter of the other students in the class still rings in my ears sometimes after all these years, when I stand in front of an audience, when I sit on stage, when someone is interviewing me on camera. The laughter rings and rings in my ears until it becomes a constant whine in the background.
I never went back to those classes.
I assured my mother I would ensure I got through the board exams studying on my own and so I did. To her credit, she didn’t insist I go back. She lost the fees she had paid, a huge amount for a woman struggling to raise a child on her own. I hunkered down with my text books and the guide, paid better attention in school, asked kind friends to help me. I scored more in Math than I did in English in the tenth board exams; I still remember that though I have forgotten the exact marks. I dropped math in college, I took arts, hoping towards a degree in psychology or English Literature. When I submitted my admission form, the professor accepting the form looked at it and said “Why are you taking arts when you can easily get admission in Science?” This was back when science was the most desirable stream. “No,” I replied, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Maths anymore.” I don’t want to sit in a classroom and be jeered at again.
We’ve all grown up with tutors like these, tutors who take the fragile, budding self esteem of a child and pulverize it to smithereens under their disdainful, and sometimes cruel gaze. To be fair, we’ve also had the opposite, tutors who see a child for the potential he or she contains and nurture that potential with gentleness, good humour, grace. These are the teachers we remember all our lives with gratitude for sparking that awareness within us, of what we can dare to dream, what we can hope to reach out and grasp, the faintly shimmering outlines of the possible destiny we can make for ourselves.
The horror came back to me when my son entered class nine, and we enrolled him in a highly recommended Maths tutorial class near home. It felt like I was watching a replay of what I went through as a student. My son was lucky, we were lucky. We withdrew him from there, found him a gem of a tutor who completely changed him patiently, with love and attention.
December 2022 was one such month where the news items constantly told us how unsafe some of our children were with those we entrusted them with.
December 29, 2022: Bhopal: 5-year-old suffers fracture as tutor twists her hand for incorrectly spelling ‘parrot’
Dec 16, 2022, Delhi: Teacher throws class 5 girl from first-floor window of classroom, detained
Dec 20, 2022, Karnataka: Karnataka News / Teacher beat 10-year-old student with shovel, threw him from balcony, innocent died
These are just a few of the headlines from a single month, in Indian newspapers. There are definitely more that I’ve missed. And possibly many which don’t make it to the news because they are not so horrific. They are a slap perhaps, a pinch, a rapping on the knuckles with the foot ruler, corporal punishment, an unkind word, an insult, a tongue lashing, and worse. On the spectrum of alarming us as a society, many go unnoticed, unmentioned, considered the norm.
So many of us have grown up with memories of school where we’ve been bullied not just by other students, but often been picked on by teachers for whatever reason, and made to feel inadequate. The damage to us, physical, emotional, is never quite acknowledged, and as for reparations, there are none.
Physical violence in the name of disciplining children was the norm back when I was in school, and no one thought to complain, not the parents, not the children. Thankfully, things are different today. Corporal punishment is banned. Teachers are answerable if they behave in a derogatory manner towards the children in their care. And thankfully, most good schools are alert and responsive to parents who raise concerns, have CCTVs and have a zero-tolerance policy towards corporal punishment. Teachers themselves are aware of the need to discipline and educate without damaging the child emotionally.
A tuition teacher punching a child multiple times, hitting the child with a shoe, pulling the child’s hair in Uttar Pradesh.
A nine year old killed by his teacher in Rajasthan just because he supposedly drank water from a pot kept for the ‘upper castes’.
A three year old being mercilessly thrashed by a tuition teacher in Kolkata after she locks the door.
In Bihar, a six year old is beaten so mercilessly by a teacher that the stick he was being beaten by broke into two.
And there are those who leave no marks on the body but scar the psyche with their taunts, jeers and emotional cruelty. The ones who leave a child emotionally scarred for life face absolutely no repercussions at all, except perhaps the threat of a very fickle karma coming for them eventually.
As parents, we put a piece of our hearts out into this world and into the custody of the teachers at school and tuition and can only hope and pray that they treat them well. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And the newspapers are rife with horrific news reports about how sometimes teachers are worse than monsters, of how we, as parents entrust our children in the hands of those who think nothing of violently assaulting them. It happens, over and over again.
Is it a few rotten apples in the system?
Is it the education system itself that places a premium on marks scored that is to be blamed for some teachers treating children who don’t pick up as quickly as desire as lesser beings?
Does one blame the rote learning system that crushes curiosity and rewards blind acceptance of what is being taught without encouraging questioning?
Or is it the lack of understanding that there are different kinds of intelligence and an education system should encompass them all, to allow all children to flower?
The insistence on obedience that snuffs out individuality and bestows unbridled power in the hands of those who might not be, though adults, mature enough to understand the responsibility that this power brings?
Or most importantly, the lack of checks and balances that gauge the emotional ability and the propensity of violence in someone entrusted with the task of teaching young children?
I did not face violence that caused such harm but the phobia I had towards Math still continues; I never grew out of it. Perhaps it is that professor’s voice in my head, calling me a donkey, a duffer, an idiot. When I get lauded for something I’ve done professionally, his words still haunt me. I wait on edge, for the laughter to begin again, to ring in my ears, for the sudden unexpected thud of the duster on my forehead, missing my eye by a centimetre or two. For someone to call me a donkey, a duffer, an idiot.
And then I tell myself I am not what I was called. A fish cannot climb a tree. I found my water with words not numbers. Not all children find their water, some drown without even realising that their body knows intuitively how to swim. As a society, as a people, we need to find a way to put the rafts out there to save them.
Author and columnist Kiran Manral writes her second piece for a new column we have started in 2023, a deeply personal take on a topical issue. You can find her books here.
Image source: YouTube/ Comedy Central
Kiran Manral is an Indian author, columnist and mentor. She has published books across genres in both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Mumbai. read more...
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