School is a place where we first learn about social behaviour. We learn from our peers and as much from our teachers. I have learned about many professions and I believe the most under-rated one is that of a school teacher. This I do not say from sympathy for the plight of the school teacher but more because I have empathy for the regular school students.
I remember quite clearly my first days at school. Fresh off the kindergarten boat I had just gotten into the uniformed brigade in “big school”. Our first standard class teacher had given us our first home assignment – a 5 line composition on “My Best Friend”. We were supposed to stick the picture of the friend and underneath it write the lines.
I went home thoughtful because I had a basic issue. I didn’t really have any friends. Except for my imaginary ones of course. I grew up as an only kid who was dreamy and painfully shy, preferring to just disappear than make conversation. (Some parts of me are still like that!) So the subject of this assignment seemed beyond me. But this was traditional school education where formal instruction was obeyed. Period.
So I went home and sat amongst my books and toys for a while. I flipped open my favourite fairytale book, looked through all the characters in it and sighed. It was a beautiful hardbound book with gorgeous illustrations. Of the lot I decided that Sleeping Beauty would be the least disturbed if I took her out, after all… she was sleeping! I remember how careful I was as I cut her image out without damaging anything else in the book. It broke my heart but it had to be done. This was big school after all. No silly matter.
I stuck her carefully onto the four line book and wrote 5 lines under it about her.
The next day at school all our books were collected and piled onto the teacher’s desk. I waited excitedly for the teacher’s response. In the last period of the day the class teacher came in with the same pile. My book was at the top. She announced that all had done well but she wanted to show them something. She picked up my book and began… her performance.
She displayed my open book to everyone in class and spoke with dripping sarcasm about this one student who had written about her best friend and stuck a picture of what was actually a cartoon. She walked over to my desk and mocked me as I stood up with a shudder. I still remember my ears burning in embarrassment and fighting back the tears while everyone laughed at me. She then showed me other books of students who had done the assignment. I realised soon that most students had exchanged passport size pictures with their seating mates in class and written about each other. Most of their lines were identical and predictable. But that didn’t matter here. I was the only one who had not done so. And she punished me for it. For having thought and done something differently. For not having conformed. That could have been the last time that 5 year old did something creative.
But fortunately I have also had teachers who inspire and impart what they know and yet allow us to grow our own thought and philosophy. Teachers who took us through experiences and moments where we discovered our potential. These are two extremes but nowadays I hear teachers are more concerned about lessons than about students. Lessons that are learnt and not interpreted simply produce students who absorb but do not glow. It is easy to point blame but what exactly is the mandate given to the ones who teach? And who sets this mandate? What are we seeking from our education? With so many alternative schooling methods arriving at our doorstep, are we truly stepping out of the box or are we moving from one box to another?
Fast forward to today: I write my own characters and they are my best friends. I trust them and protect them like I would my dearest friends. Today I am thankful that I wasn’t like everyone else in that first grade class. Like everyone else I have been judged for my mind, appearance, race, gender, religion, caste, profession and every time I remember what I repeated in my head when I went back to that first standard class the next day – “it is okay not to be like everyone else around you.”
Conformity isn’t the greatest value if it turns every one into “another brick in the wall” as Pink Floyd put it. But armchair rebellion is just as worthless as textbook mugging. The world is far beyond the school walls or social boundaries and to educate oneself about it, one has to search it, explore it and learn one’s place in the universe. And maybe learn how to be a child again. For every adult is simply a sandpapered child. Some shorn a bit more, some a bit less – of goodness, creativity and open minded wonder.
First published in a 2018-19 Kerala school souvenir publication.