Yesterday I went to watch Taare Zameen Par. What can I say, I thought it was beautiful. I cried, I laughed, I shook my head indulgently, I gnashed my teeth in rage. It was everything a good movie should be. (and the fact that there was minimum singing and dancing was a HUGE bonus.)
It also brought back to me the hell I endured in Ashok Hall Junior school, right after my family came back from the Phillippines (where I had spent all five years of my life till then.) I didn’t know my own language at all and was also quite unaccustomed to the work pressure in Indian schools. My difficulty with Bengali made me a prime target for a sadist of a teacher (My mind seems to have repressed her name) who thought up the most humiliating and sometimes painful punishments to inspire me to do better. I was given a place at the back of the class, along with a few other worthless children who didn’t deserve to sit close to the good students. I would stay as quiet as a mouse, hoping the teacher wouldn’t pick on me at least that day. But she usually did, slapping me around, making me and the others kneel down inside or outside the class, and when she felt like it, making the ‘good students’ mete out punishments to the bad ones. I still have a friend who was from the ‘good side of the marks’ and had to lead me out of class by the ear, though neither of us talk about it much.
Let’s be honest. I was no angel either, Bengali under this woman’s tutelage had fast become the bane of my existence and I was damned if I would spend one extra minute having anything to do with it than I had to. So to the mirth of one and all I would be kicked out of class for not having done my homework, almost every day for 5 years.
There were several other teachers who were almost as bad as this fiend, if not worse, because whereas I really was a dud at Bengali, looking back I can’t believe that I have come across the occasional history or even English teacher ( I remember a particular Mrs Ohri who took an instinctive dislike to me, which was unfortunate because she was my class teacher for a year and had a tendency to make profoundly spiteful comments in front of a class full of sycophantic students) who tried their best to break any spirit I may have had. Needless to say I was a complete wreck in junior school and spent many an evening after school crying in my mother’s lap, feigning stomach aches every Monday morning, or plotting fierce revenge the moment I grew up.
I hated school with a passion, and consequently apart from the time I spent at home, I would say between ages 6 to 11 I was a very, very unhappy little girl.
It took me four more years and a wonderful teacher in my senior school called Mrs. Anima Bose to change the way I looked at my own mother tongue. She talked to me like I was a human being (of course it helped that by then I was in my teens and teachers hesitated to torment older students who weren’t quite as helpless.) In fact she did much more than that, she gave me respect and convinced me that if I was good at one language I must be good at others.(Turns out that wasn’t true about German..I was awful at it.) I recall one day we were discussing my problem and both of us had tears in our eyes. Needless to say, my Bengali improved almost overnight and I ended up beating the topper in my section in my Board exams. (Again—Board exams are a joke, proved by how I was nearly at the bottom of my class in the English paper. But still, it makes a pretty dramatic point.)
Anyway, my point is this.
I wasn’t dyslexic. I wasn’t too stupid either. A little respect and a bit more attention might have done wonders for a little girl feeling lost and out of her depth in a new country, with new languages, and in her eyes, very unpleasant teaching methods. Instead my school made every day miserable—reinforcing my dislike for school and all things academic until I got promoted (mercifully every time) to senior school; a release from hell.
Once the oppressive atmosphere and daily beatings and humiliations ceased I began to come out of my shell, made some wonderful friends, started doing better, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I had a good time—had a tolerable enough time for the last 7 years of school.
Maybe it’s time teachers and the school system began to think how to encourage students to do better, rather than punish them mercilessly, incessantly, for doing badly. Maybe they should enquire why a student is doing badly, and if so what they can do about it…instead of cultivating an exclusive club of ‘good girls and boys’ (I remember thinking they were all teacher’s pets and spies until I grew up) who alone deserve the teacher’s attention.
Maybe we can let our children be children and help to develop their individual strengths (accept that kids, just like their parents, can’t be 100% good at everything) instead of trying to squeeze and beat and slap them into a prize child we can boast about at the next dinner party we go to.
Easier said than done, I can hear people mutter who had the patience to read this far.
I never said it was easy… but it’s the right thing to do.