By T S Sudhir
Tejaswini had been surfing her favourite cartoon channels for a while when Uma asked her to write down the names and capitals of the states in India as practice for a test in school the next day. With an expression that suggested that she was not amused, Tejaswini told Uma, “I think you and the school are putting too much pressure on me.”
Much as we were amused at her choice of words, we also realised that the six-year-old had, probably unknowingly, used the ultimate weapon against the adult world around her that is trying to instil a sense of discipline and responsibility in her.
`How much is too much and how little is too little’ is the eternal question for parents struggling to strike the right balance in responsible parenting. Much as that may be an everyday learning experience that extends to a lifetime, I am quite sure most right-thinking individuals would agree on what we most certainly don’t want our children to go through.
We don’t want any child to be another Rouvanjit Rawla, a class VIII student of La Martiniere for Boys in Kolkota, who was allegedly caned and humiliated by his Principal and chose to end his life. Four months after the tragedy, Rouvan’s dad, Ajay Rawla has put his personal grief aside to come out and draw public attention to grey issues in the school education system. Maybe that is his way of coping with his loss, his tribute to a son who is no more, a child who would have been still around if only he had got more time and attention from the people around him.
At the time that I was in school in the 80s, I am not so sure I or any of my friends even knew what corporal punishment meant. `Spare the rod and spoil the child’ had been an adage our elders swore by, atleast in their generation. Threats, punishment, humiliation, physical abuse, were not issues really discussed or debated in the context of school.
Rouvanjit’s tragic death took me back to when I was in class V, to our Maths teacher. She was a terror and perhaps she is one reason, I still feel nervous about numbers. Most of us would spend most of our time in her class, trying to be invisible, hoping her gaze would not fall on us.
I still remember that afternoon when it fell on Gurpreet Singh, a diminutive Sikh boy. He had not completed his homework that day and to top it, was unable to answer a Geometry question. The teacher asked him to take off his trousers. As the stunned boys and girls looked on in horror, she reached out for his belt and the terrified lad kept pulling back. The tussle ended with Gurpreet on his knees, crying his lungs out. I wonder what mental scars that would have left on the 10-year-old. Insulted, stripped of dignity.
That day, I hated the teacher. I think the entire class did. But no one complained. We continued to live in the perennial fear that any one of us could become a Gurpreet any day.
Our Physics teacher in class 12, seemed to get a kick from physical violence. He would walk around during the morning assembly and any boy found out of step during the morning exercise, would get a sharp, stinging punch at the end of his spinal chord. As I look back now, he was a bully, who would have been better off, settling streetcorner brawls.
Then there was another teacher whose penchant it seemed, was to slap students, especially girls. So many of our classmates suffered the physical abuse, for crimes as silly as the shade of their red ribbon not being red enough to not getting a leave application to being five minutes late to school.
Not to say we did not have teachers who did not inspire us to become what we are today. But every Rouvanjit reminds one of these black sheep and unfortunately they never fade away from memory.
Being a parent, being a teacher, being a caregiver for children requires enormous skills, patience and a mature mental makeup. How can mere academic qualification be the basis for appointment as a teacher?
No child needs to be put through unnecessary trauma. It is well-established that often a victim of child abuse tends to become violent as he grows up because he learns that violence can be used as a power tool to get his way.
And then there are children who end up feeling inadequate, unable to cope, defeated by the system, and yet another Rouvan hits the headlines somewhere.
Much like ragging in colleges, it is high time this `ragging’ of an equally terrible kind in schools comes under the scanner, to shame and weed out those who have a perverted viewpoint on how to `discipline’ the child.
The National Commission for Protection of child rights under Shantha Sinha has got into the picture in Kolkotta. While the school Principal has reportedly confessed to caning Rouvan, the school management is resisting attempts to tar its reputation.
In a statement it says, “Attempts being made to hold the school entirely responsible are certainly misplaced. There are times when children need to be corrected and helped.”
Isidore Philips, a highly respected child rights activist scoffs at the terms `corrected and helped’.
“The concept of discipline is skewed. Correction does not mean insulting and beating up a child. A teacher cannot violate the dignity of a child. The problem arises because schools are rated only by the kind of infrastructure they have and the teacher-student ratio. Not by the emotional climate the school creates for the child. No attention is paid to whether teachers have the skills to handle children patiently. In fact, there is a yawning gap in the kind of skills teachers need and they actually possess.”
The irony is while the governments say they have the power to recognise a school, when it comes to problems relating to corporal punishment in a private school, they suggest parents approach the police. Which invariably does not and cannot happen.
How many parents can question the school management, even in case of corporal punishment? Specially because admission in the first place was so tough. And then it is in the middle of the year. Complaining may make matters worse for the child. So silence is preferred, with a silent prayer that the situation doesn’t repeat or get worse.
“Parents and children are not organised,” says Isidore. “Schools and teachers are. Parents and children are powerless and voiceless within the system. Even under the Right to Education Act, there is an elaborate redressal mechanism for teachers’ issues. Children are advised to approach the Child rights bodies, which are non-existent in most states. The juvenile justice system needs to be strengthened to give power to the aggrieved child and the parent.”
All this unfortunately is not likely to happen in a hurry, despite the tragedy of a Rouvanjit. And that’s what makes one feel despondent that even in 2010, corporal punishment is not a four-letter word.
I am not in touch with Gurpreet. But I am sure, wherever he is, he and most of us present in that classroom that afternoon, will be more than careful with the kind of school and teachers we send our children to. Because being weak in geometry is not a matter of life and death. But it could be if teachers do not learn their lessons in the `right angles’ first.
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