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Bloodsport in the schoolroom: A teacher’s apology

To each of my students, against whom I turned the whiplash of my tongue, I would like to say: I am sorry

KGB. No, not Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti. This was Kindergarten-B and I was three years old.

“He’s in KG-B?” Another lady asked my mother, pointing at me. “Lucky. He’s got Mrs. R. as class teacher. She’s very good.”

“Is she?” my mother asked.

“Yes,” said the lady. “My elder son had her two years ago. She was good for these devils. Once she gave everyone a slap. Just like that. Because they must have done something to deserve it.”

I was flattered to be thought of as a devil. I was terrified of Mrs. R. I learned nothing in her class.

Fifteen years later, I became a tutor, a mathematics tutor. One of my pupils was a little boy who was known to be mischievous.

“If he doesn’t listen,” said his grandmother. “Just take this agarbatti and give him one quick jatka.”

I didn’t believe she was serious.

She was.

The power equation

I have been a teacher for several decades now. I began by teaching mathematics and I ended up teaching journalism at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, now ranked as one of the top ten media institutes in the country. I have therefore been teaching for nearly 35 years. I do not know if anyone should spend that kind of time on the wrong side of the power equation.

Teaching is a very peculiar occupation in India. All over, the International Labour Organization tells us, the lowest-paid professions are those of the journalist and the teacher. But this is not a gripe about how badly I have been paid. It is an apology.

I want to apologise.

To each one of my students, against whom I turned the whiplash of my tongue, I would like to say: I am sorry. I am genuinely sorry because I may have hurt you. I may have thought then, I am only being cruel to be kind. I may have thought then, I am doing this for your own good. I may have even told you: I am only preparing you for the boss from hell.

I was fooling myself.

Was I balancing the power equation out? Yes, I may be poorly paid; yes, I may be the subject of aphorisms like ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ but right here, right now, I am in charge and I can make your life a living hell for the next 45 minutes and, if you cross my path, for the next semester.

The question I should have asked myself: How should I like to be treated if I were a student?

I know the answer to that because late in life I went back to school. I went to a yoga class run by my friend, Jehangir Palkhivala. He was a good teacher, a great teacher, knowledgeable, confident, committed. But most of all, he was compassionate.

I didn’t think compassion was part of the armamentarium of the teacher.

Savage skill

This was probably because the teachers I remembered were also skilled at savagery. They had cut-glass English accents — this was important to my generation and I suspect it still holds much more value than it should but it is perhaps diminishing now — and of them it was said, ‘Every morning I get up and brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue on a whetstone.’ Surviving a class with one of them was a badge of honour and once you had earned your badge, it had to mean something, it had to be given meaning, and in order that it be given meaning, you had to work backwards and make your scars into symbols. You had to prove that it was worth it. So you made it seem as if there was no other way you could possibly have learned what you learned were it not for the excoriation that went with it.

This is complete nonsense.

It is true that the fascist teacher is sometimes a very entertaining teacher. The classroom is an arena, there is the smell of bloodsport in the air, and there’s a febrile excitement in not knowing who will be the victim. And if the victim is not you, you can settle down and enjoy it secretly, breathing a sigh of relief. The downside is learning is impossible if you are hurt, if you are angry, when you are sad, when you are tense.

But again and again, the teachers who are fêted, the ones who are celebrated, are the ones who could skin you at 50 paces. No wonder that was the model. No wonder that was my model. No wonder the jackboot in the face seems to be the only way we think power can be wielded. Or experienced.

We’re all a bit power-mad, no? Most of us just don’t have that much power to make it count. Most of the time, we must rely on the cooperation of our victims. Some of it is institutionalised, some of it is sanctioned, but a lot of it arises out of the emotional hold we have over others. The patriarchs of families, the passive-aggressive mothers, the teachers, all wielding power, all trying their best to rewrite the worlds and lives of others in the shape and form they want.

Hurt people, they say, hurt people.

What can I say? I’m sorry. In the words of that sad and sorry student confronting the imperium of the teacher: I’ll try not to do it again.

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 2:56:01 AM |

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