Sunday, July 31, 2016

How Teachers Violate Children Privacy in Schools

It's been five years that I am teaching in this school, located in rural Bengal.  Like my last post on The Question of Reservation in Schools, this time around I want to focus on something I feel deeply about: the issue of children privacy. In my years of experience if there is anything I have noted, it is how grossly teachers take on the mantle of invading their privacy and grossly abusing them to no end.

Let me put forth my case with a classic example of this privacy invasion. This is standard VIII, sometime after the lunch break. Students are already a little relaxed. For many, the school is as good as over because they are mainly here for some food on the plate in the afternoon. By the way, there are kids here and there who report to school even in high fever. The moment the lunch at the mid-day meal scheme is over, they want to go home because frankly they are too sick to continue. Teachers ask the same question to them on every occasion: why did you come to school if you are so sick? Well teacher, ask yourself if you have no other food than what you get in school.

Anyway, coming back to the example, eaten and relaxed, most students tend to drift away from lessons being taught. So this kid is doodling something on the back pages of the open copy in front. The teacher spots the inattentive student and hauls him up. It is not just about a rebuke to make the kid pay attention. It is more about, what are you writing at the back of the copy? Show me the copy.

The kid is aghast and penitent, mostly nervous. Any punishment is okay, but to reveal the contents of the back pages will burn him alive. The kid defends and begs with most sincerity. But the teacher has already scented blood and curiosity gets the better of her. With no mercy whatever, she gets other kids sitting around to forcibly yank the copy out of the offending kid's protection. The kid is no match for four of his friends acting on behalf of the teacher. The copy is duly yanked and handed over to the teacher.

The teacher gleefully, not visibly though, flips to the back and discovers the name of a girl doodled on the page. The teacher, of course, knew all along what she might find. She immediately reads out the name, shaming and scorching the kid. The girl's name doodled may well be in the same class. The teacher doesn't really care. In one stroke, she shames both and walks off with the copy to the staffroom.

In the staffroom, with a big smile on her face, she plonks the open back page right in the middle of the table. She declares in a booming voice: look what XYZ has written! Several cheerful teachers mill around, reading and guffawing. In ten minutes flat, almost every present teacher knows that XYZ has doodled the name of a crush and who that crush is. Mission accomplished, the teacher who has provided this fodder for gossip takes on the high moral position of self-righteousness to lecture on the sorry state of affairs among kids, even in standard VIII. Others dutifully nod their heads in vociferous agreement.

There are so many things wrong here, on so many levels. To begin with, adolescents have crushes, they doodle and they feel the world for the little flame burning in their heart. Is that so new for teachers to understand? Did not the teachers themselves doodle some name on the back pages at some time in their school or college? What if their teachers had heartlessly yanked off their copies and made them the butt of jokes for the entire school?

I strongly believe that children have equal rights to privacy as adults have. I wouldn't want anyone to browse through my phone. So what gives me the right to browse through the personal scribbles of a kid? True, as a teacher, I can rebuke a kid for not paying attention in class. I can make the kid give up the copy and then return it when the class is over. I cannot shuffle through personal scribbles to dig dirt and smear kids. This affects them irreversibly. It pains them like nothing else.

Unless it is done with the exact intent of hurting and paining the kid, the teacher had no other reason to make a public spectacle of personal space. When I shared this idea with some teachers, some agreed but most didn't! I was so surprised that teachers take the moral ground so easily, completely forgetting that this is not about YOU! It is about the kids and their welfare and their upbringing. Invading a child's privacy to bring out dirt may make you feel responsible and alert, but it is actually not that, is it? What you are doing is showing off how vigilant you are, kids be damned and privacy rights be damned.

I rest my case here. If you feel differently, do chime in and I will gladly discuss this with you.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Question of Reservation in School Classrooms

After years, my professional writing assignments are not so crammed anymore! It may be a blessing in disguise but this disguise rather not be too difficult to shake off. After all, these writings pay for my annual vacation. 

However, I call it a blessing primarily because I now have some time to write for myself. After brainstorming for a couple of days, I decided on this topic. This has been on my mind for some time now and the only constraint in penning it down was time. Anyway, introductions aside, here's cut to the chase.

Make no mistake thinking that the question of reservation, with all its connotations, rises up at the threshold of leaving school and entering the next phase of education. Or, later on during job interviews in the public sector. This is very much a question on the table, the proverbial elephant in the room, in school classrooms, right from the primary stage.

I have never studied in classrooms where caste or religious distinctions were made, save for the fact that Christian students headed for Catechism class, while we went to the Moral Science class and Christian students could live in the school hostel. This is where it ended. They, or anyone else, received no additional benefit, at least in full view of others in the classroom.

This sense of parity is totally disturbed in state-aided schools, as I discovered to my horror when I started teaching in one. Even children as young as Standard V know that there are some money grants exclusive to others while they are deprived. The uniforms of some boys after Standard VIII are paid for by the state while many others of their male friends have to make do with the old set or pester their parents for new ones. 

You cannot rationalize this at all, simply because you cannot approach this problem from the mindset of a teenagers years away from attaining intellectual or emotional maturity. There is only a binary thought: he gets it, I don't. The reason is clearly announced in open classroom by a teacher or an attendant: SC/ST students are made to stand up and be counted. Or, some announcements are addressed directly to them so that they may report to the offices of the school with the necessary documentation for some grant or the other.

What this discrimination does is manifold. For starters, students, each one of them, know those of their ilk and the 'other'. Those who get the benefits are not spared, either. They are often taunted for the extra privileges. While the 'get's eye the 'not-get's with jealousy and derision, the 'not-get's look on the 'get's with suspicion and fear. It is a strange dynamic equation that sets in, disturbing everything in its wake.

What's worse is that schools make no bones about keeping a lid on this discrimination. It happens out in the open, with no regard for children's feelings. All talk of child-centric education and what not drops out of the window the very instant this discrimination is made in handing out benefits. I don't want to get into the politics of whether some students, on the basis of caste or religion, should receive additional benefits. All I propose it that it happen in a guarded way, so that other children do not feel deprived. 

Children, instead of being sensitized about the question of reservation, are conditioned to use them as a tool, either to defend or to attack. No wonder they are so insecure about this question, no matter which side of the equation. Students who get the benefits already know they can look forward to it before they reach the stage of receiving reservations in higher education. Students who won't get them also know that their lot is deprived, often not making an effort to even take a shot at it.

In schools set in challenging socio-economic backgrounds, almost every student could do with a new set of uniforms or grants. It is rather cruel to differentiate between students when they are totally on the same page. How can you offer a plate of food to one hungry child while another starved child looks on?    

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Journey to School - I

Since I joined Bantul Mahakali High School, somewhere in a far-off area in rural West Bengal, I have been inundated with questions. Curious friends want to know how life is at this village school for someone who has studied and worked in the city and knows nothing of what life can be 50kms away from the heart of Calcutta. I have tried to answer these questions to the best of my ability but there is just so much to say that nothing I could write on chat boxes or say on phone conversations could totally encapsulate my experience. A series of blog posts on my life at school was long overdue! With the doors of this co-ed institution shut for three consecutive days and the weather enforcing me to keep my own door firmly bolted, it’s time to keyboard my story.

This was going to be my first journey on a local train! Yes, when I mention this to anyone, they don’t believe me. It surely does not make me feel proud of this dubious distinction but I have never traveled short distances by train. I didn’t need to. I was gearing myself up for the worst when my colleagues laughed at my question, “Where should I punch the monthly ticket?” These two friends are regulars on local trains and had told me to buy a monthly ticket for convenience. I was of the opinion that they could be punched, much like Metro Rail tickets. When my colleague took out his ticket and railway ID card, I had my first look at what I needed to be armed with to take local trains on a daily basis.

I had done a reconnaissance a few days before I was scheduled to join and knew that it would take me a couple of hours to reach the school. I started off this reconnaissance trip with a lot of foreboding. I had no idea how it is going to be. I had a rough sketch of where I needed to go and what I had to take. The rest would unfold when I hit the track. High on a desire to explore and quite low on enthusiasm, I took off. I had to walk for 5 minutes to reach the bus stop. If I had to go to Calcutta, I need not have walked because a bus going that way would have saved the trouble for me. Anyway, not to be weighed down by the loss of this luxury, I took a bus to the train station. The bus was near-empty because office goers were headed the opposite way, towards Calcutta. I was going away from it. The bus stopped on a flyover above the train station. I had to climb down about two levels to reach ground floor.

The way to the school was a series of questions. The first one was, “Where is the ticket counter?” I had no choice but to depend on random strangers to locate a destination where I might spend the rest of my professional career. I was shown a structure which was more like a concrete hut with a tin roof and polished marble floors. The rain in the morning had left patches of water on the floor and years of use have eroded the surface. Walking carefully, I reached the ticket counter. Two counters were on the sides of a room that can pass off as a rectangular hall. Rubbish was heaped on at least two of the corners. An old woman was strategically standing between the counters, expecting passengers to drop their loose balance into her begging bowl. Many were disappointing her.

I bought my ticket and headed for the over-bridge that will take me to another platform. Again, this information was indebted to a stranger. The climb up made me sweat badly and I realized with a tinge of fear that maybe these flights of stairs, the flyover and now this, will be difficult to manage some years down the line, if I continue to skip exercises. I got to the right platform and asked a tea vendor when the train will come. He replied that it was due and anytime it would arrive. True enough, I saw it chugging in lazily. With each passing day, I have learnt to trust the information of train hawkers more than railway time tables or officials. Seats were available on the train. The same reason, like the bus, applied to save me from another physical exhaustion. I was on my way.

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Empty Ode

Sterile thoughts clog my void brain,
I cannot wade through thoughts profane;
The want far exceeds the frugal means
Of sustenance that life did me ordain.

Each day I hope for a pregnant sunrise
Each day the boredom I despise.
The numbness remains my vital shadow
When will life bring me a surprise?

I feel compelled to shield my eyes,
From the naked shrapnels of the past.
What stark, bare force in them lies
That bring them up out of the dust

The need for a physical consolation escalates;
Blocked are the routes of escapades.

This is a poem I wrote way back on a June evening in 2008.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dear Dad II

It’s been a year since I last wrote to you. It’s not easy making up my mind and begin to write a letter to you, you know! No, it’s not just the emotional upheaval that I’m scared of. It’s also because of the lack of emotional intimacy we shared. I don’t remember talking to you frankly or freely about my problems, neither did you feel easy enough to do the same with me. Somehow we kept our lives separate, lest we betray our vulnerabilities. There’s something that held you back from talking about your needs. You could never say what you wanted. If somebody understood instinctively, it was done for you. You would accept the favor with silent gratefulness. If it was not done, you would have no qualms about it. I inherited this trait from you, though partially. I can keep silent when no one realizes what I want, but somehow I cannot help but be bitter about it. I feel a bad aftertaste in the mouth.

This last year has been oddly quiet. There were no major events except for my laptop breaking down and me having to spend a whole two months to bring things back in control. Yes, I bought a laptop last year in May, with the money I received as Provident Fund from my last office. I tried to sell off my desktop, the one you worked on, but changed my mind. Remember how we used to fight over it? Things used to get so ugly on Sundays! You were so paranoid about checking your email every hour and I would grumble that I cannot have the computer to myself. I would complain to my mother and she would raise a ruckus and bully you into letting me take over. You would calmly get up and watch TV. I would finish my non-existent work in half an hour and join you on the sofa. Invariably I would take the remote and change the channel you were watching. You would immediately adjust your mind and watch what I did. Why did you never assert yourself? The computer and the TV lie silent for days and months. Need I say more?

You want me to talk about mom, don’t you? She’s fine! She’s heavily into singing devotional hymns and has learnt to play my old harmonium! She asked me to teach her initially. But you know how she picks things up! I gave up in two sessions. She went ahead and got herself a tutor. The lady is a very patient and an ideal teacher. Krishna Aunty joins mom for these sessions that happen thrice a week. But mom practices every single day! She’s really taken this up and is happy to keep herself occupied. Her sense of humor remains keen and outrageous to the hilt. Remember how you used to poke her so that she may say those funny, quaint things? You would laugh till tears came flowing. I enjoy her hilarious side a lot. She makes me smile with her excuses for bad cooking. When I’m pensive, she asks me if I am worried. Then without waiting for an answer, she brushes away all such considerations saying that I need not worry as long as she is around. I trust her completely when she says that. She may be comical, but she’s rock-steady. They don’t make them like her anymore. You did well to choose her as my mother.

If you want to know how we are doing on a daily basis, I have nothing much to say because nothing much has changed. There’s no one to bring the fish every day, so we don’t have it regularly. You know mom wouldn’t put anything non-veg in the fridge. As you know, she’s beyond reason when it comes to following null and void customs that are etched on her mind. She gets hysterical when I try to make her see sense. I don’t try hard or she may think that I’m trying to push my opinion on her. I don’t argue with her, unless I feel that she’s open to change her mind. She asks for my advice on little things these days. She feels that she’s getting old and now I must take the decisions. I tell her what I think of the matter and give her options. I don’t know if I’m capable of standing up and being there for her when she needs me. But I’m not giving up. Ever.

I dream about you every other night. Don’t look away, I know you realize what I’m talking about. Just the other day you were holding me in a half-hug when I woke up, like you used to. Don’t deny, you were right there, I could feel your stubble on my cheek. On other nights, you tell me things that I don’t remember when it’s day. I can’t recall a single word now. Na├»ve are the people who say dreams are nothing but your sub-conscious mind playing visual tricks. You are not my sub-conscious. There are some little things that keep coming back to me: silly jokes you found really funny, India losing cricket matches, our drunk neighbors fighting. As days pass, I feel I’m imitating the way you were. I gulp water like you did, I sometimes speak like you used to, I react like you did. And you know what, I wrote all these tenses of the last line in present tense.

That’s it for now. Don’t be conscious that I referred to your visits in my dreams and stay away from me. I would feel really lucky if I could talk to mom during the day and with you during the night. I never want to choose between you two. I will accept nothing but the both of you.

Be with me always.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friendship: Then and Now

I am a self-confessed Facebook addict. If I’m not doing anything better, I’m surfing around through Facebook-scape. It’s like my Ethernet access has shrunk down to accommodate only this one particular website, like a house cut down by a cruel bulldozer to just a room. While I pace up and down this rather cluttered room of mine, I bump into many vestigial relationships. I’m talking about my friends who used to mean a lot at certain points of time, but have dissolved somewhere along the way. Many of them unsubscribed from my life when school was over, and there were many that I couldn’t keep track off. I must admit that I made little or no effort to do that, because migrations are necessary for many.

When I look at them today, I find it hard to reconcile their present with the memories of my past. I find it hard to figure out when I spoke to them last, and if I can somehow remember that, I cannot save my life to tell you what we talked about. It’s like we lived in a village that has been ravaged by the keepers of time. And then we settled elsewhere only to meet at a village fair many years later. By then we have transformed into self-sufficient units and can feed ourselves. We no longer need to join hands for a cause; we no longer need to come together again.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that I do not like connecting with old friends. But there’s so much that has happened over the years that the person I work with knows more about me than the friend who was in the school Literary Club with me. It seems like a gigantic task to fill them up with updates, force the drab details down unwilling throats. I feel that friendship, like all other relationships, has a shelf life. Once you drag them beyond their span, you feel the burden and the weight crushes the fond memories you have. I’d pick my memories any day over reconciling myself with a stranger who looks like my long lost friend.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ode to an Office

An incomplete poem I started writing long time back. It's about an office I worked in...

It was not a long time ago,
That I got an opportunity
To add my spirit of usefulness
And contribute toward an exercise in quality.
There exists a Gothic building,
That stands like a figure imposing;
To know more about this den,
Let's start meeting its merry men.
Guarding the door is a sentry gentle,
He neither smokes, nor chews beetle.
But he has got quite a curiosity,
And asks questions with feverish tenacity.
If you want to get through the gate,
Better come early, or you'll surely be late.
After climbing up the stairs few,
You are greeted with a solemn view.
With computers black, people sit in rows,
They work with perpetually quizzed eyebrows.
Work is not the reason for this gloom,
It's just that on the right is the boss' room!
It would not be safe to talk about
Some of these merry men,
Should they come to know of this,
They'll surely knock out my brain!
So let's go only to the harmless men,
They are nice, they are timid, they are sane.