Talking of School

August! Another couple of weeks and schools will open, and I shall (hopefully) get back to a more writerly routine. Hello, alarm clock. I have not missed you.

Talking of school, I came across an old photograph a few days ago – my fifth grade class picture. None of us are looking particularly happy. Mrs. Henderson, our squat and grumpy class teacher, sits in the middle, looking the least happy. I do not have fond memories of her. But I do have very strong memories of that time. I got to thinking how important school was in my childhood, how large a part it played, and how different it is for my kids these days.

As an army kid, I got about a fair bit. I went to seven different schools across India. Three of those were convents (blech), and one was the the La Martinière Girls College in Lucknow, which is probably my favorite. Only in the eleventh and twelfth grades did I manage to go to a public school for both boys and girls – the Army Public School in Delhi. (Nursery doesn’t count, because I don’t remember much about it apart from slates, chalks, and a general sense of fear.)

In high school, I took math, science and English, dusting my hands once and for all of certain hated subjects: Needlework, Home Science, and S.U.P.W.

S.U.P.W. stands for Socially Useful Productive Work, and it is still a compulsory subject in many Indian schools. I cannot recall a single useful thing that came out of it, at least for me. All I remember are tea cozies, antimacassars, cushion covers, and a plethora of woolen scarfs – those being the easiest things to knit – that all eventually found their way into cupboards of dusty junk. Can you imagine, Needlework was a separate class from S.U.P.W.? Needless to say, I was not skillful with needle and thread. I pricked my fingers and knotted the threads constantly, and after many hours of painstaking work, the result was usually marked in the bottom ten or twenty percent of the class. I would, of course, have much rather been reading a book. And I often was, sometimes even during class, which resulted, of course, in my being sent out.

I wonder if they had things like compulsory Needlework and Home Science in boys’ schools. Did boys have to learn how to clean stains, cook food, and hem clothes? I really doubt it. This was something reserved for girls – teaching us how to be compliant and clever housewives along with teaching us math and science, as if a girl who knows both her calculus and her cross-stitch is somehow a more desirable girl. And of course she is, from the point of view of our patriarchal culture.

And how did they teach us to be compliant? With Punishment. In one of the convents I attended, girls were caned for the flimsiest reasons – socks rolled down instead of straight up, nails too long, skirt too short, whispering, smiling, daydreaming, and having the wrong expression on your face. If you made the terrible mistake of forgetting your textbook or homework at home – well, then they’d really make you suffer.

I have been hit with a ruler for talking, made to kneel on the floor for giggling, stand on a chair with my hands raised for staring at the teacher instead of casting my eyes down, and sent out of class numerous times in just about every grade. And – this one takes the cake – I have been ostracized by my entire third grade class on the strict instructions of the class teacher for ‘telling stories’. Not that I was particularly rebellious to start with. But all this is designed to instil fear and stamp out the slightest non-conformity, designed to grow women who do as they are told.

Not all schools are like that and times have changed, even in India. The Delhi High Court banned corporal punishment in 2000, although it is still prevalent in some states.

So do I think my kids have it better in Toronto? Obviously yes, in many ways. School is more fun for them. Creativity is encouraged. Teachers don’t put you down or scold you for minor issues. There is little homework at the elementary level. The emphasis is on socializing well, playing and working together, and being healthy – which is great.

And here are the things that are missing: academic rigor, discipline, competition. All three of which are required at college or even high-school level. The level of math, in particular, is abysmal.

So would I change anything for them? Nope. Math can be taught at home. I don’t want my kids to ever hate or fear school, as I sometimes did. Childhood is fleeting enough.

And so is summer. Enjoy the last week of August, the last long evenings before we tilt away from the sun.

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: Thanks for dropping by!
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1 Response to Talking of School

  1. Bhawana Joshi says:

    Wow!! Absolutely well-written piece! Dear Rati, you made me remind of my SUPW days in girls’ school. I totally agree with your ideas and I too hated all this stupid stuff I was supoosed to learn as a girl. SUPW == PUNISHMENT 🙂


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