When asked to write or say something about schools, most people would certainly seek the comforting refuge offered by the warm, albeit threadbare, clichés that cushion the topic, hiding the unsightly edges, lest it should be deemed hurtfully impolite. Singing paeans to such institutions of learning and reminiscing about those lost ‘golden days’ of mirth and laughter, we also exhibit a propensity to gloss over or obliviate many disconcerting episodes that darkly dot the remembrance of the otherwise pristine landscape of innocence. Students and teachers, quite naturally, bring with themselves the weight of age-old prejudices, lived experiences, and currents of thought prevalent in the socio-cultural and politico-religious atmosphere they live in. Besides impacting the dynamics of the inter-personal relationships formed within the school, these also shape the overall pedagogic process. Furthermore, they constitute the very soil out of which sprout some of the most variegated specimens of discrimination.
Having taught in a school for 2 years, I have borne witness to some such distressing instances. While a few were subtle and diffused, others were more jarringly overt. The school is situated in a semi-rural town, over 30 kms away from the nearest major city of Malda in West Bengal. Founded in the early 1980s, this Christian missionary English-medium school ranks amongst the oldest reputed educational institutions in the district. In addition to attracting students from small towns and villages located in Malda district, a sizable portion of the student strength also hails from the neighbouring district of Dinajpur and the adjacent state of Bihar. Being associated with a church, built on the school grounds, it’s one of the popular choices among the Christian families of the region. Whereas many pupils come from affluent business families, others belong to much poorer sections. Besides upper caste Hindu students, a significant portion of the learners came from tribal backgrounds. Muslims and Christians also form a major chunk of the school’s student population.
The school has 3 hostels. One for boys, one for girls (sponsored and non-sponsored), and one specifically for the Christian sponsored boys who come from extremely poor tribal peasant families. The sponsored kids– many of whom are the children and relatives of pastors associated with various branches of the school’s church– pay only a very small amount at the beginning of the session, for the rest of their educational needs are fulfilled by foreign patrons. However, unlike the students in the other two hostels, the sponsored boys often have to cook their meals, do their dishes, wash their clothes and clean their hostel– all on their own. Their dorm room has just 2 ceiling fans, 1 on each end of the long room. Besides the daily activities, they are also required to help cut grass, unload heavy parcels, shift benches or tables, clean the church, etc. Living in the accommodation provided within the school premises, I saw all this and couldn’t help wondering how and when they found the time and the energy to study. No wonder studying felt like just another chore, and an extremely boring one at that.
The faculty majorly consists of middle-aged and elderly men who are quite rigid in their ways. They hardly give any thought to updating their teaching skills, or to go the extra mile in order that the students may really be able to connect what they are learning with their day-to-day experiences. Being rather insensitive to the special needs of first generation learners– of which there were quite a few– the teachers justify those kids’ inability to perform well by saying that, although the tribals have a lot of physical strength, they just aren’t intelligent enough to compete with the other pupils. A similar bias is also expressed against those students who come from the local ‘badiya’ community– a class of poor Muslims who had originally been a nomadic group. Besides being regarded as naturally incapable of achieving academic excellence– with minor exceptions– the latter group of learners are believed to be more prone to violence and uncouth behaviour. However, no such conclusions are drawn against those kids who come from middle-class or affluent Hindu families. The abysmal performance of such kids is attributed to their naughtiness, laziness, inattention, etc. Hence, it slowly became evident to me how assumptions about class, race and religion subtly affected my colleagues’ attitudes towards the students.
Such preconceived notions, coupled with the fact that the school is located in a rural area, serves as an alibi for the teachers’ lackadaisical and below average class performance. Most of them just read out the chapters with minimal explanations, mark the important portions to be memorized, solve only those sums that can (and will) come in the exams– and they are done. My job was to teach English Language and Literature to middle and senior school students. While teaching complex texts like Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and The Tempest to senior pupils, I introduced them to the ideas of colonialism, gender and sexuality, patriarchy and socio-economic inequality. Similarly, while reading with them Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, discussions on the plight of the Afro-Americans and how it resonates with the experiences of those discriminated against in our life and times were indispensable. I found the students more receptive and eager to participate in class when the text became more relatable to them. However, after a few days, as we were having lunch, my departmental head advised me not to discuss so much in class. His justification being: since these are ‘village kids’, one can’t naturally expect them to understand such topics as ‘city children’ will. So what is to be done? Just read, give a simple summary and finish the syllabus early. I didn’t take the advice as it was not only blatantly unfair towards these students who had a right to quality education, but also because I saw that they were in fact capable of intellectually engaging with such issues.
Perhaps the most troubling incident I had witnessed there was the one involving S. When I had first joined, S was in standard 7. His feminine mannerisms made him an open target for getting bullied by almost everyone in the school. So much so that, even little girls from the junior sections would insult him in the corridors. The teachers not only did nothing to stop such instances of ragging, rather they themselves laughed and referred to S as ‘ladies’. Even as I began to teach their class, I had firmly stated to all that I wouldn’t tolerate any sort of bullying. I also ventured to explain to them how painful it was for the one getting bullied. Although instances of ragging reduced during my classes, they still happened at other times. One day, as 2 of my colleagues– one of them being the class teacher of S (Mr. M) – and I were escorting the students to the field for their Martial Arts lesson, M laughingly shared with N (the other colleague) an incident that had happened earlier that day.
Apparently, S had been forcefully touched in his private parts by two of his classmates when he had gone to use the toilet. On complaining to Mr. M, the teacher called the other two boys and asked S to explain where he had been touched and how. He had also asked S why does he not behave like the other boys. On the whole, he not only failed in treating the sensitive matter with the seriousness it deserved, but also successfully embarrassed S. All the while, N kept laughing and saying ‘Arey, ota ekta meye ache!” (‘Oh, that one is a girl’). Shocked by the account and disgusted by my colleagues’ behaviour, I made the incident known to the school management. The next day, I severely reprimanded the 2 boys in no uncertain terms, impressing upon them the fact that what they had done was a very obscene violation of privacy that deserved punishment. I made them apologize, warning them and others of strict action if anything of the sort ever happened again. In retrospect, I think that scolding worked only as a band-aid. What is actually required is a prolonged and health discussion on privacy, identifying good and bad touches, gender and sexuality.
Another vexing event unfolded on the day of Saraswati Puja in 2018. The senior boys of the hostel for the non-sponsored kids had planned to do a small puja in their dorm room. To that effect, they had all chipped in some money, bought a small idol of the goddess, some sweets, rice and milk, and convinced the hostel cook to make ‘payesh’ as an offering. They invited me and another colleague of mine (Mr. P) to their puja. We were touched to see that boys, irrespective of their differences in religious affiliations, caste and class locations, actively performed the puja in whatever way they could. I was served ‘payesh’, a sweet and some flowers by none other than A, a Muslim boy. This scene of friendship and innocent piety was enough to fill anyone’s heart with joy and hope. Or so I had mistakenly assumed. For during lunch, my departmental head (Mr. R), a devout Christian, called A to the teachers’ dining table– very politely– and when the boy arrived, slapped him hard. Mr. P and I, A and the other students were all equally stunned and confused. Mr. R loudly asked A that with whose permission they had celebrated Saraswati Puja in the dorm. Didn’t they know it’s a Christian institution? Moreover, what was he doing celebrating Saraswati Puja? Then dismissing him, he declared for all to hear that if they intended to celebrate such pujas or even fast during Ramzan, they should go back to their homes. Turning towards Mr. P and I –both of us neither very religious, nor Christians– in a bid to justify his action, he said that it was necessary to avoid any fire hazard as the students had lit an earthen lamp in front of the idol.
Although I do carry several fond memories from my time at the school, these unnerving vignettes of discrimination shatter the popular illusion of schools being an insulated prelapsarian domain of innocence. However, such a realization hasn’t disillusioned me regarding the transformative potentials of this profession. Rather, it has compelled me to be cognizant of the challenges that any sincere tutor should rise to. I believe it’s an ethical obligation inseparably wedded to the profession of teaching. Apart from just teaching the assigned text, teachers should be more sensitive to the overall needs of the young minds, as their actions undoubtedly have some impact on the kind of personalities the latter develop.
Aritra Mukherjee is a resident of Kolkata, West Bengal. After completing his B.A. in English from Scottish Church College, Calcutta University, he went for an M.A. from Presidency University, Kolkata. He has worked as an editorial intern at the Kolkata office of the academic publishing house, Orient Blackswan. Being passionate about teaching, he next joined Bhawanipur Education Society College as a guest lecturer of Communicative English in the Design (Fashion and Interior) department. Following a brief stint as assistant editor of 3 academic journals published by Lincoln University, Malaysia, Mukherjee taught English Literature and Language for 2 years at a school located in a semi-rural highway town near Malda. Presently, he works as a research assistant-cum-interpreter for a scholar of social anthropology. He has also penned poems, articles and book reviews published in online platforms like Kindle Magazine and Plato’s Caves Online. A short story of his was printed in a bi-lingual LGBTQIA+ magazine named Shikriti.