Shun the stick

Gautaman Bhaskaran
Filed on August 10, 2010

WHEN A 13-year-old schoolboy kills himself, there is something grossly wrong with the society and, more so, the education system it propagates.

Rouvanjit Rawla, a student of class eight in one of India’s most prestigious schools, La Martiniere in Kolkata, recently committed suicide after he was canned by the principal.

The tragic incident has brought into sharp focus the fast deteriorating student-teacher relationship in India. Cases of teacher brutality have been on an alarming rise in recent years. A 12-year-old boy lost part of his vision when his master threw a duster at him in New Delhi. A class 10 student committed suicide in Chennai after his teacher stripped and trashed him. In Udaipur, a class 12 boy died after being beaten by his master for having sat with his legs on the table. A 11-year-old student succumbed to sun stroke after being made to stand on the school ground in New Delhi’s scorching summer. Examples can be endless.

Gone are the days, it seems, when teachers were great friends of their students. Yes, but, of course, outside the class. In a southern Indian town of the 1930s, teachers and students played games together and chased each other on the banks of the river there. But come next morning, the teacher-student respect and decorum remained intact in class. Even in the 1960s and the 1970s, students held their teachers in awe and seldom disobeyed or disregarded them.

However, with the dawn of the Internet age and the phenomenal growth of the new rich, equations began to change. Boys and girls felt that they could pick up a whole lot of information from Internet sites, callously ignoring the fact that it can also be grossly incorrect and misleading. Also, students in most elite schools growing up in the lap of luxury and with few wants began to think that the teacher was at best a nuisance, a poor man who could not afford to live in an upmarket locality or wear designer clothes or own fancy cars. The teacher became the economic untouchable.

Added to this, nuclear families with a child or two are unduly protective of their sons and daughters. They could do no wrong. If there was a problem at school, the teacher was to blame. The parents of a fifth grader complained to the principal when a teacher casually commented on the student’s strange hair style. Often parents ignore their children’s disobedience and arrogance. Walking habitually late to school and flaunting expensive gadgets are considered a child’s right, but parents who encourage these forget that school is a democratic space and the last place to expose one’s affluence. Egalitarianism must be the keyword on the school or college campus.

Yet, corporal punishment is not to be condoned. This is surely not the answer to get children on to the right track. Apart from the fact that physical and mental abuse is banned by Indian law, the stick tends to push the child into a state of rebelliousness. Anger and frustration build in a child that is ridiculed or beaten, and these can lead to low self-esteem and suicidal tendencies. Or, at times, murderous intentions. The mother, the grandmother and the sister of a young Ayurvedic physician I knew in Bihar were butchered to death by a few school students because his schoolteacher father had got them suspended for habitual notoriety.

Obviously, teachers have an enormous task on hand, and they appear ill-equipped to handle it. Modern boys and girls have many problems to cope with at home: working parents who have little time for their children, fractured families, broken homes and parental expectation that run unreasonably high. With social networking sites galore, youngsters chat, but no longer talk. Fathers and mothers are too tired at the end of the day to initiate a conversation with their children.

So, the teacher becomes a very important person in a child’s life. He or she is the friend, guide and counsellor. In some significant ways, the character of a boy or girl can well be shaped by the teacher. The man or woman who minds a class full of curious and impatient children has to have patience and vision. The teacher has to be emotionally strong, kind and understanding, tempering discipline with humanness, infusing values with feeling. The class is certainly not the place for biases, retribution and irritability. Teaching is certainly a profession today, but unless there is passion for it, classrooms will continue to be uneasy, frustrating and self-defeating.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a journalist and writer and is Editor South Asia for South Korea’s The Seoul Times. He also writes for a variety of other publications across the globe.

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