Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Past perfect

The windows were on the left wall of the classroom. That is the side where all the girls sat. The boys sat on the other side. It was a good day and sunlight flooded in to show us why it had to be this way. Girls did needlework so light was essential for that sort of intricate activity. The boys did carpentry; not such a strain to the eye. Other than that, all students below the age of seven wrote on slates and those over, dipped metal-ended nibs into ink contained in tiny ceramic troughs embedded in the desks. Blotters, soft cloths and other implements of use were all provided, to be put away tidily at the end of a task.

The rules, at all times: 1. Silence. 2. Speak when spoken to. 3. Sit with your back straight, chin up and hands folded behind your back.

“You will call me Ma’m” (pronounced: maahm), the teacher for the day announced as she took the cane off the blackboard into her very accustomed hands. Dressed appropriately for the period classroom, I in a frilly white tunic and my sonny boy in a very formal waist coat, we sat in rapt attention as Ma’m explained the components of dimes, shillings and pounds and how to add them up.

Every distraction was promptly punished. The serial offender stood atop a short stool, facing the wall. He wore the shameful ‘dunce hat’. Fidgeting fingers were harnessed in finger cuffs and strapped behind the back. Slouchers, like myself, were corrected with a purpose-built wooden plank such that when propped between my back and arms folded over to hold it firmly in position, there was no way I would slouch again. Try it, you will end up with the straightest back bone you have ever seen.

Over the school spring break this time, my husband’s work brought us to a little town called Reading, in the Berkshire countryside of England. The quintessential British weather made it a chore to even contemplate stepping out, but three days of staying in, during a holiday, had brought us dangerously close to zero sanity. Sweet home Wimbledon was a long drive away and the ‘Victorian Classroom Experience’ in the local museum seemed like quite a welcome change. And it was.

The severity of the system, the curriculum covered and the etiquette conducted within the classroom, gave us a practical perspective of the life and times of 19th century England. But coming from strictly disciplined schools in India myself, it was not the Victorian austerity that perked my interest. My focus settled on the contrast that existed in attitudes today. Attitudes that carried their baggage right into academic campuses not just in Britain, but also beyond, and have created a culture that has become a cause for worry.

The drama that unfolded with every piece of costume shed outside the classroom, would make an instant Broadway hit. The range of facial expressions and decibel variations together with a few amusing observations articulated by some of those who had recovered from the shock, would make brilliant research material for a student of the Stage or even Psychology.

The only ones really quiet were the kids. They knew they have it easy. And their parents had duly noted this.

Keeping this as the base, our discussion moved to a more serious issue. In recent times, politicians have been increasingly concerned with discipline and safety in state-run schools across Britain. These concerns have usually been focussed in counties that have concentrations of so called ‘rough’ areas where unruly behaviour thrives. Situations within those communities make a positive change, understandably, harder to implement. This bitter truth has become a basis for another section of society to choose to live and work away from such pockets. Economic policies and government polity has unfortunately only served to increase this social chasm.

These divides, wherever they exist in the world, have made sure that viles of unruly behaviour and dangers that they will eventually perpetuate, largely remain outside our private school walls of safety and privileged residence. But we are not always exempt from their effects. We walk the same streets, and survive the same laws. It is impossible, therefore, to remain unaffected by what goes on, on the ‘other side’. These are not biases. These are facts that dictate our lives and what we work so hard for.

It is good when an experience like the Victorian Classroom comes along and takes people from mixed backgrounds living 21st century urban lives, into a world where education was a privilege, where the educated fashioned etiquette, where propriety demanded decorum, and where all of this was respected – in that order. It forced some of my fellow classmates of the day to take a step back and think of what has been left behind; of what might have caused the problem that now plagues an entire society.

It all begins at home, right? But when schooling is compulsory and home may not be the best place to learn, the school takes paramount importance. While many still scorn rigour and stricter discipline in local schools, many more are beginning to understand how much more essential these have become now – specially considering the number of youngsters left to their own devices.

In a country like England, for instance, I believe legislation has, inadvertently, helped create a monster. School education here is compulsory. Those who cannot afford to or will not pay the high fees in sought-after privately run schools, have it provided free of cost by the state. The state really takes care of its people in this country. It is indeed a very noble endeavour to ensure basic education for every child and dignity of living for every person in its care. But when there are no strict conditions, even such magnanimity is bound to invite trouble.

Human instinct is to take what comes free, for granted. The result is a severe lack of respect for that which does not have to be worked for, for what comes without a loss. Repeated disrespect transfers across the board and we are left with a community of irresponsible individuals who can only perpetrate further irresponsibility.

Maybe the Victorian Ma’m and her governors had something different in mind when they set off, stiff upper-lipped and waxing lyrical on art or science or math. But what they really taught in those robes was respect, and the means to live with it in life: the sole point of all education.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t stands at the centre of it all. If it seems missing, it must be taught. If it will not be learnt, it must be enforced. Authority has reason to be. When you cannot see it out there, stand in front of a mirror – you will be compelled to answer the person staring back. Does not help to lose face there, does it?