Monday, 5 July 2010

Past Perfect

Emirates Parent Plus. July 2010

It was a sunny afternoon. A surprise in itself, the day ahead provided us more.

Bright faced and in increasing order of height, we, ten women, one man and fourteen children, trudged into the room, boys in one file and girls in the other. Sunlight flooded in from windows on the outer wall. I followed the girls and filled the benches on that side of the room. The boys sat on the other side. That is because, girls did needlework and such nimble activity needed all available light. Boys were given the rough bits like carpentry – not so intricate and less strenuous to the eye.

During the rest of the day, all those below the age of seven wrote on slates; others wrote with metal-nib pens dipped in ink contained in small ceramic troughs built into the desks. All implements of use, like blotters, rag cloths and booklets were provided and had to be tidied away for the next time.

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

“You will call me Ma’m” (pronounced: maahm), clad in a somber black gown, the teacher for the day announced as she took the cane off the blackboard into her very accustomed hands. Dressed appropriately in the right costumes for the period, 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.

Now, before you start wondering where I am going with this, here’s the story. 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 this little time-travel, opened its own Pandora’s box. Amusing to say the least, and thought-provoking for most, living through one hour of Victorian strictness brought to the fore, thanks, for a lot of what we have today, and, regret, for so much we have turned our back to.

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. Protocol seemed to reign.

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 world 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 any discipline.

None of my fellow classmates were in the same cheery condition they went in, in. In this melee of femme and fatal instinct, if thoughts could be heard, there would have been mayhem in that small foyer.

Everyone, even if vaguely, knew what the other was thinking.

There is a reason why many parents have a particularly hard time with kids these days. There is a reason why disciplinary bodies across the compass are more challenged than ever. There is a reason why children today do not value much of what they have and who they owe their happiness to. And there is a reason why the word ‘privilege’ is slowly getting diluted.

That reason was lost decades ago, with the methods practiced within that Victorian classroom.

And an experience like this came well-timed and with some consequence. It came like a whiplash that forced us to take stock of latent issues that have been eating away, unseen and diabolical, at an entire society.

We went in as a group of people from varied backgrounds living 21st century urban lives, into a world where education was a privilege, where the educated fashioned etiquette, where propriety demanded decorum, where the pattern ran down the line, 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 entire communities.

While many still scorn rigour and stricter discipline in schools and homes, many more are beginning to understand how much more essential these have become now – specially considering how much our youngsters are left to material devices.

Human instinct is to take what comes easily, 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 rapidly and we are left with a community of individuals, each after their own personal gain. ‘Families’ are a mere means of existence. There cannot be many rules in such anarchy of emotionless and vested interests.

The Victorian Ma’m and her governors, inadvertently, laid the foundations for something fundamental when they set off, stiff upper-lipped and waxing lyrical on art or science or mathematics. In expounding knowledge while demanding correctness and indiscriminate gratitude, what they really instilled was ‘respect’ and the means to live with it in life. The same would somehow propagate to the society one came in contact with.

Is this not the sole point of all education?

Walking out of that period classroom, though, this is what I took away with me. The children were rather pensive. They saw how easy they have it today and knew they get away with much. While their parents duly noted this, the children certainly seemed to have learned their lessons very well. Right through the rest of the tour and until the museum closed, they were silent. They only spoke when spoken to. And their hands were tucked behind their backs!