I spent 10 long years of my life at a convent school in Bangalore. And my relationship with it – well, let’s just say – is complicated.
I’ve made my best friends, and had a decade of happy memories in school. I would be lying if I said it didn’t play a huge part in how I turned out to be. But, as an adult, I can’t help but look back on those years, and think, “What?!” Try as I might, there’s no 90s Indian kid-filter of “pehla nasha” on my school life.
My favourite part of all this will always be my friends – the girls who I grew up with and who have turned into my extended family. My life would be very different without their grounding force in my life. I learnt to work hard – something that has stayed with me. I’ve also learnt to deal with people. So, it was definitely not all that bad. But some things in my school life stand out because I feel like I’ve spent my life after school un-learning these things.
I know, I know – I say this with a huge dollop of privilege. I went to an English-speaking school, and came out with an ICSE certificate – which is much more than a lot of kids in India have had access to. But, this is precisely why I feel that a school which caters to – and turns out – 150 relatively- privileged Indian women every year, can do a whole lot better in the life lessons it gives.
Here are some of those lessons I’m still trying to wrap my mind around:
1. Girls should do needlework, while the boys play cricket. Um, what?
Throughout classes two, three and four, girls were sent to the basement to sit with cross-stitch patterns on their laps (that were purely decorative and not functional, at all) to embroider, while the boys went to the field to play cricket. Don’t get me wrong – I get it and I liked doing cross-stitching. But it’s hard to have conversations on gender parity when a whole slice of upper-middle class society was taught that boys ‘don’t do needlework’.
2. To be ashamed of my culture.
I grew up wearing plaid (yes, plaid) checked skirts in some sort of cheap woolly fabric that buttoned uncomfortably around my waist. I also wore socks with black faux-leather Bata shoes.
Those are not the kinds of things people in south India usually wear, for a reason. They got hot, uncomfortable and were totally ill-suited to our body shapes. We weren’t allowed to wear mehendi to school or speak in any language on campus that wasn’t English.
3. To look down on poor people.
Yup, once a year, we’d go to a local home for the destitute. Here, people who were living on the streets were taken in and cared for by groups of nuns, volunteers or small NGOs.
In every single one of those visits, we were asked to walk around in a single file, while a teacher said, “Poor people, see how they live.” At the end, there would be a cultural performance, which usually involved someone dancing to a Bollywood song.
If India’s rich people live a life that’s very distant from the life led by the poor, this might be where it comes from.
4. That how you look matters more than who you are.
I was in the student council. This meant that I had to stand on the way up to school after the assembly to check if people had whites in their nails. Sometimes, I wonder how much of my life I spent in that line, watching people’s nails. It didn’t help me build up my character. It made me feel petty about power, and that my self-worth was tied up in ‘catching’ the rebels with their too-white nails.
5. That you could be ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’.
Early on, I was told that I was smart. This meant that I also went through school thinking that I could play sports, dance, and carve out vegetables. Turns out, I can actually do only one of these things (which one?) – and my actual intelligence has very little to do with it.
For lots of other people in my class, that wasn’t even an option. Once you were ‘dumb’, you couldn’t do anything outside class – and rarely anything right inside it either.
6. When someone makes a mistake it’s okay to humiliate them.
If I had a rupee for every time someone was made to kneel, or put their nose in a chalk circle, or had something thrown at them because they didn’t know an answer… Accidentally or on purpose, it looks like the school raised a bunch of young people afraid to be wrong – and without inculcating the humility needed to accept when they might be wrong. If we are rolling our eyes at Indian aunties who tell us how we should be living our lives, let’s just hope we haven’t accidentally turned into one of them.
7. That if the stakes are high, you should quit.
Every few years, there would be a periodic ‘purge’ at the school, where kids who were considered ‘not smart enough’ would be asked to leave because they couldn’t cope. When people give up on you when you are young, I can’t imagine you going through life – pushing for the better for yourself.
8. To take care of yourself first.
Very clearly, I remember myself running to get past the ‘late line’ before the assembly, when I saw someone trip and fall. Instead of stopping to help (I really wish I had), I ran to save my own neck.
9. That anger was the way to deal with most of your problems. Reality life-lesson check: It’s not. Ever.
10. To never, ever, question anyone in power.
Of all the lessons I am un-learning, this one has been the hardest.
In learning to be polite, to follow rules and to respect authority, I sometimes struggle to articulate what is wrong. I struggle to trust my own intuition – to accept that a flawed system can still have made me. I also struggle to be grateful for what I have learnt – and yet, be critical of its approach, overall.
I say these not to smite the institution that housed and bred me for many years, which will probably be the longest time I spent at a particular place. But, I do want to question the foundations of the education systems on which much of India’s middle-class is raised. Somewhere, in a world of nostalgia for Milton water bottles and Bata shoes, a lot of life lessons are hidden that are less than perfect.
Learning to recognise them, taking up what works and discarding the rest, might be the first step in learning the biggest lesson yet – not everything you learn in school is gospel.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.