First published in The Phoenix Soul, issue 55, SAGE (September 2016).
We had a different mother each day of the week playing at being teacher in nursery school. Stranded in a small colony in a large country far from India, the housewives decided to start a school to keep their children busy and educated. The toddler class was the hardest to handle, and the mothers decided to take it in turns to teach us. Each mother had her area of expertise. One liked standing lines, sleeping lines, and slanting lines. Another liked to list the colours of the rainbow. A third appeared to enjoy the cacophony of sixteen lisping voices together belting out Baa Baa Black Sheep to their own original tunes. The tot whose mother was teacher of the day had free run, even sitting up at the teacher’s table, the most coveted seat in class. I, of course, had no hope of ever getting up there. When it was my mother’s day to teach nursery school, I had to be extra well-behaved so as not to let her down. No chalk-throwing or drawing on desks for me.
My father moved back to India after this so I could get an education. My new kindergarten teacher (who we were all desperately in love with in the way of three-year-olds) suffered from a severe deficiency of imagination. For two whole years, we wrote the alphabet out four times a day, wrote the numbers from 1 to 100 in ascending and descending order in numerals and words, and answered the same four supposedly baffling questions about the color of the sky, the color of the letter-box, the color of grass, and the color of milk. We lived in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, but there were no interesting expeditions, no stories, no flower or leaf collections. When our teacher was especially bored herself, she would call out “Heads down,” and all of us had to immediately fall asleep. Kindergarten taught me that life is full of suffering and must somehow be endured.
My father’s next posting was south of the Deccan Plateau. We wore ties, belts, and polyester tunics, and sat all day in the stifling heat of the local classroom. The teachers strode around the corridors swishing three-foot-long canes, a proceeding my six-year-old classmates accepted with complete equanimity. They winced only slightly when caned on their buttocks, palms, or calves. I was caned once, for forgetting the napkin that went with my tiffin box, and was so mortified that I refused to eat or go back to school for two whole days.
Our next stop was further north. The teachers here came up with creative punishments that would send shivers down twenty-first century spines. They labored under the firm belief that humiliation is good for the soul. Students who had to repeat a year were non-euphemistically called “failures.” They sat at the back of the class and quickly turned into incorrigible little devils, fearing nothing and nobody, spending most of their school day bullying the rest of the students or being punished by the teachers. My class teacher liked making us assume contorted positions at the head of the class. (This punishment served the dual purpose of being both painful and humiliating.) As soon as her back was turned, we would retaliate by grimacing at her and making the class laugh. Another teacher favored making us kneel down outside in the afternoon heat. A third liked pinching us on the forearm until we squealed. We would then compare our “injections” and the one with the reddest and deepest pinch marks would carry off the daily honours.
My next school, deep in the southwest limestone belt, was relatively benign except that we were asked to wear socks that came up to our knees because the sight of girls’ shins distracted everybody from the task at hand. Our hair had to be oiled and plastered onto our heads, twisted into tight braids that were then folded over with white ribbons. The oil was apparently part of the uniform, and an unoiled head got whacked at all day by the teachers. Academics, sports, and extracurricular activities were all secondary in importance to the socks and the oil.
Interspersed throughout were teachers who did not need whips or canes or cruel punishments to inspire, to awaken curiosity, to encourage and embolden. There was the Mathematics teacher who gave geometry a personality of its own and turned trigonometry into a close if cranky relative; the English teacher who wore mismatched, crumpled suits but wove poetry into the fabric of her students’ lives; the philosophy professor who taught me to question everything I took for granted; the history teacher who taught time travel without the machine. Always there were teachers who kept the flame of inquiry burning bright.