[Context: Fifth September marks Teachers’ Day in India. For a quick summary of the reason we celebrate it today, hop over here]
My Facebook newsfeed today has been inundated with messages about inspiring teachers, and nostalgic recollections about schools. (Curiously, institutions of higher ed. and vocational training have been left out of the eulogies.)
I’m very glad that my friends and acquaintances had such wonderful people and traditions in their lives — I myself have certainly been shaped by the austere and stern upbringing of my Protestant school — but I did notice the implication, in these messages, that we learn good things only from good people. From devoted, sincere, affectionate teachers, and the institutions they shape.
I would have to disagree.
A great many of my acquaintances consider me unfortunate, because of the horrific verbal and emotional abuse and systemtic bullying I endured in my four years of senior school, at the hands of teachers and the school admin. Those that didn’t actively persecute me supported my powerful bullies by their determined silence, or by counselling me to be submissive and apologetic, instead of standing my ground.
I didn’t take their advice. Had I done so, life would perhaps have been a great deal easier. (The one outside my head, anyway. Inside, I would be shrivelled up in shame.)
Anyway, my point is, senior school and its constant torturous onslaughts — I believe these days they call such things ‘traumatic experiences’ — was a make or a break for me, and while it certainly broke me in subtle and I fear permanent ways, in many ways it also made me, absolutely. It was, to employ a tired cliché, like walking through fire. It dispelled all delusions I had about fairness, justice, equity, ethics and honesty. It convinced me about the power of nepotism and hierarchies, and the helplessness of the average person when caught in their path. It made me re-evaluate friends and friendship, and the rot in our citizen-making systems. And finally, it taught me to examine closely our society’s smug lip-service to the idea of democracy.
At the same time, it branded my very soul with the need to fight for fairness, justice, ethics and democracy every moment of our lives. Especially in subtle, concrete, constant ways, without raising a flag or walking in a parade (for I am not suchly inclined).
The two most important things that my ‘abusive’ teachers taught me, however, was the absolute necessity of a sense of proportion and a sense of humour. For a balanced, happy survival, that is. Wallowing in self-pity is the easiest thing to do, especially when life gives you ample reason for it. However, to look around and realise that while you are certainly a victim, you still have blessings to count, and that there are people far worse off who can use your help, is a wonderful way of keeping yourself from becoming an emotionally stunted, perenially miserable narcissist. And to be able to laugh at tyrants, ah. No one who hasn’t been forced to hang their heads and study their shoes in front of a thundering, power-drunk mini-deity with the ability to destroy their lives, will know how empowering it is to be able to secretly smile at this mad, self-aggrandising stomping-about, realising that it very thinly veils mental illness, deep unhappiness, and predilections of the canine persuasion. A sense of the ridiculous grounds you better than most things, and is certainly more enjoyable than the rest.
So yes. Unlike you lucky lot, I had pretty terrible times at school. The only teachers I recall with a great deal of affection are either no longer in the school, or on this mortal plane (or, they wanted to be detached from the cliques and power-brokering all around, for which I cannot blame them). The ones I can only recall with distant distaste, however, were the ones who taught me the most valuable lesson of all.
They taught me that life is a bitch. And then, in their unrelenting cruelty and pettiness, interspersed with incompetence and indifference, they helped me figure out how to best live it.
What better school-leaving gift could there be?