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Book Excerpt | With a Little Help From My Friends: A Schoolmaster's Memoirs

01/07/2016 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Beneath The Beauty (Chap 16)

All who have seen the Lawrence School, Lovedale will know of its stunning beauty. Situated in the Nilgiris at a height of nearly seven thousand feet, the campus sprawls over approximately seven hundred acres of hill and dale, most of it forest. These landscapes are home to an incredible variety of plant and animal life. Very few schools in the world can boast of such an amazing campus.

"Do not get taken in by its beauty", warned an ex-head girl of the school, who happened to be a friend in Dehradun." These are very troubled times for the school and there are sinister currents running underneath."

Founded in 1858 by Sir Henry Lawrence, the school was originally home to the children of British soldiers orphaned during the great revolt of 1857. Later it opened its doors to Anglo-Indians and finally to Indians. Created in a military mould, the school took great pride in its military traditions. The students wore battledress to class, the Founders Day was known for its spectacular march past and the beating of the retreat (there were three bands in the school), and the Prefectorial body wore epaulettes distinguishing themselves from the others.

I may be able to cure the scars on his back but what about the scars on his soul?

In the midst of all this martial ardour, a very sickening tradition, masquerading as part of the military ethos, had crept in. That was bullying. The seniors thought it their God-given right to hit juniors with hockey sticks at the slightest excuse, so much so that bones were broken on a fairly regular basis. The worst sufferers were the students of class nine which was the junior-most class in Senior school (classes nine to twelve). In the Middle school (classes seven and eight), students of class eight bullied those of class seven. The Prep school (classes four to six) was not afflicted by this tradition, and neither was the Girls school (the boarding where all the girls resided).

As a matter of fact, one of the more endearing aspects of the school was that it was co-educational. The girls were, by and large, charming, sophisticated, and poised, and added a touch of class to the school. They were indeed a great ally to have in my future efforts to improve the atmosphere of the school.

Amongst the boys there was a codified system of favours by which the seniors could ask a junior to do anything for them at any time. Each class twelve student had a " Piza". This was a title sanctified by tradition, denoting the equivalent of a personal slave. I came across Pizas sneaking across the campus in the dead of night to fetch clothes for their masters from the dhobi-Ghat which was located at one end of the campus. Often Pizas had to sit by the bed of their master to wake him up at an appointed hour. Failure to live up to the senior's expectations invited serious retribution. There was at least one case of a boy being branded with an electric iron!

One particular incident will haunt me to the day I die. I was about three months into my tenure when one morning an enraged mother of a class seven boy stormed into my office. She took off her son's shirt and showed me the huge red welts on his back. The boy had been systematically thrashed in the night by the boys of class eight with wet towels. His fault? He had dared defeat a boy from the class above in the finals of a prestigious school tennis tournament called the " Rob Roy" tournament, ironically sponsored by a well-known alumnus.

The mother's words still ring in my ears, "I may be able to cure the scars on his back but what about the scars on his soul?"

As I started to spend time with the boys, I realized that they were not the savage, vicious creatures one might expect them to be, especially in view of the horrific incidents of bullying that the campus kept witnessing. On the contrary, they were courteous, well-mannered and all from very respectable families. There was obviously something seriously wrong with the environment they were in. This observation started giving me some insights into how to tackle the bullying problem.

Not only are the victims often scarred for life, but whilst at school they are unable to achieve their potential because they spend the better part of their years cowering in fear.

It is my view that not only is bullying completely morally reprehensible, it also creates an atmosphere of fear that stifles creativity. Not only are the victims often scarred for life, but whilst at school they are unable to achieve their potential because they spend the better part of their years cowering in fear. In my view, as the Head of School, I owed it to every child entrusted to my care to provide a level playing field so that all could grow and explore their talents and strengths with a sense of joy and abandon.

Bullying was not the only problem staring me in the face. One of the problems that plagues our education system in general and the public school system in particular, is the woeful shortage of good teachers. It is a sad fact that most of those who opt for teaching, particularly in remote boarding schools, rarely do so as a first choice.The head of school very rarely has the privilege of being able to choose from a large pool of trained teachers, in the same way that a corporate head does in terms of his personnel requirements.

Whilst Lawrence school was singularly blessed in some of the teachers it had, it too shared the problem endemic to most residential schools. The fact that this body was seriously fractured only added to my woes. Some suggested that it was a Tamil v Malyalee problem. Being from north of the Vindhyas, I was blissfully unaware of this divide, which was just as well because it allowed me to ignore these divisions even if they did exist. The better teachers in the faculty seemed to have been thoroughly deflated by the indiscipline that prevailed in the school. Most felt threatened by the senior boys and with good reason. Private property such as scooters and cars were frequently vandalized, particularly if a teacher reported an act of indiscipline to the authorities.

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