Editor’s Note: #ChalkfullBullying is a campaign that resolves to tell stories about gender-based bullying that happens in school, where students, especially non-binary and girl students, are subject to harassment, moral policing, severe disciplining and punishment, and routine bullying. Their fault being: not conforming to outdated gender stereotypes, the repercussions for which can scar us for a lifetime.
On paper, this boarding school proudly boasted of being a prestigious institution that promised to deliver on the best of education and instil in students a strict sense of discipline. The school promised a holistic, all-rounded upbringing that would produce bright and well-developed individuals. This was true. Only if you were a boy.
The boys in the school were taught that they could be anything they wanted to be and they were encouraged to think the world of themselves. The idea where they owned the school, and along with it the girls in their class, was carefully and almost lovingly nurtured. Simply put, the girls in the class were property who they could do what they pleased with.
The life of girl students was a different ballgame altogether. The staff had a very strict idea of what makes a ‘good girl’ and they made sure that we all fit that criteria. Through any and every means necessary – moral policing, religious policing, slut shaming, character assassination and everyone’s favourite: mockery, punishment and humiliation.
Of course, the ‘good girl’ student was obligated to be good at studies, sports and extra-curricular activities. However, to complete this image of ‘good’ – she must dress carefully and be covered from head to toe, should not talk to or even make eye contact with the boys, must not speak back to teachers and defend herself even if she is being unfairly treated and she must practice utter submission and obedience. Having a voice and personality of our own was not an option for us. It would be crushed with the combined and meticulous efforts of the boys and staff.
With my advent into senior school, my classmates and I were subject to a long talk by our seniors in the dormitory, which I can sum up in a few lines – “Don’t carry chips and snacks to class. The guys will laugh at you”; “Don’t adjust your skirt. The guys will make fun of you”; “Don’t abuse or speak so loudly. The guys will judge you”. Basically – don’t eat when hungry, ignore your personal discomfort and don’t be vocal – because the blessed “guys” would judge.
I was an unapologetic feminist baby and a closeted queer student. Needless to say, I was worth garbage. Among the boys in my class, it was open season on Mahika Banerji. What started with fat-shaming escalated to a whole new level when I stained my skirt in assembly, following which my name stopped being ‘Mahika’, ‘Banerji’ or ‘Banner’. My name, as was collectively decided, was “Khoon” or “Khooni ch**t”. Loud, jeering exclamations of disgust would follow me wherever I went.
I had hoped it would get better the next year – that people had lives and would move on and leave me alone. However, I underestimated the duration of the aforementioned open season. There was the textbook routine bullying and abuse in class. Then I had the locks on my desk broken open and my projects stolen on the day of submission, just before the town outing. My precious stamp collection comprising dated stamps that will no longer be found anywhere (even eBay) was swiped from my desk. Said collection was a gift from my deceased grandfather and one of the few things I had to remember him by.
My diary was taken out of my desk and read by everyone. They would quote excerpts from my diary when I walked into class. They even spread false rumours about me watching porn in the computer lab in the middle of the class. The latter was plain funny and I remember being mildly insulted, wishing they could have at least invested some creativity when fashioning false rumours about me.
By class 10, I had started fighting back, even though my ‘well-wishers’ would ask why I was inviting trouble and I should just ignore and look the other way. But I had had enough. The look of shock on their faces when I would snap back was picture-worthy. Then they would hastily recompose themselves and proceed with long diatribes about how they did not like my face and that they would beat me up. I was beyond caring.
The girls in my class occasionally defended me but did not want to get too involved, for fear of collective repercussion. After everything that had happened to me – I was successfully made an example of. An example of how NOT to be. But I don’t blame them for not sticking up for me often. Who would want to be in such a situation?
Now it’s time for a shoutout to the staff.
One of our dorm wardens was a judgemental, bullying pervert. I caught her peeking into the shower while I bathed. When I confronted her, she said she was checking to see if I was washing my hair or not (we were only allowed to bathe thrice a week and wash our hair once a week. The boys would shower every day and the staff would look the other way. Surprise. Surprise). She moral policed and slut-shamed the girls in the dorm and would routinely make perverse jokes about us. She also enjoyed hitting her wards.
The teaching staff probably had a competition going on among themselves about who could outdo themselves in this game called Patriarchy. The moment the bell for the break rang, the teachers would come running into the class, screaming for the girls to get out. You would think we were waiting to pounce on the blessed boys the moment we were out of teacher supervision.
Diary writing, the last bastion of privacy and expression, was banned. The reason? “You all write rubbish about the staff”. Well then, some of these staff members should have been asked to not be so rubbish. The PE teacher swiped MY DIARY, read it from page to page, berated me for the content in the diary and ripped my self-esteem into pieces. She then warned me that she would be monitoring my behaviour and if I stepped a toe out of line, she would take the diary and me to the vice-principal.
When I defended myself, she slapped me. Ma’am, you really did a number on me. I still cannot help but wonder if I were to throw holy water at you, would it evaporate before it made contact with your skin? Special mention to you threatening to pull down our underwear to check if we were on our periods when we were unable to go swimming for whatever reason.
The more conventional and routine examples of discipline were: confiscating underwear deemed ‘inappropriate’. Who’s even looking? Then asking girls not to hold hands or even touch each other because “obscenity”. This was courtesy the Sanskrit teacher – a woman with a PhD. I guess being highly educated does not uproot you from 15th-century homophobia and locate you in this century.
One of our dorm wardens was a judgemental, bullying pervert. I caught her peeking into the shower while I bathed.
Then a lecture by another teacher on how girls should cover their mouths and laugh. The slips under our skirts and the way our shirts were tucked were routinely checked in public. The least we could have been afforded was some privacy and dignity. I remember two female teachers casually sliding their hands under my shirt (in class and near the dining hall) to check if it was tucked or whether I was wearing a vest or not – as though my body was theirs to do with as they pleased. A few of the male teachers loved to gloat about how we girls were just never as good as the boys.
All of this began to take a toll on me and I was practising self-harm and contemplating suicide. I did not want to worry my parents so I did not tell them anything initially. The hostility of certain staff members and the anti-tattling culture encouraged in school made it very hard to approach staff members to report such incidents. Nevertheless, I thought there would be no harm in trying once.
I approached my 9th & 10th standard class-teacher as she had been kind to me in the past. When I tried to tell her about the bullying the boys in my class were subjecting me to, she tells me not to run around seeking attention from the boys and that someday I would find a nice boy for myself. Just the words every queer girl wants to hear.
When the boys would harass me, she would look the other way. When I verbally or physically retaliated, she would materialise out of thin air and berate me, accuse me of seeking attention from the ONE gender identity group I could not possibly be attracted to and then scold me for inviting trouble. HOW was it humanly possible to miss what they were doing and only snapping to attention when I retaliated? Then there was the pointless taunting she would subject me to when she was in a foul/sadist mood.
Ma’am, since you prowl the internet looking to troll ex-students who criticise the school (as experience has taught us), you will probably come across this. Then know this: if I had gone through with a suicide attempt, you would have been a key player in signing my death sentence and I would have given you top billing on my suicide note. You, of all people, could have done SOMETHING! I do not know why you pretended to be kind to me initially and I am truly sorry I thought you were a decent human being. How much did you know and how often did you turn your face away?
My boarding school was an expert in crushing the spirit of those who stepped out of line while applauding the conformists or those who were unable to defend themselves. It was an art practised to perfection. In addition, the labels that the boys and staff placed on you were everything. They would determine the rest of your life in that school – labels that could make or break you.
Note: Heartfelt gratitude to staff members, fellow students and friends who noticed I was in trouble and in deep depression. If it weren’t for your helping hands and kind, loving, unconditional support, I would have been lost years ago. I can’t name you since I have not taken your permission, but you know who you are. You actually gave me good memories of that patriarchal hellhole – a feat I did not think to be humanly possible.
Featured Image Source: Listal