Editor’s Note: This month, that is February 2021, FII and The Minor Project are looking for article submissions on the topic of Narrating Violence and Trauma from Childhood to highlight the ways we in our childhoods, experience various forms of brutality from our adults, mentors, peers and even their institutions that may lead to a sustained memory of difficult experiences and mental health issues. The Minor Project is a digital platform for public dialogue to promote discourse on ending violence, abuse and exploitation of children by Leher, a child rights organisation, whose focus is on building communities that care and act for the safety and protection of children. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
Trigger Warning: Emotional and physical abuse
Growing up in New Delhi, my parents sent me to an all-girls Convent school for my education. I studied in the said school which shall remain unnamed, from standard KG to Class 10. School! The institution that exists in theory as a safe space. A sanctuary of knowledge and learning. A place wherein the young, minds of any and every nation are shaped for the better or the worse permanently. Permanent because learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere and school is the vessel through which our initial understanding of the world is formed.
The relation between a student and a teacher is considered as a sacrosanct. Children are any and every country’s most valuable natural resource. Yet, we as adults be it teachers or otherwise, we fail them. We fail them in many ways. Some ways more heartbreaking and visible than the others, and other subtle ways in which perhaps, we mean not to, but despite our best intentions, unfortunately still do.
A convent school education in an all-girls school meant that the teachers were tasked with imparting many a life lessons to us, most of which revolved around shaping a young girl into becoming a ‘Lady.’ Pray how do adult women educators in a top convent school located in the capital city of India go about doing that and pray what does that in today’s context even mean? Well…. Slut-shaming young girls of age 13 onwards was a frequently used tool among many teachers. For context, our school was neighbouring to an all-boys convent school, which in turn meant that the transportation used to ferry students from their home to school was shared between the students and teachers of both the schools.
The length of any and all the young girl’s school skirts were carefully monitored at all times by the teachers. Frequent use of phrases such as, “Why is your skirt so short? What kind of values do you have if you are parading around like this especially in front of the boys?“, “What are you trying to prove with that skirt, have you no shame?” Such toxic, abusive rhetoric about students was commonplace among the teachers. It was not just about to the length of skirts but body shaming was also common. The horrors of an adult teacher chastising her 14-year-old student in front of the entire class, my poor, poor classmate, for the size of her breasts is not a memory that can be easily erased.
The harmful myth that a woman’s purity is contained between her legs was frequently perpetuated by our teachers in many ways. The shared mode of transport between the girls and boys school meant that the teachers also present on the vans and buses, made it their life mission to ensure that the two sexes would neither be allowed to sit with each other, nor to converse with each other in any manner. According to them young women are delicate, fragile creatures and are supposed to be conditioned and brought up in the same manner.
The irony of it all, being in an all-girls school, one would think that at least when it came to matters such as menstruation and sex education, the path for teachers to engage in meaningful conversation with their students regarding the same would be an easy, natural one. But that was not the case in this school. Periods were considered dirty and the teachers ensured that our attitude regarding the most natural phenomena also mirrored their regressive, unnatural thinking. For any girl in my class to get her periods meant that, for starters, she must not talk about it publicly. If she is to go to the washroom to change, she must go about it secretly.
The school nurse in the medical room would violently blush and look uncomfortable if any student approach her with the period cramps problem. The attitude was confusing and harmful. As young girls, we were taught to internalise shame in this manner, a shame which was never ours to bear. Sex education, on the other hand, did not exist in our school.
Also read: A Childhood Worth Forgetting
Homophobia was the norm amongst the teachers. We were not only not allowed to socialize with the boys in the school next door but with girls. If any teacher suspected anything more than friendship between two girls, they would call parents of those girls immediately to the school for them to be chastised for not teaching their girls the right values at home. Toxic, abusive rhetoric and verbal abuse aside, corporeal punishment was also a tool used by teachers to keep us students in check. There is a well-established joke about Convent school nuns being liberal with their use of a wooden ruler on the hands of their young pupils to ‘discipline’ them. The use of physical violence in this manner was normalized.
When I was in class 9 and 15 years old, my teacher caught me reading ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini in classroom. She swiftly confiscated my book, without saying anything to me. A week later I found out that my mom had been called to school by my teacher to discuss bringing ‘Adult material’ into class. My poor sweet mother, for a minute truly believed that her 15-year-old daughter had brought in porn into her classroom, only to be informed otherwise.The school librarian too would monitor the texts we were allowed to read. Learning was allowed but on their terms. The irony; two years later in grade 11, after I had shifted schools to a co-education non-CBSE school we studied The Kite Runner as a text in English class.
Not all the teachers were alike. There were lovely, warm, openminded teachers too who shaped and guided us to be the best versions of ourselves possible, unfortunately, they did not echo the sentiment of the majority. It took me changing schools and confronting a lot of my internalised shame to realize that this was taught to me step by step, incident by incident by the very adults who were meant to teach me better.
I do not know where the solution lies. Does it lie in training, sensitisation, a way to teach basic empathy, a more rigorous manner of selecting teachers or all the above or none? I do not know, nor do I claim to. I can only recount my experiences and acknowledge that the teachers in my Convent school and their conditioning that translated into their verbal/physical abuse, played a harmful role in my development.
Also read: Why Gender Sensitivity Must Begin At School
As adult women, it is our role and responsibility to uplift and enables young girls and other women to be the best version of themselves possible and not to box them in into any idea of who or what a woman should be. The first step to any change is by addressing the problem and this is my feeble attempt to do so.
Shrutika is a 27 year old lawyer, entrepreneur and writer based out of New Delhi. She lives to travel, eat and read. Music is her religion and she is constantly questioning her own biases and trying to unlearn and relearn everything she ha ever been taught. She is also a huge advocate for Mental Health. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.