Back to square one

This is my darling Popples! And this is the way I would always like to see him: happy and safe! This is also what I had endeavoured to achieve from the first time I saw him scalded and in pain. That was when, I looked into his beautiful eyes and I pledged to myself in silence. That was in 2003. The last 10 years did not go as I had planned in my hubris. Heal his wounds, help his mother give up the bottle and settle the family as best I could whilst giving him a sound education. It that was not the big picture God had planned for the both of us.

A series of unforeseen circumstances, some truly terrible, landed me and him in front of a children's court where he decided to live with me. He was 8.  He was in boarding school since the age of 4 years and 4 months, and seemed happy! Within months his mother vanished never to be heard of again till date and he found himself deprived of his natural family, however dysfunctional  it may have been. And then the questions that needed answers but had none, started disturbing him but the child was unable to mouth them, let alone find answers. He grew aggressive and impossible to manage. I needed professional help and once again the Gods were kind and we found the right intervention team. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and severe mood dysregulation and put on medication and long term counselling. It was a nightmare at the beginning as he would resist any form of counselling but as time passed he settled into a pattern and started feeling better. I heaved a huge sight of relief. But it was to be short lived.

As the disturbing questions that had remained in his mind were slowly voiced, he shared with his counsellor the pain of being bullied at school. His scars were the butt of hurtful comments that this child with little or no emotional immunity was unable to handle. His grades dropped and his usual smile became rarer and rarer. We intervened with the school authorities who promised to take care of the situation. We thought things would improve but they did not.

I requested  his counsellor to visit the school and talk to the concerned teachers and authority as I thought that it was important that they understand that this child was going through real psychological problems and was challenged in many ways and needed understanding and help. The experience was traumatic for the both of us: the counsellor and I. For me it was going back 13 years in time when I sat in the dim and forbidding Dickensian office of a Government school Principal trying to find out why my class X boys were beaten with almost obsessive regularity. The answers in both the cases were the same. Notwithstanding high court and supreme court judgements against corporal punishment, it seemed that beating was the only way teachers and school heads believed brought results. I froze as I remembered how pwhy kids were targeted in their respective schools after my intervention, almost as a retaliation. How could I not remember what the horrid and obnoxious Government School principal told me 13 years ago: You run your NGO and I will run my school the way I like. Seeing how my kids were treated, I beat a quick retreat. Was it going to be a repeat scenario in Utpal's case?

Bullying is not considered a problem though we all know the extreme trauma that can ensue. Just last week a 12 year succumbed to the trauma of being bullied by her seniors in school. Imagine the trauma Utpal must be feeling when he is time and again called: a burnt banana peel or a charred Kentucky chicken leg! But to the school this just seemed par to the course, a way of toughening the child up. I guess that is the logic used to justify beating.

We were terribly disturbed when his class teacher decided to state in the loudest of voices the fact that Utpal had developed a new bad habit: he apparently 'lied' when he had not completed his task. This was said in front of Popples and his class. The counsellor was horrified and asked to talk to the teacher alone while I decided to practice French with the class. Variations on the same theme were experienced as we moved from teacher to teacher towards the grand finale in the hallowed room of the head of the school.

The counsellor tried her best to explain Utpal's case and how this child was suffering in silence that was broken only when he met his counsellor. None of this was ever shared with me. My little Popples knew that I wanted him to study in school and be happy there. How could he break my dream! But for the past months his grades started falling and in hindsight I see that there were lots of cries for help that I did not decipher. When he left for school after this summer holiday he wept is heart out something he had not done for years. Anyway we did understand his pain and that is why we had made this visit. But somehow, even the head of the institution was closed to accepting that traumas and mood disorders were not serious enough to harm a child forever. He recounted an incident whereby he had to resort to two tight slaps - his words - to get a child to admit his fault. I think that was when the penny dropped for me and I knew it was time to find another place for Utpal.

The problem had gone beyond Utpal. Bullying is not just the problem of the one bullied, but also that of the one who bullies. The same goes for beating a child. These are power games played by individuals with low self esteem and their own demons. It is the reflection of the society we live in.

When we began pwhy, the on thing that shocked me was the amount of physical abuse children had to bear: at home because of their mothers frustrations or their father's drunkenness; in schools because their teachers had come from homes where child abuse was considered 'normal'. I cannot tell you how many parents have told us to 'beat' their kids if they do not study or obey. The adult-child relationship is one of power where kids are the favourite whipping boy. And when you look at things in this light then you are tempted to put up your hands and surrender. That is not the way to go. Many teachers in pwhy have lost their jobs when we came to know that they had 'beaten' a child. I could be just a little tap on the head, but the consequences are the same. Many years ago I asked a little girl who was walking bach home and crying what had happened. She told me her teacher had beaten her. When I asked her why, she simply said she did not know. My blood ran cold. Something was not right. Sometime later when we asked a group of Class X students what is the one change they would make in school if they were given a chance todo so, I would have bet my bottom dollar that they would say: stop the beating! But that was not the answer we got. They felt that the one change that would make things better was that they be told the reason for the beating they were to get. This was nothing short of frightening. Children accept violence as something normal. That means they accept power games and God forbid many of them would replicate the same when they become adults. Some may simply restrict their power game to the confines of their homes but others may walk a step further that could end in something as nightmarish as a gang rape.

I am told time and again that beating is necessary. Some of staff were quite aghast when I told them that they would lose their job if they ever lifted a hand on a child, and by child I mean 0 to 18! There are million of other ways to make a child understand her fault. Yes they are time consuming and not easy to implement compared to a 'tight slap', but you can get your way without lifting or your voice. We have been doing so for 14 years with success. We have also dealt with bullying and inclusion. Our children respect each other because we respect them as individual human beings.

I was frankly disturbed and saddened to see that this approach exists in what is known as 'good' schools. I would have thought otherwise. I guess the curriculum for education degrees do not give sufficient space to the adult-child equation. That is where things need to begin. Wishful thinking in a land where 99% teachers failed to clear the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) 2012. And it is in the hands of these teachers that we entrust our most precious possession: our children. Need I say more.