Authority, Obedience and Creativity

In second grade, my teacher was the ultimate authority, the one who decided what was right and what was wrong, the one that we complained to in case somebody took our big red-coloured Kit-Kat eraser. I was in awe of her, though I found her a bit strict.

Outside our school there were a few laaris (carts), where a whole lot of low-quality eatables were sold. It was stuff like tamarind, etc. One such taste-bud-tantalizer was some sort of tamarind powder. I never bought these things because my parents said they were bad for health. Our teachers also discouraged it.

Once, Miss B as I’ll call her, caught a boy in my class eating the said powder. She scolded him in front of the entire class, but that wasn’t all. She proceeded to read the ingredients on the packet too. One of them was citrus acid.

Now, mind you, we were in second grade, and didn’t really know the difference between edible acids and cleaning stuff. For us, any acid was ACID, THAT THING WHICH WILL BURN YOU, as was taught to us. Miss B, taking advantage  of the fact, lectured  us on the terrors of eating the thing.

I went home horrified at the foolishness of the boy. Over lunch, I told my parents all about it. My parents very gently informed me how fruits like oranges actually contain citrus acid and that it is completely harmless and edible.

My first reaction was disbelief. How could a teacher lie to us? How could she take advantage of our ignorance?

But soon, I realised why she did so. It was easier for her to say that the powder contained acid rather than explain the details of why exactly it was bad for health. Considering the fact that I was seven and idealistic, I think I forgave her quite easily.

How easy it is, to not explain and merely order. Explaining would take more time, more efforts and probably lead to further questions. Scolding, ordering and even scorning, would take only a few minutes and have a more immediate impact. And of course, a deeper impact, though that part is neglected: Children stop asking “Why?”

dontask

Don’t ask silly questions!

When I was growing up, keeping quiet was a virtue. All students of my generation have heard this from their teachers at least once: Finger on your lips! Don’t talk! Don’t disturb the class! Don’t ask silly questions! I’ve even heard of some teachers completely discouraging any questions when they are in the middle of their teaching, lest they lose their track!

I was a good student. I was, in fact, a model pupil. I even got an award for it: Best Conduct and Discipline. What does it mean really? Good conduct and being disciplined? In my day, it meant being silent in class, accepting the teacher’s authority, not talking back. It meant that I would never question the teacher. I was fed these “virtues” as food everyday. Distinguishing between proper questions and silly questions came easily to me; I knew instinctively which questions shouldn’t be asked. The teachers adored me!

But it also meant that a lot of those silly questions were never asked even though I was curious. I stopped daring to be creative with answers because I was afraid that the teachers would expect me to follow the right and taught methods. For each question asked, I had two answers in my mind; one that I wanted to give, and one which I knew the teacher wanted to listen. I always gave the latter one.

Times have changed now. Questions are encouraged. Creativity is rewarded. The definition of a good student has been changing. Now, we are told that one who asks the most questions learns the most. One who accepts the things as they are told is obedient, but not bright. “Out of the Box thinking” (a much abused expression) is encouraged. For some, the transition has been smooth. For others, it comes with effort.

I was systematically taught to be obedient. And now, it has taken a good amount of conscious effort to revamp the way my mind works, to stop the instinct to give a “desirable” answer and try giving one which may sound silly.

It takes courage to wonder, to be in any way, out of the ordinary. Thank goodness, those questions and those answers were only silenced and not completely removed. Thank goodness, that “creative” wondering was encouraged at home. I realise that school played a very major role in shaping the way I think, but I’m glad, that the very basis of my thought process was formed at home. Beneath those layers of obedience, the inquisitiveness remained, though a little rusty.

Children are curious by nature. Organised learning often kills that curiosity, one question at a time. Every time a teacher gives an order and refuses to answer “Why?”, the child learns to never question authority, to be a doormat.

Is it that difficult to tell a child Why she should/should not do something? How can one expect a child to choose between obedience and inquisitiveness?

How was your experience in school? Were all questions encouraged?

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Get Me Another Sandwich, Woman!

“If you love a guy, let him go. If he comes back, the other woman made lousy sandwiches.”

This is what was printed as the “joke” of the day in a supplement of a leading newspaper recently. Here is what it implies:

1. Guys are with you only because of your cooking skills.

2. Guys are incapable of making good sandwiches by themselves.

I don’t like cooking. I’ve been avoiding learning it for five summer vacations now. I don’t enjoy it, and it doesn’t come easily to me. The reason is that it involves winging it. “Just a hint of the flavour” type of instructions are not my cup of tea. I’m a major believer of exact proportions.

My parents worry about how I’ll manage once I live alone. I tell them I’ll figure it out like everybody else does. And I will, I guess. It can’t be that difficult to cook edible meals for one person, can it? I agree though, that I’ve got to learn it some time.

Here’s my point: Cooking is a life skill. A life skill, I say. Not a woman-specific skill. Which is why the above joke is highly offensive to me.

Feminine stereotype

This is a “feminine” woman in her rightful place; the kitchen

I remember, in primary school, we had a picture in one of our textbooks. It showed a family in their home. The husband was sitting on the sofa, reading the newspaper. The children were playing around. The wife was in the kitchen, cooking. I remember looking at it and getting irritated. Even though I wasn’t old enough to know fancy terms like “stereotypes” and “gender-based roles”, it still made me mad. Because of one simple reason: I felt like an outsider. Someone whose family didn’t fit into this established norm. I felt that the picture wasn’t showing everybody’s reality.

My mother likes getting up early in the mornings and reading the newspaper over her cup of tea. My father is fond of eating as well as cooking, and he’s an excellent cook, “hints”, “flavours”, and all.

But I agree that this doesn’t happen in most households. When my mid-day snack was appreciated by my classmates, they said, “Be sure to complement your Mom. This is great!”. My response, that the said snack was actually made by my father was met with awkward silence, and sometimes outright amazement. Rarely did people say just “Oh” and left it at that. Really? Do no men cook in this country? I refuse to believe so. I’ve got proof. Most famous chefs are male.

Sanjeev Kapoor

Sanjeev Kapoor

Talk about a male-oriented world! But that’s for another post.

My problem is this:

What was government-approved textbook doing, re-emphasising these stereotypes?

What is a national newspaper doing, normalizing the utterly ridiculous idea of dumping all responsibility of household chores like cooking or cleaning?

What happened to social responsibility?

I know that the role division is as above for the majority of the population. I know that most children, if not all, saw the depiction as a familiar setting. But for once, I would like to see a depiction in a textbook where the husband is helping the wife around the house. I would like to see a depiction where the wife is being handed a briefcase by the husband. For a lot of children that I studied with, most of these ideas were foreign. But isn’t that what education is all about? Introducing new worlds and ideas to children when they have an impressionable mind.

I don’t say that division of work should happen in a certain way. There is no right way. Every family figures out there own rhythm. But there’s no wrong way either. People, especially children, should be made aware of this fact.

We have grown accustomed to reading about such notions. Or listening about them in songs. And at some subconscious level, it does have an impact. We grow used to the idea. And that’s where the problem lies.

Five Words

Day #6 of Blogtember.

Tuesday, September 10: Describe a distinct moment when your life took a turn.

Though it is extremely difficult to define life in a few moments, this one particular moment definitely marked the start of something new, big and important.

School was over. The entrance exams were done too. Results were declared and I was accepted to the university of my choice.

This is what my mother said when she came to leave me in the hostel.

dream

I’m not going to claim that these words changed everything, or that a light bulb suddenly flicked on over my head. I did not have a sudden vision of clarity over what exactly my dreams were, or how to go about fulfilling them. I made mistakes, of course. I had various cringe-worthy moments (still have them). There were various missed opportunities. But still…

Go and realise your dreams.

These five words were the beginning. I found out what I could and couldn’t do. I found new interests, new ideas, and yes, new dreams too. I found out how important it was to enjoy the journey instead of just waiting for the end result. Life at the university has given me a lot.

I love it here.

The words may not have had a literal impact when they were spoken. But they hold special symbolic meaning for me. They did not bring about a “distinct turn in my life”. But they were the opening to the new pathway(s).