01 August 2007

ZAINUL ARIFIN: Why I would give teachers the benefit of doubt


I DO not believe that I was an exceptionally disruptive kid in school, but I have had my share of punishments.

Many of them, I don’t think, were ever prescribed in teaching manuals, but they were effective. While they have not scarred me for life, I do remember them well.

Once, a few of us had to stand in front of the class with chalks in our mouths for talking. There was also an instance when the whole class had to go through an entire period standing on our desks with our chairs on our heads. I believe we were noisy, or playing football in the class.

We had also done laps around the football field for failing to do homework or made to stand in the sun for coming in late after recess.

There was a teacher who had perfected the art of pinching the tummy — he would grab a big chunk of abdominal flesh and while asking us rhetorical questions, would twist, push and pull that part of us between his fingers, and our whole body would convulse, our knees would become weak, and our eyes would water.
We would feel the pain till the next day and remember it for the rest of our lives.

In primary school, I had a teacher whose favourite accessory was a foot-long wooden ruler, nicely balanced and seasoned through encounters with knuckles and palms.

As the class teacher, he would conduct surprise checks on our fingernails, or if we had brought handkerchiefs to school. I must confess that I have had many encounters with the ruler.

While I have never been asked to sit in water, in the dozen or so years in school, I have had strokes of the rotan or ruler on my hands, legs or behind; my ears yanked; made to do squats with hands on the ears; had chalks thrown at me; seen both ends of the feather duster; and many others that I cannot recollect at this point of time.

I do not believe I was exceptionally bad, but being a kid meant being ignorant or defiant of the rules.

It is characteristic of kids to test the limits of the rules, to stretch or bend them, and in some instances, break them, and see if we would be caught. We could be neglecting our homework, talking in class, fighting, pulling pranks, playing truant, smoking in the boys’ room, or disobeying school rules.

In the later part of our school years, the rebellious streak decided to come to the fore, and we would find ourselves in trouble with figures of authority, teachers being one of them.

Often, though, we would be caught, and had to suffer the consequences of our transgressions.

Corporal punishments were the flavour then, and they came in many forms. They were only limited by the ingenuity and imagination of teachers. The punishments were designed to make us remember and realise our mistakes, and hopefully never to repeat them.

Were the teachers sadists, given the nature of the punishments? Perhaps some were, but most were acting out of instinct based on how best to handle the nature of the beasts called schoolchildren.

They were entrusted with the role of producing responsible citizens, more than just teaching the 3Rs.

At some point, many must have thrown out the child psychology manuals and decided to deal with the situations as they came.

Teachers were also confident that what they did was necessary and they had the support of headmasters, administrators, parents and society at large.

Why did they punish us so? They could have spoken and reasoned with us, called our parents and explained to them where we had done wrong.

But it was a different time then. Teachers were asked not only to teach, but also to discipline, build character and develop decent human beings. They gave us the tools to survive beyond the school gates.

They gave us a sense of purpose and a sense of right and wrong. There was little use for niceties.

Then, there were no parents to report to, since if you were punished by your teachers, you must have done something wrong, and perhaps deserved another round at home.

Seldom were the teachers’ methods or authorities questioned or challenged. You and your family respected them because they were teachers. End of story.

Parents were willing to accept whatever teachers did in return for turning their kids from pasty-faced, clinging 7-year-olds to young adults ready for the world. The freedom to discipline was the trade-off in the contract parents had with schools and teachers.

There were, of course, abuses and improper conduct, but society placed teachers and their actions on a pedestal.

Having to carry your chair over your head during recess when everyone else could see, reminded us not to do what we did again. It was the pain, humiliation and agony that taught us to mend our ways.

Most times such punishments worked, since kids were quicker at understanding corporal punishments as consequences of transgressions.

These days, many of the teachers who taught me and meted punishments against me and my peers would have had to deal with police reports and opportunistic politicians and New Age pedagogical consultants.

Now most parents think they are smarter than teachers. This is probably true in some cases. But most parents have no idea what it takes to teach their kids, what more to handle 40 teenagers in a class with raging hormones.

It is unfortunate that some parents believe that teachers and schools provide day care for their charges, before the real education process begins at tuition centres.

It is often not a surprise that teachers know more about a kid than his parents. The responsibility of bringing up the kid has been sub-contracted out to teachers, schools, maids, piano teachers, tae kwon do instructors and tuition teachers. We are quite screwed up, really.

Of course, abusive teachers are something to be abhorred and stopped. We know better now and we should not return to those days when teachers’ methods were beyond reproach.

Maybe we should really be talking to our kids and letting them understand where they have gone wrong, rather than make them stand in the sun.

But as parents, we should also not be too quick to the trigger. Often, teachers know our kids better than we do. As someone who has had his share of corporal punishments, I would naturally give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

No comments: