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Going back to convent school

A fun peek into the unique values instilled only at a convent school

brunch Updated: Dec 09, 2017 22:36 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
verb conjugation,convent,Mumbai
(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

Comfortably uncool

It’s fashionable these days to mock one’s convent-school upbringing. Joyless nuns. Knee-length tunics. State syllabus. Rickety school bus. I can only hope a lot of this is simply posturing. A need to declare oneself out of the world of middle-class morals and obsessions. An escape from a modest reality to an attractively marketed one.

I agree about the syllabus – it could have been more imaginative. And perhaps some of the nuns were more joyless than even religious guilt demands. Also, every student in every school must have her own experience. But the older I grow, the more frequent my excursions to the days spent in a government-subsidised convent school, where I didn’t have to pay any fees (under then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, girls’ education in government-aided institutions up to Class 12 in Maharashtra was made free). This was, of course, the ’80s and ’90s, when school was a place you went to learn, and also learn to integrate yourself into society, a subset of which existed in your classroom. It did not, generally, involve casual trips to Greece with 35 people who looked, dressed and lived just like you.

It’s odd but almost none of these school memories centre around academics. I often think about how students were grouped into Catholics and non-Catholics. The first set was given religious instruction. The second, moral science lessons. Or in later years, value education. (We non-Catholics always thought we got off easy.)

On December 6, 1992, the day of the Babri demolition, I remember a chaotic school campus, with classmates worried about friends and family. At 10 years of age, this was my first consciousness of the Hindu-Muslim divide. The same divide that turned a carefree Bombay to an easily offended Mumbai. But in school, it was soon business as usual. Hindus and Muslims sat together and learnt about values. We even had exams. But this was not, primarily, where I picked up mine. They came from all around me.

Hand-me-down values

Teacher Susan, our feisty middle-aged music teacher – part Dev Anand, part Mary Poppins – unfortunately failed to extract a single tuneful note out of most of us. What she did, however, was end each singing lesson with a little modelling session. She would hold up used uniforms against herself – so we had a good idea about size – and invite girls to claim the uniforms they thought would be useful, after class. The same with used textbooks, minus the modelling.

Teacher Hazel tried valiantly to demystify the reproductive cycles of amphibians for us. But what has stayed with me was her simple injunction: “When a garbage truck passes you by, don’t hold your noses up in disgust; it’s disrespectful to the attendants.” And when we went in giggling for our first sex-ed lesson, she wisely said: “There’s more to life than sex.” An adage a lot of us are still undecided about.

Mathematical wizard Teacher Iyer still features in my recurring algebraic nightmares. But I fondly remember her as one of the faculty who helped organise an informal daily meal sponsorship for the students, by the students. And Teacher Nattie taught me as much about verb conjugation and clause analysis as she did about warmth and grace.

Bursting the bubble

This is not to say that schools these days – or for that matter, posher schools in those days – don’t impart values. But as the recent film Hindi Medium pointed out, we’re missing the point of education all together when we make it about what car drops you to school and which celebrity graces the annual day. My friends with kids face a tough choice, with middle-of-the-road schools not being in the reckoning (for debatable reasons), and fancy schools overwhelming them with their haughtiness. In a nation where polarisation between the classes increases with each new development marvel, and the education ministry undermines learning with its religious and political agendas, schools clearly need to do much more when it comes to human, not material values.

We go on about a lack of diversity in corporate, sporting and cultural spaces. But they only reflect a similar lack in one of the most fundamental social institutions. When privileged kids are raised among people from their own background – upper-middle class to elite – empathy and understanding are not required. The bubble of privilege protects those who need no protection. And this is how it stays through adulthood. Media projects with a social conscience, like Sesame Street (the excellent GalliGalliSimSim in India), take on some of the duties of schools and do a good job. But classroom learning has its own place. It’s official, enforceable and most importantly, it sticks. It becomes part of who we are. I’ll never be able to turn away from a garbage truck in disgust ever again.

From HT Brunch, December 10, 2017

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First Published: Dec 09, 2017 22:36 IST