A Perfect School


This is a very moving story written by Nonny. Characters and settings are purely imaginary. 

I stare out through the car window which is rolled down, hot air upon my face.

The clock in the dashboard shows 11 am. At this time, I am supposed to be at school, sitting between Tanushree and Ankini. But here I am, staring at an empty field which seems to mirror the emptiness that I feel inside me now.

My dad is driving. He too, should not be here in this car. This feels unreal. He is supposed to be there in school too, taking my class, as he has always done in the last nine years.

I cannot accept it. Please stop the car, dad. Let us go back.

Give me back my school. Let us go to the class. Let today be just like any other day.

***

I close my eyes. I am in my class again. It feels good. But it’s painful too. In a corner of my mind, a voice tells me that I am better off forgetting. But I ignore it. Let me reminisce for a while. Let time take care of the business of forgetting.

 

***

My mind takes me to our classroom. It is a cloudy day. A light drizzle outside. My dad standing near the board.

He asks us to open the book, ‘Life is Beautiful’ — a screenplay by Roberto Benigni. This movie will be shown as a part of our history class. As a preparation, we are reading the screenplay.

We suggest we move out of the classroom and sit outside. The screenplay is great, but if we can watch the rain while we discuss it, it will be perfect.

My dad agrees.

He, too, would never settle for anything less than perfect.

 

***

I first saw this quest for perfection when I was just five years old, though I did not understand it then. I thought of it as love.

He was searching for a school for me in Mumbai. He visited many schools. None satisfied him. “You will not have fun in those schools,” he told me. “None of the principals talk about what they teach and how they teach. They only talk about their AC classrooms and large campuses,” he later explained to me when I was older.

My mom was exasperated. “What’s to be done? The world is not perfect. You have to make do with what you have,” she reasoned.

“If no perfect school is available, I will build one for her,” my father replied.

 

***

In a fit of madness, he left his job, left Mumbai altogether and came back to his ancestral small town to build a school for me.

‘A school where history is taught through movies, geography through stories,’one of the hoardings announced. ‘A school where students learn to question, rather than memorise answers,’ said another. ‘Preparation for life, not just for exams,’ the huge signboard at the school gate read.

He did live up to most of those ideals. School was fun. We read stories, watched movies, discussed news, forged friendships. The school became so much a part of my life that I would cry when summer vacation came every year.

When I was small I never fully understood, but it was difficult for my dad to create that perfect experience. The parents wanted textbooks. The teachers wanted an easier life. The society wanted rote-learning.

My dad was uncompromising. He reasoned with the parents, raged against the teachers, fought with the society. In the end it surely took its toll, but when he would come to our class, he was always in his best mood.

***

It is strange that how quickly a strength can turn into a fatal weakness. The very uncompromising nature that helped my dad build the school proved to be his undoing.

The beginning of the end came on a day that started like any other.

Every day, the school began with a ‘common meeting’ where all the students from class V onwards were present. This was a time when we discussed everything from incidents that have taken place inside the school to national and international news.

That day, as usual, we submitted our newsletters — a collection of news from the past week. After scanning through them, my dad picked up a news item, ‘Government makes B. Ed. mandatory for teachers in every school in the state.’

“What’s your opinion about this?” he asked the students.

“What exactly is B. Ed.?” one of the junior students from class VI raised his hand and asked.

“Yes, you need to know that, surely, before offering an opinion! It is a degree in education, giving a training to potential teachers. But that’s only in theory. In practice, it is the largest legalised scam.”

My dad has always been opinionated. Education was an area where his views were even more extreme.

“Most B. Ed colleges are just shops for issuing degree certificates. If they were working so well, why does India rank so low in any international ranking for school education? A lot of them get their affiliation through bribes, and then recoup the investment by selling degrees.” he continued.

This was explosive, even by my dad’s standards. I knew he had always been very annoyed with the regulations in education. I never understood the extent of his frustration.

“If most of these B. Ed. colleges are so corrupt, then why don’t they ever get caught?” one student asked.

“They are not caught because they are usually under the protection of some political party or other. That’s how most things work here. You don’t have to go too far to understand this. In this very town, there are three B. Ed. colleges, all owned by a local politician. I don’t want to name him, but it’s common knowledge.”

The meeting got over soon. We walked back to our classroom and opened our laptops to check Twitter. The senior students were encouraged to maintain Twitter accounts as part of the school’s effort to encourage students to express opinions about social issues. The best tweets written by the students were usually retweeted from the school’s Twitter handle.

That day, my Twitter feed was full of derisive tweets about the Indian education system in general and the local B. Ed. college in particular. The common meeting always provided a lot of fodder for lively discussion in our Twitter page.

‘B. Ed colleges in our town are like shops. However, they do not even sell useful products,’ one such tweet says.

I start typing a tweet of my own. ‘We need to educate our educators better.’

I hoped my tweet would be good enough to be retweeted by the school.

Soon, the bell rang. We closed our laptops and moved to the history class, where George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ was going to be taught.

The day progressed like any other. When it was finally time for us to head home, we walked to the school bus, laughing and chattering, unaware that soon all of our perfect lives were going to be shattered.

(The next day)

“All, open your economics booklets,” my dad asked, walking into the classroom. “Let’s discuss the topic, ‘Is greed good?’

Our school materials were mostly written by my dad. He hated textbooks.

Today’s topic discussed the economic rationale behind famous quote of Gordon Gekko, the protagonist of the movie ‘Wall Street’, who passionately argued that greed was the lubricant of a capitalist economy.

My dad asked, “Who wants to argue for this statement and who wants to argue against?”

My friend Rituraj raised his hand, with a mischievous smile. He had always been impish. “Why was he named Gekko? Aren’t house lizards called Geckos?”

The entire class erupted into laughter. However, the fun was interrupted when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” my dad said.

Raja, one of the school staff, opened the door, looking anxious. ‘Could you please come outside for some time, Sir? It’s urgent.’

“Not now, I am taking a class.”

“But it’s urgent, Sir. I wouldn’t interrupt the class if it weren’t.” Raja said, looking even more nervous by now.

My dad reluctantly left the classroom with a slightly irritated expression.

We waited for him to come back to the class. After ten minutes or so, some of us got restless, starting to fidget or look out of the classroom window. That’s when Ankini suddenly said, “I can see him talking to some people near the school gate.”

All of us crowded around the window, trying to get a better look. I saw him talking to a group of seven or eight people. He looked angry. I could hear some fragments of the conversation. ‘No, I will not…this is a school, you can’t bully me…’

After some more of what appeared to be a heated argument, he came back to the classroom. With some trepidation, I asked him, “What happened? Who were those people?”

“They were some goons from the local political party,” he said, still looking angry.

There was a shocked silence for a few moments.

‘Why did they come here?’ Tanushree asked after a while. My sense of foreboding grew even more.

“Apparently, they have been sent by the local politician we talked about in yesterday’s morning meeting — the owner of the B. Ed colleges. They are agitated about the tweets that some of you wrote yesterday. Also, the discussion about their college in our morning common meeting must have reached them through some of the junior students who probably went back home and told their parents.”

“So what did they want?” I asked.

“They wanted me to call a meeting of the students and the parents and tell everyone that whatever I said yesterday was wrong and baseless.”

“What? They want you to call a meeting of the parents and apologise?”

“I am not going to do that, of course. I have the freedom to say whatever I want inside this school. Why should I be bullied by a couple of thugs?” my father replied in a slightly raised voice, full of suppressed indignation and rage.

A silence descended upon the class. Quite worried by now, I wondered if the school might be in danger.

Rituraj, now serious, voiced my thoughts, asking, “But what if they come back and vandalise the school, now that you have refused to do what they said?”

“They won’t dare to. Whatever they say is just bluster. I can’t give in to empty threats.”

The discussion ended with that. I tried to put this incident out of my mind, hoping that my dad was right.

***

By the time I reached home, I had almost completely forgotten about my worries.

I sat down on my desk and started doing my homework when a notification sound rang on my phone. It was a message from the school number. Frowning slightly, I opened it:

‘School is closed for all classes tomorrow. Notice about when the school will re-open will be given soon.’

What could this mean? My dad was clearly still at school. However, that in itself was not unusual. He often returned from school just before dinner, finishing off various work there. I decided to give him a call.

As soon as he picked up, I asked, “What is going on? Why was the school cancelled?”

“I had to cancel school because those goons who came to the school today are threatening to create trouble again, saying that they will not allow the school to hold its classes since I refused to listen to them.”

These words hit me like a blow. This was much worse than I expected. How could things have gone downhill so fast, in a matter of hours?

“How is this possible? How will they prevent you from holding classes?”

“They can. If they threaten to vandalise the school, then I will not be able to take the risk of conducting normal classes.”

“But there has to be some solution. Can’t you negotiate with them?”

“I am not going to give in to their demands by calling another meeting. What is the point of this school if it is run according to somebody else’s wishes?” he said angrily.

There was a pause. After a few moments of silence, my dad finally spoke again. “Some of the kids’ parents might intervene, though. Let’s see if they can sort it out peacefully.”

My hopes rose again. Maybe all was not lost. Some of the parents had a lot of influence in the town. If they supported us, then maybe the school would be able to come out of this crisis unscathed, and everything would go back to normal.

But that was not how it turned out.

A group of parents negotiated with the local party. They pleaded with the party, asking them not to resort to violence. The party members did not have any problem with the school, but they were adamant about my father. They hated him for defying them.

A compromise was reached. The school would continue to run, managed by a group of teachers who worked for the school.

My father would have to leave.

***

I had to leave without saying goodbye.

My dad did not want to fight the decision of the parents. “Let them run the school the way they want,” he said.

I did not understand then that that was not a one-off statement. The fight had gone out of him.

He wanted to create perfection — but to create perfection, you need to compromise, which is the antithesis of perfection. I guess he could not accept that contradiction.

I hated the city life. I hated the new school. But most of all, I hated to see my once energetic father slowly withering away.

I buried myself into the textbooks of the new school. Board exams were approaching. It was a blessing in disguise. Though I never liked exams and textbooks, for a while they let me focus on something else. They let me forget, if only for a few hours at a stretch. But every once in a while, the exam of life threw its questions at me.

My dad wanted to build the perfect school to prepare the students for life, not just for exams. But the exam of life is far more difficult, one you cannot prepare for in advance. Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. I could never imagine that for me the syllabus would turn out to be so difficult, the question paper almost impossible to solve.

***

(25 years later)

I could never forget the school.

Perfection, once attained, is something you forever long for. In my heart, there was always the yearning for the perfect experience that was so abruptly terminated. But unlike my dad, I could survive that trauma.

Maybe because I was younger, and a young heart, however broken, can mend. Maybe because I was not the one who put in years of work to make the school happen.

Though I had to leave the school, the school left its mark. I found it easy to join and prosper in the civil services career. My school did prepare me for life. In the school, I learnt to be socially aware. I learnt to question and debate. All these skills came to use as I moved through the ranks to finally became the Education Secretary.

I dare say it was not accidental that I reached that post. I very much worked towards it. Because there was a debt I had to repay.

***

Today is the culmination of my last two years of work.

I am to brief the cabinet on the Education Reform Bill, which I played a big role in drafting. The bill abolishes the requirement of B.Ed. degrees for teachers. It makes the teacher salaries much, much higher, making it possible for successful people from all fields to join teaching. It gives teachers and schools wide-ranging autonomy to design courses and curriculum. It proposes to create a nation-wide common skill-based test to evaluate schools and students, instead of the prevailing affiliation process.

It was not easy to convince everyone for the reform. But I coaxed, reasoned, made promises, struck deals — and finally everyone who matters is on board.

I am still worried. What if there is some last minute glitch? Some unanticipated question?

But things go smoothly. The minister’s pen finally touches the sheaf of paper and he puts down his signature.

This bill still has to be cleared by the houses of parliament and implemented on the ground, but at least the first battle is won.

All schools can now prepare students for life, without being hamstrung by outdated syllabus and meaningless regulations. People wishing to build a great school do not have to battle the entire society, its laws and mindset.

My perfect school was struck down, but I hope many others will rise in its place.

 

***

I stare out through the car window which is rolled down, hot air upon my face.

The clock in the dashboard shows 11 am. I am going back to my school, again.

Tanushree and Ankini will not be sitting beside me there today. Neither will my dad be teaching. I wonder whether even the building exists any more.

As I reach the town, the driver asks me, ‘Where should I take you, Ma’am?’

I smile. I direct him to the familiar road I had taken a thousand times in my childhood.

Will the building still be there? I don’t worry about it. I don’t feel sad.

Because the school may not have survived, but its idea did. And soon it will spread everywhere.

Finally, I can say goodbye.