Friday, May 14, 2010

School - Shudders and Smiles

For want of a better thing to do, I thought I'll organize my photos. And, quite predictably, I went on time travel, and by the time I got back, it was too late to carry on with the task. But what a journey it was!

I studied in a 'convent'; run according to a typical 'English' tradition. It was an all-girls school in Bengaluru, and yes, one of the main aims of the school was to turn us into well-behaved, well-read, well-mannered ladies. From that respect, I guess I am a flashing beacon of failure. I suppose 'posh' and 'propah' behavior and manners are hard-wired. They don't come to one and all, even with a decade of schooling. 'Climb the stairs gently. Speak softly, in a well modulated voice. Don't lean your elbows on the dining table. Don't gape. Etc.' Not a single thing in that list can I manage! I marginally succeeded in the 'well-read' arena. For a few years, that is. I had discovered Thomas Hardy and Thoreau quite early in life. But then, career took over, and in keeping up with the pressure, I increasingly read novels on serial killers. Now, it sounds terribly romantic to sit by the riverside and devour a Dostoevsky - aw hell. I'd rather read a Harlan Coben and his identical stories on people who go missing. See what career does to you people. Quit your jobs, I tell you!

Those were the days when child psychology was namby pamby. If the teacher thought you were chicken shit, it would go on the report in writing. So it was end-of-the-world for me after every test. I was as puzzling as Tutankhamen’s mummy to my teachers, and to my own parents. 8/100 in Trigonometry. Errr...but 95/100 in Light Theory - Physics. I could not remember a single date when it came to the British Raj era in History. But I could write a thesis on the French renaissance. I could draw the Lake Baikal like as if it were printed, when it came to Geography. But my Chennai (then Madras) would have somehow slipped way too down, pushing out Kanyakumari into the ocean. about gravity. The only subjects where I scored consistently were Algebra and English. Talk about a fried brain. In any case, none of these troubled me as much as two 'extra-curricular' classes - Singing and Needle Work (without which, one cannot be a complete L.A.D.Y.)

Singing was taught according to western classical rules - and how I wish I had a taste for it then. Anyway, till about 8th standard, we were taught hymns and carols, and songs with some 'social' message. But I was already into rock 'n roll and pop; so my tongue would twist when I had to sing hymns. I got a consistent 'E minus' grade in all singing tests. My mom and grandma shoved me into a carnatic class under a local 'guru' in Malleswaram. I believe I might have accelerated the Guru's demise. Anyway, in school, the assessment for singing would be on parameters such as voice modulation, pronunciation and 'bringing the song alive'. Well, for a bunch of kids fed on George Michael (in his Wham days, when 'gay' meant happy) and Modern Talking (with profound lyrics such as You're my heart, You're my soul...pronounced Yoummah ha, Yoummah so); going back to school to sing 'Gawwwd's luuuv, is so wonderful...' errr...obviously we brought the song alive in a different way. When we moved ahead to 10th standard - we were considered as ladies all ready to step out into the big, bad world. And so, singing included BONEY M! Yippeee. But. But. But. Only 'By the rivers of Babylon'. And then, progress! We were allowed to 'learn' Top of the World by Carpenters., that was a neat, innocent love song. But for us, it was like a kindergarten song. We were already on Nirvana headbanging to Come As You Are. Sigh. Kurt Cobain. I hope I get to meet him up there eventually.

The other, absolutely pain-in-the-wrong-place class was needle work. There was no escape from this. Years were spent in making handkerchiefs. Yeh. Fold the edges, tack them, do a backstitch, hem. My fingers looked like those of an addict's by the end of these classes. One of my teachers, a sarcastic nun, looked at my handkerchief and said 'You can succeed in a cobbler.' Things got worse. We were supposed to do embroidery. My blood froze. There was something called chain stitch. Something called lazy daisy. My embroideries looked like angry scribbles of a sulking child. I asked if there was a way I can 'opt' out of needle work, and do extra classes on English. "The only reason you are not succeeding is because you are not concentrating, child! Will you give up everything in life like this?" I went back to poking needles into my fingers.

In eighth standard, we were supposed to stitch an umbrella skirt. We were supposed to take measurements, do the cutting on a newspaper and then cut the cloth. I exchanged a George Michael poster with one of my friends and she did the cutting for me. But something must have gone wrong. My umbrella skirt was large enough to fit a cow. It became a source of unbridled entertainment in the staff room, I believe. In ninth standard, we were supposed to stitch a salwaar kameez. The poster of a topless Stallone exchanged hands. The salwaar kameez was marginally okay. It was shapeless, designed to fit an electric pole. But I managed a D. Unbelievable. It felt like I'd won the Nobel Prize.

10th standard was a complete disaster. They introduced knitting. We were supposed to knit a shawl. The only things I managed to knit were my intestines. At the end of the year, we were supposed to display the shawls as exhibits. 10 months of knitting, and I had an 8 foot ribbon of wool. The world's longest muffler. My class teacher eyeballed me like Hannibal Lecter. I was beyond all caring. There is a proverb in Kannada - roughly translated, it means 'For a drowned person, scorching heat or biting cold won't make a difference'. I was exactly in that state. But much to my surprise, my teacher laughed hysterically - Roger Waters in Dark Side of the Moon. They draped my ribbon as a 'thorana' at the entrance of our class room.
Thankfully, I've never had to rely on these 'skills' anytime in my life. I don't even sing in the bathroom. And needlework...only once, did i attempt to stitch a button on one of my kurtis. I was very happy with what I did, till I figured out that the stitches were so thick, that the button could no longer be inserted in the buttonhole. I don’t have a needle or thread at home.

All my classmates are on facebook. All of them are talented, accomplished in one way or the other. And that amazes me. At the end of the day, my school did manage to churn out capable women into the world. Some are techies, some are prolific singers, doctors, jewellery designers, apparel designers, painters, musicians – it’s just mind-blowing!

But, at the end of the day, would I put my children through that stress? I don't know. I am still thinking if education, such as it is, is required at all :)

©Sumana Khan - 2010 


  1. Did I just read the script of Princess Diaries? :D
    Did you really go through all those things in School? Becoming a complete lady is so tough alwa? :P
    Our school also tried very hard to do the same. Well, girls turned out be gems and heeras and chi..errr...and what not, and they are still so well behaved and so "complete", but we boys were hell bent on retaining our true identity. On the contrary, perfection cannot be improved, you see. :D

    Wonderful read as usual. Enjoyed to the core. :)
    By the way, why don't you give titles to your posts? Is there a reason? Or just plain laziness? :P

  2. Remember singing " li li li li li li li li leeeeeeedo "? Something about a farmer and a crow...still cracks me up everytime I think about how I had to sing that song for 'singing exam'.

  3. @Karthik - exaggerations. And title for the posts - i am unable to figure out where to insert the title in my template :P

    @Anonymous - i remember a song about a poor girl sitting under gas lights. I got E- for that singing exam.

  4. Couldn't stop laughing ! Whenever I feel a little down, I come to one of your posts---antidote!

  5. I must confess - I loved my needle work classes when they included embroidery; I hated it the moment I had to knit. But my darling mom is a star is knitting, so all the marks I gathered in the subject was due to her :-)

    Well, don't even remind me of singing classes.. the teacher loved humiliating poor souls like me by asking us to sing in front of the whole class during exams :-( Guess, the wonderful singing genes of my mom never passed down to me...

    All 'girl's only' schools give so much stress on this 'womanly' subjects! Compare it with a co-ed one and I doubt girls there face so much problem!

  6. Your account took my mind back to the fifties and sixties when I was a student at an all boys English medium School in Mumbai run by Catholic Missionaries.

    None of these additional skills like music, or needlework etc was taught to us.
    They had a tough time finishing the course prescribed by the board.

    Drawing and Painting was the only subject that I had difficulty with.
    I struggled with the third language (Gujarati) too.

    English was my favourite subject.
    I did passably well in the others.