“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam.” — Einstein
I changed three schools. The first one was a renowned girls’ school in Gulberg, Lahore. It was famous because of its eccentric sari-clad (quasi-feminist) owner, Victorian-style vigilantes and supplying fodder to institutes like Kinnaird. But by the time I reached it, the decay had begun and the ship was falling apart. The teachers were living in past grandeur. Consider that they had no sports beyond class II, no computers or GCSC O/A levels till I was there.
I don’t know any school that gave its student a harder time. There were so many subjects, tests, exams and classes in a day that the energy it required in class VI to study hygiene physiology, geometry theorems, algebra, geography of Australia and India etc., was more than what was required in my bachelors. I was a moderately good student at the start but slipped off the ship soon. At least I did in mathematics.
However, this fall into the not-so-bright category of my class helped me to meet the best people ever — basically, because good students stay away from the influence of bad ones. Those were the sweetest, coolest and most confident girls I ever met. At one point we made a group called ‘The Sixers,’ which we spelt as ‘Sxers’ to fill the gap with an imaginary “e” and its allusion to sex.
I left the group after a fight and began another group. We often went out for collective bathroom trips that we prolonged by taking a round in the school ground. One day we left the class and delayed returning because of a misunderstanding and out of a fear of being caught didn’t get back to the class at all. As punishment, the teacher kept us standing for a good two hours the next day. The only thing I miss about the school is my friends.
The second school was the least costly in terms of fees and offered the most freedom. It was a private school for the leftover kids, too spoilt or unintelligent for any other school. The studies here were easier. You could discard what you learnt in the previous semester and the questions were almost always asked before in the tests and class. Events such as talent shows and Sports Day were celebrated with much pomp and prolonged rehearsals. But occasionally a good teacher or two would stumble into the school and leave at the first opportunity available. But the school was democratic, modern in its outlook and quite a breather.
There was still a middle class morality and intense competition in the air. There was a relaxed feel to it, the joking around, playing volleyball and cricket in that small rented house that had been converted to a school — probably illegally. I was even elected a Head girl there.
In A levels, I shifted to a third school. Because of my not so glorious academic performance, two posh schools refused me admission. This school was not well-known for its intermediate and wanted to make a name so that students rejected by top schools would start considering it. And, since they didn’t have many students, they were trying to cut down on the cost on teachers.
My class was divided in two poles: one was snobbish/ambitious and the other was fickle/ambitious. And, their known ambition was usually grades and marriage. Some were taking days off to make Russian salad for their mothers’ parties and getting engaged years before the age they could legally marry. There was a serious debate on what colour to wear on one’s wedding and how many kids to have. The only good thing that happened was my literature professor, a very erudite and generous man who became my mentor for years to come.
The school eventually privatised students like me and, thankfully, despite a bunch of bitter-sweet memories and huge fees, it has left no trace on my formal education record.
My experience is that the more prestigious the school, the more repressive and performance obsessed it becomes. There develops a caste system in class and the poor performers like me are discriminated against. May be things have changed now. Yet, over the years, one realises that no one can burst through the stratosphere and become a supernova. Everyone remains in the same solar system, repeatedly revolving around the same Sun.
However, this isn’t a case for abolishing schools altogether. Schools are a nice place to socialise, to find people like yourself.