The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Help ’em grow by themselves

One of the boys in my class, some years back was a text-book “fall guy”. Whenever any teacher asked him a question, the other boys would titter and mutter jokes. He would respond to this with an uncomfortable smile, and when as often happened, his answer was off the mark, he would sort of conduct the howls of laughter that would break out among the others. It was, of course, a last-ditch defence system in operation, disguising the hurt he was really feeling. He knew he was a somewhat slow learner, and his looks lent themselves to chortling and belittling.

As I say, a text-book “fall guy”.

We used to offer a pretty serious value education (ValEd) course in those times. And arising out of it, I told the boys that this sort of bullying — which is what it amounted to — would have to stop, it was humiliating and unwarranted. At the same time I told the lad himself not to permit this sort of abuse, but to attack the abuser immediately if the laughter was directed only at his inability to be as smart as the other boys. Things did improve.

However, when the final exam results came out, this boy, despite hard work, flunked his favourite subject, maths. The rules meant that he would have to repeat the entire exam again. His dad came with him to the principal, and apologised to the principal because, as he said: “My son has blotted the perfect score obtained by all the other boys in his class.” The principal was more than mildly embarrassed that the school’s efforts for the kids should be interpreted as a sort of showcase for how very good his school was, and he explained that to the dad. His explanation was acknowledged politely, but clearly not really believed.

That very day, however, a telegram (nowadays perhaps it would be an e-mail) had been couriered to the school from the head office in Delhi. And the principal showed it to the dad. It was terse. It simply said, in effect: “With regard to the marks sent to (this boy, number given) we regret the misprint in his mathematics score which should read, not 39 per cent but 93 per cent. Student to be informed immediately.” The dad and the principal called the boy, and the two men danced in delight around the office table.

A little later I had a chance to meet the delighted boy. In response to my questions he said: “Well, my first thought as dad and I opened the report envelope was, I shall commit suicide. And then I recalled some of the things we had worked through in ValEd, and I decided that I would simply cope with it, and find some way of getting on. I’m glad now that I discovered that within myself.” Needless to say, so was I!

There is so much nonsense talked about value education that I suspect any parent or school person who has read this far, is now skipping over to other items. No blame to you; that itself is symptomatic of our time. Just a few years ago the XIIs in a big Delhi school were chatting with their principal, a friend of mine, as they left the school for the last time. Among a cluster around him one boy said, “Sir, the school got us through our exams. But it did nothing worth a damn — sorry sir — towards enlightening us on what this whole thing is about.” What he meant was, it taught nothing about our value systems — the principles on which we choose to live our lives.

Teachers complain that kids nowadays simply don’t want it, their syllabuses are too crowded, and besides, who needs sermons from the teacher whose weaknesses are in any case all too obvious, especially in the more senior classes, to every observant student in the benches. Bingo.

Still, hear this: I recall a very bright college kid in a New York college I worked in, who finished his PhD, no less, by the time he was only 23, just marginally older than the other college girls and boys. He continued to wear the scuffed jeans and laceless keds that were the fashion of the hip set those times, and smoked and drank with them after class. One of the boys. Till one evening when he laughed with them at a joke rather more blue than usual, one of them said to him, “But sir, you’re supposed to lead, not follow.” The young professor was startled and, not to make an epic out of it, thoroughly changed his lifestyle.

The point' Teachers and parents often want to believe that the students don’t value values. They declare that the kids are proactively anti-ValEd. (And — snort-chuckle — don’t, please don’t, talk about God/Allah/Lord Krishna/Guru Nanak and stuff, if you don’t want to be laughed off the campus!)

I had the great joy of a senior science teacher in a Calcutta Plus II school telling me once that on that day he had made the biggest blunder of all in his ValEd lessons; he had acknowledged, when challenged by the class, that in his youth he had not been as virtuous as he was now exhorting them to be. ‘Good for you,’ I told him. Good, because it was his truest self that spoke — anyone can lie and pretend — and assured him that his admission was probably the most powerful stimulant in their value-lives throughout their whole school career.

It is simply not true that children, junior or senior, have “no time” for values. It is we, adults, who give it a bad name. You and I — sometimes we’re good, and sometimes we’re not so good. In fact, sometimes we’re downright disgusting in our behaviour. That’s you and me. When we realise that this is sadly the truth, we back away from holding up standards for our school girls and boys.

But this is as stupid as refusing to teach the youngsters to swim just because we are not experts ourselves. Neither at teacher nor parental level do we pretend to be plaster-cast saints to the kids, we don’t pretend anything. We hear their stories, we share their pain and their joy, we indicate that we mightn’t always agree with their interpretation of acceptable behaviour, but, above all, we listen and try to understand. We give them time to think.

We don’t have to answer their questions. It is perfectly acceptable that we toss their questions back to them, and encourage them to open-mindedness, allowing opinions to be expressed, discussed at peer level, defended, but not trumpeted as The Only Truth. Nor, on the other hand, accepting that It’s All Nonsense.

Unlike other academic subjects, doubts and uncertainties are a healthy part of this field. Listening and openness is the key. My trouble and yours, is that we get so used to giving answers at the top of our classrooms or in our families that we think we have to fulfil the same role in value education. Not at all. And what’s more, the youngsters themselves get to value this set-up hugely — more so after they have left our classrooms and our parental care, in fact.

Anyone qualified can deliver information on geography, physics or Bengali literature — or correct behaviour. Some can even make it interesting, and it becomes good teaching. But your and my real role at home and at school is to help kids grow, in knowledge, and also in themselves. That’s ValEd. In the long run, it is the best we can do for our young folk. Let’s not miss the bus.

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