Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pt. 8: In Which We Begin Our Final Journey With Kerala and Goa

There’s one piece of insight a Fulbright alum shared with me about the short time they had left over at the end of his teaching exchange: we made a bee line to Kerala. This most southwesterly Indian state has the distinction of having been ruled by an elected communist government for virtually all of its existence, that power having been relinquished only in the last few years when the Congress party finally claimed electoral victory. So what is the communist legacy? The highest literacy rate, the highest Human Development rate, and the least corruption in the country.

But this was no bleak communist bloc technocracy, bent on industrialization and doctrinal hegemony and intent on destroying the rights of the individual. This is just one of the prettiest places we’ve visited. It’s really best known for the so-called backwaters, large lakes, lagoons, and the rivers and channels that connect them. And in between are miles and miles of rice paddies, palm stands, jungles and waterside villages. But perhaps our favorite experience here was attending a dance performance at the Folklore Museum in Kochin. It’s a beautifully constructed, 3-story, purpose-built structure designed in the local traditional styles which houses a trove of antiques and artifacts, and also houses a beautiful performance space. We arrived early enough to see the performers putting on their makeup right onstage and then enjoyed a thrilling performance of several dance styles, including Baratnatyam and Katakali.

After several days at a beautiful lakeside Ramada resort that I can safely say resembled none of the aged motels of the same name along the turnpikes back home, we spent 24 glorious hours cruising the backwaters in a plushly appointed riverboat. It wasn’t an action-packed thrill ride, but a quiet, lazy, meandering kind of cruise, where we just sat back in comfortably padded rattan chairs and watched the riverbank drift by, traced the flights of waterfowl and hawks, and got a steady stream of peaks into the everyday lives of the people who lived along the banks. Too bad we accidentally erased all but 3 of our photos. See, I knew there was a downside to digital.

Goa was equally chillin, and even better still, we had our own house—with 5 bedrooms! Our extravagant accommodation was the result of an accidental double-booking at our chosen hotel, and to honest, ended up being a much better deal. Set in a grove of palms, our “mansion” had a large porch and 2nd floor veranda, huge livingroom and kitchen, and several bedrooms to choose from. It was a 10-minute walk to a gloriously uncrowded and surprisingly clean beach, somewhere between the tourist jams of Colva and Benaulim beaches, and a 5-minute walk to the resort hotel where our embarrassed host arranged pool privileges. We even had the use of a cut-rate scooter to cruise around on.

Our days in Goa quickly slipped into the comfortable routines of rising at a civilized hour, breakfasting, snacking and dining at our own convenience, strolling to the beach in the morning and late afternoon, and to the pool in the heat of the day. We took a side trip to spice plantation, visiting several attractive temples and colonial Portuguese areas of old Goa. But really, we relished the slow-paced comforts of our temporary home, and time shot by much faster then we wanted. Then it was north, to Rajasthan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pt. 7: In Which I Learn That The Beatings Won’t Stop Just Because Morale Has Improved.

There is, at least among the people of India I’ve met, a very strong work ethic. Actually, it’s more like a work ultimatum: work hard, or fail. Especially in school, which is seen as the gateway to middle class success. But they know that hard work is no guarantee they won’t fail. Nor do all choose hard work. Many of my students have accepted failure (at least in the academic sense) as a given, and they have more or less given up on hard work in school. But they still show up, every day, and attend classes, and often they even do what I ask them to do (copy these instructions, write in this poetic form, read this story, etc.). But what happens when they refuse to do these tasks, and worse, when they choose to distract other, more work-oriented students; and worse still, when they purposefully and calmly refuse to follow my direction? “Ah, such is the time for beating” one of my esteemed colleagues said to me not so many weeks ago.

“Beating” is broadly used term in the school. It is, within the context of teaching and administration, the application of corporal punishment. It is also, within the context of student society, the striking of a peer. In both cases the act is usually limited to the open hand, although several teachers employ small sticks, pieces of wood trim (1” x ¼” x 24” seems to be a popular dimension), and in one case, a well-worn similarly dimensioned segment of bamboo. When teachers refer to the practice, it is usually along the lines of, “he will receive a beating if he continues this behaviour”. When children make a reference, it is usually in the form of: “sir, this boy is beating [me]!” The first case requires no response other than a knowing and agreeable wobble of the head. The latter form seems to call for some more active response, but I have yet to parse out what that should be. I suppose this child should in turn, receive “a beating”.

The vast majority of the corporal punishment I witnessed was the garden variety open-handed slap of the head of a student engaged in misconduct. This misconduct included talking during morning assembly, being noisy in the halls, responding in anything other than respectful words to a teacher’s query, or failure to have some vital article of required uniform or classroom supply. On three occasions, I witnessed much more aggressive, repeated and sustained attacks on students. These were reserved for repeat offenders who were insubordinate towards teachers or the principal. They involved from 5 to 10 blows on the head, shoulders, back and rear of the student and were of such an brutal nature as to reflect real rage.

One day, I became particularly irritated with several of my unruly male students, one of whom refused to move when I reassigned his seating to the front of the room. I told him if we would not move to the front then he should leave the room. When he smiled and shook his head, I pretty much lost it. I told him it was to the Principal, and when he continued to sit there smiling at me, I hooked my hand under his arm and led him out the room and down towards the Principal’s office. Halfway to the office, we encountered the Principal in the hall, where I reported to him that the student had been unruly, distracting, and finally, insubordinate. With that, the Principal’s mouth contorted into a scowl of pure malice and he aggressively slapped and spanked the boy about 6 or 7 times about the head, shoulders and back, bellowing at the student in Hindi. I stood there aghast at what I had wrought. The boy was sent sniveling back to the classroom, and I was left to, what, thank the Principal for dealing with my student?

I had quite a bit of trouble sleeping that night. I just didn’t really know what to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel I could say anything to the Principal. After all, he thought he was helping me. Indeed, he probably felt the need to compensate for my disciplinary insufficiency. But I just couldn’t take the chance on his assaulting any more of my students in my stead. So I decided on different tack. The next day, I asked the same student into the hall to talk. He acted like nothing noteworthy had happened. In fact, nothing noteworthy had happened, in his mind; it was just business as usual for a wiseass. So I apologized to him for the beating and I told him there would be no more hitting of my students by anyone if I had any say over it. I told him that this was not the way I worked, and that if he thought it weak of me to admit this, I didn’t care; I did not see any strength in beating children. I told him I thought we still had a problem but that we would have to find some other way of dealing with it: beating was out. He said simply, “yes, sir,” then looked at me for a few seconds and added, “there’s no problem.” We left it at that. I’m dying to know what was going on in his little head, but I never really got a sense. He did stop disrupting class, however.

There’s a lot of pressure to succeed in this winner-takes-all system. If you fail an exam there is no opportunity for retake. If you don’t get into college on your first try, you don’t go to college. Teachers at KV schools are held responsible for the success of their students in exams. If students fail, KV teachers can be transferred to distant schools in the KV network, or even dismissed, although the latter appears to be rare. The hitting is a reflection of this pressure, supplemented by the deep-seated culture value of respect for elders.

Two months later, I had a chance to talk a little about this with the Principal when he recalled the event and observed that I had not been comfortable watching it unfold. I admitted that I had been very uncomfortable and some of this was due to the fact that such a behavior on my part would likely have led to my dismissal from teaching, the loss of my license, and even criminal and civil proceedings against me. His response was a wobble of the head and “I knew it made you uncomfortable. It’s different here.” I don’t think I needed to point out to him that the difference didn’t stretch so far as the legality of corporal punishment; “brutality” against students has been outlawed since 2000.

But this didn’t stop the Principal from entering my classroom two weeks before the end of the term and lashing out against another frequent transgressor with 5 or 6 openhanded blows. The fact that he then turned on another innocent student whose offense could only have been proximity, or perhaps staring a bit too intently at the assault, and smacking him once very hard on the rear. In fact, the Principal made a bit of an issue of it at my farewell assembly, where he spoke on my work with the students, but also explicitly justified his form of corporal punishment as a means of teaching the students discipline because they needed to learn that the US was so successful because the students there had much better discipline. So runs the world away…