This article is one in a two-part series on Teacher’s Day. Click here to read our community responses on “What Makes a Great Teacher?”
On August 16, we heard the news of 21 year old law student Sushant Rohilla committing suicide after being detained from college, and responded with rage and sorrow. Moved, AIB’s Rohan Joshi tweeted about an emotionally tough struggle with a teacher in college. It was brutally honest, and made its way around social media.
What is it about this post that really seemed to resonate with young Indians? A frightening number of comments and shared posts said just one thing: “This happened to me too. Who, when, and how it still haunts me.”
I was one of them.
Early Starts: Being a “Let Down”
Reading old report cards is always fun for me and my family — that is, until we reach around the 6th or 7th grade. See, my primary school teachers loved me. Apparently, I was cheerful, sincere, and obedient — the perfect formula for a “good student”. But as I grew up, I felt less and less inclined to organized syllabus. I didn’t understand the point of learning geography, or geometry, for that instance.
So my teachers reported feeling “let down” — because how dare their A student, by God, be more interested in books, plays, and her friends?
My reports started to fill with their favourite words (that should be banned, IMO) :
“Easily distracted; distracts others”
“Can do so much more, if she just…”
The goal was never to get me interested in the subject again, but just to please, please, have me back in the “good” side of the classroom. Unfortunately for them, I would forever slip away into the dark side.
Then, Discrimination Creeped In
My brother was an equally “bad”, if not “worse” student, and he had it pretty bad too. But one thing that did save him, and so many other boys, was classic sexism.
“Boys will be boys, Ma’am. They’ll play the fool, tease girls, and talk loudly. But you can’t have your daughter going around acting like that!”, they would reply to my father’s only PTA question: “How is my daughter’s progress in class?”
It’s not just gender, either. I know my peers have been shamelessly discriminated against based on religion, caste, even class. A classmate of mine, who was brought up atheist, was physically forced to enter the temple and “pray sincerely”, or face consequences. I frequently got the “your parents are that kind” comment, meaning that they are liberal and open minded, and have brought me up as an equal — a concept frowned upon even in an urban, upper class school.
In college, I felt constantly discriminated against for being the only South Indian (or from anywhere south of UP) : because I looked different, talked different and, well, thought different. When I thought I was psyching myself out, I asked my 70+ year old mentor from Kerala, and she nodded all-knowingly: “They’ve never been accepting of me, and I know it’s because I’m different.”
… Sometimes, With Outright Shaming
As if discriminating wasn’t enough, my teachers would take it a notch higher and slut-shame and body-shame me.
By the 7th grade, I had made a great group of friends, which, to the shock and horror of my teachers, included boys. Now unlike my classmates at the time, I shared quite a healthy relationship with the other gender: I played with, teased, and had crushes on them, of course. More importantly, I had interesting conversations with them (over MSN messenger and Orkut, awww) and developed real, lasting friendships.
To my teachers, this was just fuel for some no-holds-barred judgment.
“You see that girl over there, with her short skirt, talking to boys all the time? Keep your daughter away from her, she’s a bad influence!”, they warned all my friends’ parents.
My father’s favourite PTA story (yes, he has plenty of them) is one where he went in expecting some serious lectures in parenting, only to receive these *shocking* revelations:
“Sir, sorry to say, but I found your daughter reading…. *cue horror movie BGM* romance novels! Dont worry, I took it away immediately. Also, her kurta sleeve is too short, slit is too high, neckline is too low, dupatta doesn’t cover enough and she doesn’t wear a shimmi, Sir.” My poor Pop was left a little speechless. “She can’t walk around all her many boyfriends like that, no?”
How the outline of a camisole is more dignified than that of a bra, I will never, ever understand.
Next: Cramping Your Style
Look, we all know that the Indian education system has no room for creativity and individuality. Rote learning is still the preferred method of delivering syllabus, even for English, History, and other art subjects, for which conceptual learning is key.
Through secondary school, my English teachers were the only ones with a soft corner for me, because I showed promise in the subject. They told me I had a flair for the language (woot!), but then proceeded to warn me: “Drishya, your writing is good, but I can’t give you marks; you keep missing the ‘keywords’, and don’t follow the formats.”
As I started to become an adult and form a world view, I felt inclined to use school and college — as they are intended — to speak out, voice my opinions. I was constantly shut down and called a “loud mouth”, “entitled”, and “loose”. My teachers responded almost with blinding rage every time I would stand my ground, like when I argued for allowing English songs at cultural events. How dare I question her authority? How DARE I speak to her as an equal and not bow down to her?
At college, this became a more complex issue. For being a creative college, they had no idea how to handle someone from a different aesthetic background. When my evening wear design was inspired by the simple south Indian pattu pavadai, they called it “lack lustre” and “overly simple” — they were expecting more “oomph”, more skin, more bling.
There were, obviously, slivers of hope. That one good teacher who’d spend some time trying to understand you, and show you some empathy. But for the most part, a lot of it seems now to be immature ego-play — these teachers are adults, just like I am now, with their share of insecurities, rage issues, and downright unhappiness. The difference is that they bring these issues to work, pawning them off in ways they don’t even know, to unsuspecting children.
And sometimes, they’d do it so simply, so crudely, that a child — heck, even an adult — would find it hard to swallow. In my final year, when I approached my HOD about an attendance/submission issue, he said to me:
“You seem to want to go back home a lot. You asked for an internship in Chennai, and then finished your semester there… what’s the matter, Drishya? If you’re not able to handle the Big City (Delhi), maybe you should just run back home.”
The statement hit me hard; I still break into tears when I think about it sometimes— and not just because he thinks Chennai is some sort of “small town”. Moving far away from home at 17 was a huge struggle for me. Fashion college is a brutal, lonely place, that I somehow managed to survive for four years, grappling with my confidence and sense of self — only to be rewarded with a flippant “go back to where you came from”. He also told me, at a certain jury table, that I wasn’t “fit for the industry; you’ll never survive”.
Just like Joshi, there are many things that led to me abandoning my college degree. But this asshole, and all the others, will remain a huge reason — because for every 364 strong, confident days, there is the one day of PTSD. The shivers, the tears, the breakdown, the giving up. Because, like he puts it, it is emotional abuse.
Sushant Rohilla’s suicide is the effect of a terrible, overlooked kink in the educational system. He is among the thousands of students who feel overburdened by emotional trauma at institutions. If you, like me, feel you have faced abuse, don’t be afraid to speak up — to the authorities, to your friends and family, to a therapist. If you want to write about your story, we’re all ears.