“Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally.” –Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would like to propose that this right is universal, and supersedes all cultural values.
I studied Hindi in grad school and wanted to continue my pursuit of thelanguage by living in India. My girlfriend at the time, Sara, came with me. She was only 22, emotional, but compassionate and honest. After months of struggling to find work, a retired Doctor who directed a boarding school
agreed to hire us on the condition that we pretend to be married.
I’ve known Sara since she was sixteen, so it was not hard for us to behave like a married couple. The school was in a remote village in the Himalayas. We moved into a room below the girls’ dormitory and started teaching English and communication to the students and staff.
Being the only foreigners in the school, village, and possibly the entire municipal district, it was not hard to make friends. We were a rare commodity, and hence extremely popular. Sara taught dance to the girls during their free time. I started coaching boys’ basketball. We played, ate, and lived in the school seven days a week. We became close with our students and fellow staff members.
The school marketed itself as being very progressive and positive. They had a policy that no teacher should lay their hands on a student. This appealed to Sara and I, being liberally-minded Californians. However, before long it came to our attention that corporal punishment was being used regularly. This didn’t shock me because I have been told to expect such things in Indian schools.
At first I ignored it and chalked it up to a cultural difference. After all, most the southern half of the US still permits corporal punishment, so I thought maybe my discomfort arose from my own preconceptions stemming from my own cultural background as a bleedingheart liberal.
One evening the Doctor, knowing of my background as a counselor for a mental health program, asked if I could provide help to students involved with social conflicts at the school. One upperclassman in particular was having power struggles with peers and staff members. Apparently he was once regarded as something of a student leader who had recently “out grown his
shoes.” I agreed to look into the matter. The next day I looked out of my dorm window and was a bit taken aback by what I saw across the campus. The Doctor was heavily beating the very student he had asked me to counsel. It made me wonder who exactly was in need of counselling. Essentially I had been asked by the abuser in an abusive relationship to fix things by counselling the victim.
As the months past, it become evident that the physical abuse was far worse than what
we had originally thought. One day a teacher had hit an entire classroom of nine-year-olds for
performing poorly on a test (clearly his shortcoming, not theirs). One student had marks on his
cheek. Another student allegedly had his head slammed into the desk, another slammed against the wall with the teachers hand around her throat. The students came to us asking for help. They trusted us and felt that their voices would be heard better with us acting as advocates. I had a very good rapport with the school director, so I went to his living quarters to discuss the matter. He assured me that the teacher was acting on his own and not within the school policy. He said the teacher was already being reprimanded. He looked me in the eye and said that he would not allow abuse in his school. As he spoke to me, I couldn’t help but think of the time I watched him from afar repeatedly hitting a student in the head. I guess he didn’t realize anyone was watching, an easy mistake to make considering he was most likely drunk.
Sara and I continued occasionally submitting complaints about the abuse. We continued
getting the same hypocritical response. The administration’s response was pure denial and
business as usual. We were even being used as a fundamental element of their lie. They boasted to
their potential enrolees the progressive policy of the school and pointed to us, their American
teachers, as evidence of their forward way of thinking. And once the student was enrolled, the
non-refundable tuition paid, and the parents back on the train to Delhi…. all that fluff about peace
and progressive education went out door and was replaced with the slap of a stick across the knuckles.
Most the parents had no idea. Sara and I tried to leave on multiple occasions. Each time the school
begged us to stay, offering us more money, a bigger TV, and even less work. We didn’t care about
anything they had to offer us. It was the students that kept us there. Particularly Sara’s bond with
the students kept us from going. She had become a very important and powerful woman in the eyes
of the girl students. The school was very patriarchal and she had become their voice. She even got the
principal to allow the girls to use the basketball court, which infuriated some of the boys. She felt
that if she left, nobody would stick-up for the girls.
One night while eating dinner in the girl’s mess hall, the principal walked in, visibly upset about
something. He started yelling at the girls. Sara stood up and told him to leave. He must have been shocked. The next day he held a meeting with Sara and me in his office. He told me about the event the night before and told me that I had to do a better job of controlling my wife. He did not realize the consequences of saying this in front of Sara. She became furious. He looked to me for help. “See how she is treating me!
Yelling at me.”
To which Sara responded, “I’m not yelling.” And then, with shattering force heard throughout the campus, “NOW I AM YELLING!”
I turned to leave. The principle begged me to stay, no quicker than Sara said, “Eli, get the fuck out of
here.” I wasn’t going to argue. She was a dragon, and the principle had earned the heat that was about to come his way.
I sat outside with a colleague and listened to Sara’s reprimand echo throughout the campus,
calling out the principal on all of his hypocrisy and abuse. He could not make his usual denials
in the face of such outrage. He even succumbed to admit, “Okay, so we beat the children,
but what are weto do, they are naughty.”
Sara and I returned to our room and packed our bags.
Later that evening, I was summoned by a staff member to come alone to the
principal’s office. The principal was at his desk with a several senior staff members behind
him. I would later find out that those staff members were told to stand there and had no
idea what was happening. Before the principal could ask me to leave, I told him our bags
were packed. He placed a large pile of rupees on the table in front of me and told me to be
gone first thing in the morning. I didn’t make a single budge towards the money. I told
him to give it to the security guards and kitchen staff.
That night I experienced a turbulent array of emotions regarding the events, searching for an appropriate way to feel. A couple of foreigners, a woman for that matter, had crossed the line and criticized the principal. This went against countless cultural customs. It felt wrong. The lies and the abuse needed to be stopped, but not by us. It did not feel like our place to enforce morals, morals that we brought with us from our culture, morals that might not be of relevance to the local culture. Did we upset the entire school more than we helped it?
Early the next morning we headed out.
We passed by the schoolhouse on the way to the gate. We stopped to say goodbye to a few students
outside their classrooms. Before long we were drowning in a sea of hugs and tearful goodbyes.
Students left their classes. Teachers left too. The principal stood in his office and watched, steaming.
The P.E. teacher, a young smiling man who had recently been encouraged to use a stick to enforce
discipline, was sent to me by the principal to tell me that we must leave immediately. I considered
him to be a friend of mine. I said to him, “The principal is not my boss, but I will leave as soon as I
am done saying goodbye.” I continued to say goodbye. Moments later the P.E. teacher
approached me again and said nervously, “You are right he is not your boss, he cannot tell
you what to do. The students are sad that you are leaving. And….” He appeared emotional; his
lip quivered “even I am very sad.” We hugged… in plain sight of the principal.
A friend who worked in the office helped us get on our way to Delhi. We stopped for chai before
leaving town. He praised Sara for what she did, and assured us that we had done what many other
people in the school wanted to do. The experiences of that day helped quell many of the doubts
I had the night before. The abuse and the lies weren’t part of the Indian culture. They were just
things that helped a few men in the school retain power and make money.
We had offended a few people, but the people of the culture appreciated what had been done. As outsiders, we were able to make a stance, not because we were courageous or morally superior, but because we could do it without any real consequences to ourselves. Had one of the Indian teachers complained about the system, they would have lost their job, which could have led to serious hardships. For us, all it meant was we had to return to our comfortable lives in California.
In hindsight, I realize there could have been a more effective way to deal with the problems we faced.
We could have contacted the parents or maybe just tried harder to work cooperatively with the
administrators, encouraging them to practice what they preached. I don’t know if we really
changed things or not. I do know however that I walked away with a miserable, yet priceless \
experience. Sara and I are still in contact with some of the students. We even went to meet their
families after we left the school. I have friends for life from my time at the school. In some
strange way, being part of a conflict actually helped me integrate in the culture.
It was not the easiest event that has helped me connect with a culture,
but it was an effective lesson nonetheless.