In December 2018, a teenage girl named Aritry Adhikary in Bangladesh ended her life after her parents were insulted by her teachers. Aritry went to a Bengali medium school, Viqarunnisa, and during her exams was found with her cell-phone,— in violation of the rules in school. Her parents were summoned to school the next day where they spoke to the class teacher who informed them Aritry was expelled. Her father narrated the incident and revealed that they all cried and asked for mercy, including his daughter helplessly begging for forgiveness at the principal’s feet. However, the headmaster remained unconvinced. Aritry left this scene earlier, and was found hanging from the ceiling later in the day.
Following this tragic incident, there has been uproar from students and Aritry’s parents have sued the school for instigating her suicide. When I heard this excruciating story, I had many thoughts on my mind and a deepening sadness for a life that shouldn’t have been lost. But I found myself horrifically empathizing with the shame she felt. There were many points in my life where I couldn’t see anything but a bleak future,— a suffocating image imprinted on my mind by punitive pressures exerted from those older than me, whether they were my teachers or family members.
Even though I went to a different school, penal disciplinary methods were largely normalized in educational institutions and in every corner of the social structure. As suicides and tragic incidents continue to happen, it’s not the 66-year old institute and their policies that should be held accountable. There is a larger sociocultural problem that undergirds such devastating events. We must recognize that humiliation and fear-mongering narratives have become intrinsically embedded in schooling and parenting, and we have to come to terms with it.
During my formative years, some teachers were the most caring individuals I’ve ever seen, but others were not. I have seen more teachers bully students than I have seen peers bully each other. I still remember a teacher slapping the most notorious kid when we were in first grade. When insulting a student for poor grades, references were made to family backgrounds. Teachers routinely yelled and we were expected to silently swallow our shame even when the most insulting words words were fired upon us. They were our educators, and in respect to their service, we were expected to obey without question. We were taught to be stoic; in our uniforms; we were somehow expected to be the same human being — robotic, methodical and straight A students. The value of academic success was taught as a matter of life and death, not as a concept that serves our lives and our personal passion.
This sort of policing was not only limited to formal education. Many of us had private tutors, and we attended “coaching centers” for private tuition. When I was fifteen, I joined three of these tutors’ private classes with my peers for chemistry, physics and math. The Physics teacher had a great track record: “All his students get As in the IGCSEs.” Prior to joining his class, I asked parents of other students what was the key to his success? Some forty-year old mothers boastingly informed me: “He is very strict. He hits you with a scale if you score less than 80.”
In reality, it was never this “hitting” that made me study. I stopped going to my math tutor after he hit me with a scale. I stopped going to Chemistry class after the tutor grossly insulted my parents for my absences. I revolted to my Physics teacher for hitting his students, and when he listened to what I had to say, I stayed in his class. I learned nothing from those who belittled me. I learned that I never want to see their hateful faces again — which is a very “normal” reaction. I received good grades by disciplining myself to study at home. I learned when my father sat with me to discuss Demand-Supply curves with current events, and when he handed out excel sheets with a timetable to help me study for my exams. Violence and humiliation can never enforce discipline. It only cooks fear that is never effective in the long run.
But the question is why is this sort of behavior allowed from adults? Why is this considered productive? And why do parents so readily accept it? It is because many parents also believe degradation is key to train children. Most of us, South Asian kids, have been bullied by adults, and beaten up by our parents. In Kindergarten, my teachers complained about my handwriting and short attention span. They scolded me in class, and mother physically abused me for it as though I was on trial for first degree murder. Most of my friends can empathize with such treatment from adults. Fifteen years later, my handwriting is now worse than Kindergarten, and it makes no difference to my academic performance or my life. And I still have a short attention span, except I now know it’s called ADHD. I also learned I can get treated for it and I don’t have to kill myself because I couldn’t concentrate and got a seventy-percent in my fourth grade math exam.
For the longest time, my family members said: “It’s for your own good, you’ll learn when you are a parent.” I can assure you I won’t need to choke my kid to make them eat and study. I can assure that there is zero logic in nurturing my worst impulses. About five years ago, mother apologized and owned up to her mistakes. I don’t resent my mother for what she did because I always understood it was a societal problem and not her personal issue. I even consider myself lucky for my mother’s realizations, because most of my friends’ parents still continue to believe that abuse was the right method. In other words, irrational violence and humiliation is normalized under the fallacious umbrella: “Authority of the elderly.” And the most dangerous element to this pernicious normalization of violence is recycling it intergenerationally. Many friends of mine believe that you need to hit and yell at kids to make them listen, which shows how ingrained this problem is.
The irony of all this is that parents and teachers who adopt destructive techniques actually do it out of love and care. Intimidation and punishment has become standardized as the most effective form of training to the extent that it has become difficult to see the problem with it. It is difficult to look beyond the system and realize that you cannot teach kids to respect others by disrespecting them. And as I write this, a part of me still fears that those older than me will read it and I will be labelled as the delinquent girl, who went to the United States and became too foreign. Yet, all I’m trying to say is don’t bully kids, just don’t, and that shouldn’t be an invalid, ungrateful or belligerent tagline when kids are out there feeling hopeless and ending their lives. Adults need to be vigilant, they need to lighten up and stop nourishing their own anger at the cost of a child’s mental health.