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privacy and peer relationships - a group of students in a classroom
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Issue In Focus: Privacy and Peer Relationships

Welcome to 8th grade in a municipal school in urban Pune, a co-ed classroom with 18 boys and 12 girls, each of them unique in their own right. The most important factor that brings them together as a tightly-knit group is their age-range: 12-14 years. All these students are at the cusp of adolescence, a stormy yet irresistible world full of intense emotion, risk, and novelty. As they move away from parents to their peers for their attachment needs, the first peer group readily available to them is in their class. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegel, these teens perceive their need to belong to their peer group as a matter of life and death, so much so that they can sacrifice morality for membership. In such a high-stakes environment, what should Atisha, Bala, and Fana (names changed) do when their all-consuming need to belong is at conflict with their private sexual choices?

Atisha decides to accept a relationship proposal from Virat in her class. Suddenly, the rebellious adolescents seems to not rebel at all, but follow the age-old patriarchal rules, only now, they recruit themselves to be in charge of upholding the law of the land. Atisha is immediately and unequivocally labelled a slut by her classmates – both boys and girls. Group think ensures that Atisha is alienated. Girls don’t want to be seen as “easy” themselves by supporting her. Boys don’t want to be seen as future husbands with low moral standards by being friendly with her. Pratap even walks up to her and says, “Come to me when he’s done with you.”

This is a community that will use Atisha’s private choices to justify their attack on her human dignity day in and day out with the choicest of synonyms of “slut” under the noses of oblivious teachers.

What must Atisha do?

Bala from the same class is approached by Sailesh, “Will you be my girlfriend?” Her “no” is respected and accepted until two days later when Sailesh’s best friend Ameet asks her out. Her second “no” is met with disbelief, but is still taken. But when Bala rejects Rakesh, best friend to both Sailesh and Ameet, the boys are baffled. Bala didn’t just reject one’s individual manhood. She ended up rejecting the combined manhood of the group. The assault on their ego was so painful for them to bear that they reframed their rejection as Bala’s rejection of all men. They told anyone and everyone they met that Bala is a lesbian and screamed “lesbo” when she entered class every morning while everyone else who watched sniggered.

Bala didn’t want to date Sailesh, Ameet, or Rakesh. What must Bala do?

Fana has decided that she doesn’t want to be part of romantic relationships until she completes school. Boys and girls who have decided to explore relationships already see it as an attack on their choices, although, as far as I know as their class teacher, Fana has never said or done anything to ridicule their choices. They are hurt by her rejection of their way of being, and as revenge, they now call her chhakka (hijra). A bunch of them surround her each morning when she enters the class and clap like a chhakka would at a traffic signal. Others laugh along.

What must Fana do?

In this microcosm of the world where privacy is honoured and respected as long as one’s choices tow the line drawn by the powerful (bullies), what options do Atisha, Bala, and Fana have if they want to defy the rules? All teachers and parents have consistently asked them to cut off from these groups of boys and girls which seems like a reasonable option to my adult brain. Would this option still seem reasonable to an adolescent brain? To cut off is to risk alienation – no friends, no community, no place where they belong, no place that belongs to them.

This world is not very different from the adult world, a world which believes that private realities and choices, such as the size of a woman’s breasts, who one is dating, how long one has been single, whether one wants to have children, when one wants to have children, are all legitimate matters of public discourse. The need to belong is not a need that ends in adolescence either; it is a fundamental human need, next only to physiological and safety needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, and exists for as long as we live.

What does one do when the external forces that scrutinise our private intimacies are the communities we want to belong to?

Privacy means to seclude oneself as well as to keep private information about oneself. However, individuals with mental health conditions are trapped between the conflicting worlds of what is private and what is not because advocating for one’s disability and creating awareness about it requires personal and private information to be disclosed. This puts the individual in a vulnerable spot, often at risk of being alienated from the same group of people that chooses to help them. A woman who shares her romantic relationship and stories in the public domain for the sake of her own mental health awareness has no guarantee of meeting positive mental judgements about her capacity to make choices and emotional judgements wherein her feelings of love and lust are not misread as symptoms of her illness. She is automatically vulnerable to a diagnosis of sexual deviance and disorders, harassment by peers and strangers for ‘being mad’, and a target of sexual alienation all together.

An individual’s need for privacy, to be left alone while yet being included, to be able to enjoy life as an equal being is reflective of the UNCRPD Article 19 – Living independently and being included in the community. When The Red Door (TRD) created its online peer-support group in 2011 it brought together the voices of many individuals with lived experiences of schizophrenia, psychosis and other mental conditions from across the globe. Individuals who have felt alienated by their family and community over decades shared how damaging this state of isolation was and how it contributed to further mental health breakdowns. Adults who were constantly patronised, being told what to do, being considered of ‘unsound’ mind, thought to not be able to make their own choices and to not have the capacity or agency for their own life decisions signalled how alienated they were made to feel – they were treated as an outsider to their own life.

People living with schizophrenia and other high spectrum conditions experience the world on a daily basis very differently than do others. Social support alone is not enough as we have observed in our closed group discussions. Over the last eight years, we have recognised that this was not a need specific only to those with mental health conditions or even physical illnesses but was visibly required by every single person from all walks of lives. It was observed that belongingness and hope are intimately connected as both give the individual the ability to look forward to a future with a positive expectation of it. And this can only be met, when the individual in question is directly involved in their own health and life care plan.

In school as educators, we are in a sense, in charge of these first outside-of-family bonds. These are also high-stakes spaces because it is the easiest to get hurt here, and teens at this age in most schools don’t have the basic education in empathy and sexuality to be nice to each other. This commonality is also visible amongst those who are from privileged groups and study in schools with an expanded curriculum and innovative systems of learning in place. We can rightfully say that the experiences of adults with mental health issues and those of our students in schools are not so different where it concerns support and what that can mean for both groups despite their routine experiences being different.

A teacher and a school are regarded as authorities yet we cannot decide or change the belief of our students. We accepted all three ways of being mentioned at the beginning of this article, that is, exploration as part of growing up, dating other boys outside of class or school, and waiting to finish school. As educators we did not take a moral stand of what is right and what is wrong, and intervened only if someone was getting hurt. Students were given room to explore and test their ways. When they returned after ‘failing’, statements such as “If you had listened to me, this wouldn’t have happened” or “I told you so” were avoided.

The school we are working in already consisted of a group of empathetic adults genuinely trying to help reform bullies. However, as much as we wanted to believe that reform takes time, we were failing to reform bullies and to protect the bullied. Believing in reform meant that the school tried to:

  • treat both the bully and the bullied with respect and dignity.
  • involve parents only as the last option because the school believed (and rightly so) that the students had difficult lives at home. Calling a parent might mean that the child would get beaten up at home. This might mean we are perpetuating the same behaviours we don’t want to see in the child.
  • never expel a student or deliver a harsh consequence no matter how great the ‘crime’.

The school in collaboration with The Red Door shared many common visions and principles. Both recognised that nothing was impossible with these students and that meant that possibilities are also endless. The first year program Stand Tall Against Bullying (STAB) employed different strategies: story-telling through martial arts, drama and role-playing to first build trust amongst teachers and students, and students with each other. The process was complex and hence there was no single method being implemented as each day posed a different challenge we had to deal with.

The key was to empathise with every student as we recognised that as adults we were once teenagers but the reverse is not true. One on one sessions, informal guest talks, sex-gender education was a large part of our teaching process which helped the students understand each others pain and struggles in matters of masturbation and menstruation. There were many instances of false accusations, girls taking advantage of their rights, boys feeling entitled to hurt students and even teachers. TRD club time was introduced once a week as a safe-space for any person (student or teacher) to voice their concerns and express them as they felt, even if this included using foul language. Difficult conversations between students took place and facilitators held the space of the group. There was no moral stand on what is right or wrong, instead what was offered was the freedom to express oneself and not be judged for it during or after. One of the boys then suggested that the girls have their own support group as there were issues they did not want to be concerned about. This led to our girls leading their own support group during lunch break and teachers sat in to only observe or participate if we had an issue. A boys’ support group was initiated a year later after they found inspiration from the girls.

By the second year, the students are better informed about and aware of their emotions, anger issues, and reactions of their own or of others including teachers. They are taught the way of the Peaceful Warrior through various concepts from martial arts and its applicability in their lives. Each student goes through three stages of evaluation to be initiated as a Peaceful Warrior. An initiated warrior gets a badge that represents their warrior code. This student furthers their responsibility as a warrior by helping another student work towards an initiated warrior role. A warrior recognises that power does not lie in forcing others or thinking they know better than the other person. Our students learn to recognise that a true warrior has the power to inspire change, build leadership, and encourage others in finding their own solutions while avoiding causing harm to themselves or others in doing so. They learn to accept another person as a human being and not as a label or title.

Mental health practitioners, families, support groups and communities have ‘authority’ and we consider it essential that they not patronise people with mental health conditions. If students of such young ages can have the agency to work around hard-wired issues of sexuality and privacy, bearing in mind consent, choice and failure as part of life, we see no reason for this sense of agency to not expand one’s sense of belonging and easily create change.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Article written by:

Aishwarya Manjunath is a middle-school English teacher with a penchant for all things gender and mental health since 2012. She is also The Red Door's Peaceful Warrior program advisor. Reshma Valliappan is a consultant and interventionist implementing the Peaceful Warrior program at two community schools in Pune. She is also a visiting lecturer and speaker at colleges and universities within and outside India.

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