My experience of school, as I remember it, was quite conflicted. As a child I lacked the vocabulary to describe my experience and perhaps enjoyed school life to an extent. But as I reflect on my experiences now, the everyday violence that is inflicted by teachers and students in the garb of the greater good is overwhelming. I was brought up in a liberal familial environment where I was given the freedom to make my own choices, to express my sexuality openly at a young age, to rebel against what I felt was right or wrong. In comparison to this, school was a highly restrictive environment which forced me to ‘grow’ only in one direction, expected me to be obedient and compliant and found it appropriate to control my sexuality and my choices.
I began dating when I was 12 years old. As my parents have been very open about expressing their love and sexuality, my home environment was conducive to exploring the possibilities of love and lust. At home, I was never taught to subscribe to various regimes in order to tame my body. My father knew and would be sensitive to my menstruation cycles – it wasn’t a thing to be hidden. I was struck with surprise when I found that my cousin was ashamed to even mention the word ‘period’ in front of her father. I remember roaming around half-naked at home, even as a young teenager, not finding it odd that the bhaiya who would come to collect the garbage every morning would look at me strangely (not lustfully). There was nothing brazen about that act for me, it was completely normal. I remember that it was a friend in the neighbourhood where I lived who had ‘taught’ me how to sit in a skirt with legs crossed ‘properly’. When the same friend taught me that I ‘ought’ to sit up straight in front of my father and other men, instead of lying down on the bed, I realised that the behaviours that came ‘naturally’ to me were seen as brazen and shameful by her. It’s not that my parents shied away from talking about sexuality, it’s just that I wasn’t taught, like most other people are, that sexuality and pleasure are ‘dangerous’.
In school, I faced a similar situation. I would be told to pull down my skirt, dress appropriately, sit properly and so on, by peers and teachers alike. I remember the countless dance practices in which I was told to wear tights under my skirt just because boys would be looking intentionally at our legs. I remember being told to wear white bras, to be careful about the gaps in the shirt between the buttons, to beware of getting wet in the rain because my clothes would become transparent and stick to my body. Perhaps what made all these experiences stressful for me was the fact that I was unable to articulate why I shouldn’t have to do all of that- why it is really the boys who shouldn’t be staring and that it is not the girl’s responsibility to hide her body in bizarre and tedious ways. But schools don’t really teach us that, do they? They simply reinforce gendered norms and behaviours.
I remember the countless stories of couples being caught while making out in schools. I remember them being penalised by either the boy or the girl being transferred to a different branch of the same school. Their parents would be informed and would participate in this absurd activity. It was nothing short of a spectacle, a constant reassertion of power, the best example of which was the annual raid on Valentine’s Day wherein couples who would get gifts for each other would be punished. I shudder to think that this witch-hunt was undertaken by none other than our school principal in collaboration with various school teachers and parents. It was ironic that the other more aggressive behaviour among students did not receive the same treatment- being in love was by far the most subversive behaviour that one could engage in, and to the policing adults, the most dangerous.
The message was clear – sexuality is something for adults, for after school. It’s also interesting that in Indian cinema, unlike Hollywood which is full of high-school romances, the concept of after-school, college love-stories is popular barring a few exceptions. It is almost as if we want to collectively silence love and sexuality as an adolescent or childhood experience.
I remember the first time I was called down to the principal’s office. I had been dating this boy for almost two years at that time. He belonged to a conservative family so his parents were against the relationship. His silence starkly contrasted my defiance. I remember bursting with anger when I was told that I was too young to be in love, that schools are spaces in which one should focus on work and building a future instead of ‘wasting precious time’ on love. I remember trying to explain to the principal that work and love are not necessarily contradictory, but I was silenced. She showed me that little girls must only be seen and not heard. I did what I thought was best, told her that I would bring my parents the next day and continue that conversation, fully aware that my parents would support me.
I remember that I tearfully recounted that story to my mother. I did not cry because I was ashamed or apologetic, I cried because I was furious. It was unbelievable to think that something so youthful, simple and peaceful as love could be thwarted with such power and arrogance. My principal put on a mask of benevolence once she realised that my mother was supporting my decision to explore my sexuality. She told us that there had been complaints against me for roaming the corridors between classes and that we were failing to concentrate on our studies. It is hilarious to think that my biggest crime was loitering and loving. In response to this, I called my class teacher and to my surprise, she was supportive and told the principal that my academic performance was up to the mark. The principal had little to say in response and I had my moment of victory. But was that enough? I find myself wondering why I had to play the academic card and demonstrate that I had tamed my sexuality. I had to show compliance to the work ethic and prove that I’m ‘managing’ love in a way that it isn’t threatening my academic performance. In that way, I think that the victory was hers- she succeeded in constructing sexuality that was considered age-inappropriate and not aiming at reproduction as something that was purposeless. She added for good measure that these relationships don’t last. And she was right. But does that make them bereft of value?
As I look back, I realise that my anger has melted into dismay. These restrictions did not prevent me or the others from finding secret corners in the school premises in which to experiment, explore and play. It is the secrecy which arises from the association of sexuality with danger or moral bankruptcy that bothers me. In another – quiet amusing – incident, a senior and ‘well-wisher’, asked me to stop making out in the school bus in full public view. And why? Simply because it threatened the reputation of the school. If a school which claims to be liberal and secular succumbs to notions of honour and sexuality, then how is it any different from the model of the patriarchal family? I continued at that point, not convinced that there was anything so ghastly about what I was doing that I should render it invisible. The moment that I make sexuality a secret, I also make myself vulnerable to shame, guilt and silence around experiences of sexual violence.
It is the fact that an educated, privileged woman like her couldn’t see that we, as adolescents, as people with rights over our own bodies, should be allowed to take risks, which disturbs me the most today. If the woman, who claimed that education was not simply about getting good marks, but also about the extra-curricular activities and social work, could not see what she was doing; then the rest of the world truly scares me. From where I stand, I see that while sex and sexuality were construed as ‘bad, private things’; aggression and bullying were relatively tolerable. Yes teachers, no matter what you say, it is bullying to constantly nag female students to dress in certain ways. It is horrific to participate in the notion that ‘difference’ can be made fun of (think homosexuality, people who don’t associate with ‘their’ gender or perform gender-appropriate behaviour). Is that the education that you wish to give us? Do you not see that instead of mass-producing obedient and over-achieving adolescents, schools can teach a lot more by being a safe space which allow children to take risks and experiment with their sexuality rather than marking sexuality as dangerous and haging to be controlled and regulated?
I’d personally prefer to be neither safe nor sorry. Not only do I refuse to produce ‘safety’ in myriad ways by negating my sexual experiences, I also refuse to succumb to the guilt that I must feel when I’m publicly shamed. A school might need to protect children from a billion things, but love is not one of them.