We stand outside a locked door next to the dining hall of the pre-primary block of our daughter’s school. She is dressed in her shiny new winter uniform, looking a bit like a miniature Delhi police constable. A little ponytail with black clips around it. It has been almost two months since she last agreed to come to school.
We are waiting for Naseem’s nursery class teacher to open this door. I press my ear to the keyhole to listen.
“I can’t hear any rats,” I say. “You listen.”
Naseem puts her ear to the door. “They are very quiet,” she whispers.
A teacher walks by. “Hello,” she says, looking at us with a question mark on her face.
“Do you know if there are rats in this locked room?” I ask her.
“Oh yes,” she says, looking at the child. “Very big rats. When children are bad, we lock them…”
Naseem looks at me. This is what I was talking about, Mamma.
“We don’t want to go to a school that has a room full of rats,” her father interrupts the teacher. “That’s why we are waiting for this door to be opened. We want to see what’s inside.”
“Oh,” she says, scurrying away. “I have to go.”
Naseem’s own class teacher arrives. “This room is full of magic things,” she says.
The door is opened. We walk in. Stage props, animal cut-outs, lights, mikes, a DVD player, the room is indeed full of magic things. I walk around like a TV reporter, picking up things and showing them to my audience. Look, light bulbs in this carton. There’s a giraffe in the corner. Come closer, these are Gandhiji’s three monkeys.
Our small group has just exposed the “rat room lie”, a rather lazy, shoddy way to control and threaten little children. We pretend to admire the innocence of children, but seem to have no qualms trampling on it and exploiting it to suit ourselves.
Last week, I asked Naseem’s elder sister to talk to her about school. Naseem is four years old. Aliza is 7 and a veteran at figuring out the system. Aliza shared that she too had given up on school in nursery class. In the middle of the term, she visited every other school in the neighbourhood with us to survey her choices. We met principals, checked out playgrounds and looked at classrooms in session. Nothing was perfect.
“Then I met my teachers again. They spoke to me very nicely. Besides I was beginning to get bored at home. Mamma and Papa would get busy with their own work. I figured school was more fun than that.”
“I don’t have that problem,” said Naseem. “I have a great time at home all by myself.”
She really does self-school herself. In her own routine, there is time for artwork and writing (sometimes on the walls), for gardening and singing, and often she curls up for a nap after lunch. When she finds a caterpillar, she calls me from my desk to take a photo of it.
Naseem had started school with enthusiasm, but a few months later, she gave it up just as vehemently. We waited for her to come around. We listened to her versions. Her teacher tried to win her back. I resisted my first reaction to take it personally. Also the second urge to blame the school. It’s not about us versus them.
“Tomorrow we will try some loving authority,” I said to Afzal one night. “Yeah, sure,” he said.
Another few weeks passed. She made a drawing of Mamma on the back of her school I-card, so she would have me next to her heart, in her shirt pocket all day. It worked for two days.
“Listen to me, Naseem,” I raised my voice over her crying, “I will never send you anywhere that you don’t want to go.”
What is the right thing to do?
There is no magic key. Whenever a voice says, “No, you can’t do that”, I stop and judge if that’s really true. “It isn’t Orwell’s 1984,” I answer back.I challenge my despair.
After the Rat Room was revealed to be a room full of wonderful animal cut-outs, I had a long chat with the school management. I knew this is one of the most important conversations to initiate.
We’ve made our choices and we have to make them work for us. In our professional lives, we are lawyers, journalists, teachers. We influence the world around us, opening every door in our way. Yet we hesitate before we will borrow skills from our professional self for our personal space. What is the backlash we fear?
When adults lie, I confess to my children that they are lying. We get together and expose the farce of threats. We deal with the rat rooms by opening the locks and rescuing every rat in the vicinity.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.
Write to Natasha at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Natasha’s previous columns