Even us competitive Indian mothers were not very different from the English mothers I grew to know well and love, as my child grew up there. There was love, laughter, madness and support. Parenting problems are the same all over the world—eat healthy, manage play, pick up after yourself share and learn.
Or so I thought, till I realized that this was the middle-class self-selected ghetto that was made of “people like us”. We would do our best to keep our children away from the yobs, the hoodies and the gangs.
It was rough out there on the streets. Young, aggressive, fit and angry groups were out there, hunting for the sake of the hunt, an instinct that would not be denied, nor was it ready to be channelled. It was feral and they worked in packs.
Where were their parents? Where was the stick, the scolding, the cajoling to conform? To be useful, to be good?
The stick, of course, was outlawed, so what could a parent do? Domestic violence often came from these children. The police took on the role of the disciplining parent.
Families were large, with multiple marriages creating a network of parents, not necessarily with any sense of responsibility for the children. And this is what children learnt—that they could move on, without having to stick it out, to solve problems or take responsibility for anything.
At school too, they were appeased. Failing was now referred to as deferred success. The children of “the land of no consequences” could stab a teacher who spoke up. There was no way we middle-class parents were going to send our children to schools with metal detectors that failed to keep out knives.
Failing schools. Failing families. Failing social structures. Failing economies. The youth who never were able to learn how to work hard and cross over to where their effort was valued. Our children in private schools learnt to read and write before they were four. National standards in state schools required them to be able to write their names by the time they were six or seven. Hard-working parents expected and encouraged two to three pieces of homework every evening. State school parents were outraged if homework was given.
The state and its agencies mandated how many minutes of homework could be given. State agencies called truant fathers to pay for child rearing. The state sent its agents into homes to counsel. State agencies kept an eye on parents to watch for child abuse—failing occasionally to do even that. The police were charged with arresting parents whose children were out of school—as if these parents had any control left. Children were taken from uncaring homes to alien homes—fostering became more mainstream.
We of the scared middle, held on tight to our little families, closing their eyes and ears to all that they would see on the streets, in buses, in trains. And the government steadily took on the role of nanny.
A society gone out of control. Respect for people or property never even entered their way of life.
As they stood at the bottom of my street, next to the fish and chip shop, I and my son—like all of our neighbours—crossed the street to avoid passing by them. As I and my son took a bus, I spoke to him continuously, so that he was spared the stream of profanity that passed for conversation. As we took trains, we made sure we did not sit on the seats—midnight entertainment for the yobs was to piss on the upholstered “facilities”.
As the middle-class huddled in fear, I resolved to not live so. Fear comes from ignorance, and I had lived in my elite ghetto for too long.
A teacher I was, and the community college had a business school. I taught some of them. Young ones with knives in class. Poverty-stricken consumerists. Those on day release from prison. Some who shoplifted in the evenings for a dare. More than that, they did not tell me.
These were the dropouts, who never learnt to read and write at school. The ones who came to college were the ones who had decided to find purpose in life. These students were my pride and joy—for all they needed was a mentor. Not a parent, just someone who showed them how to discover their own self worth and their own compass.
But the malaise was deep. My family could not grow up surrounded by such a moral vacuum—I was not a strong enough parent to fight the mass. For an Indian there were only two choices—become part of the non-resident Indian set—where values were held at where they were decades ago. Or come back home. Hoping that the English values of fair play, of taking responsibility, of freedom of thought would stay with us. Fearing that the self-importance, the lack of respect and directionless would infect us. For the children to learn to struggle for success, to receive only what they earn.
Meeta W Sengupta is an education strategist who has lived and taught in England for over<br align=”block”></br> a decade.
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