Our educational institutions are fraying.
Rape jokes, sexual harassment and the ‘racification’ of sports are just the tip of the iceberg.
Against this backdrop, thousands rallied through a petition to rescue an old school from sinking into oblivion.
Those who forwarded the petition to save Convent Bukit Nanas probably felt that it was the only thing they could do in an increasingly uncertain environment. Perhaps this old school was just a metaphor to express a desire for the return of our old educational institutions.
In one letter to the director of education of the federal territories that went viral on WhatsApp, a parent had this to say about a government school in which he had planned to enrol his daughter: “I didn’t like the atmosphere of the school, the toilet floor was wet and smelled, the canteen smelled like stale cooking oil and the teachers just grazing by me seemed unfriendly and aloof without greeting.”
As a visitor, he had made an assessment of the ethos of that school. If he had felt this way with just one visit, how then would it have affected the students of this school? What poor standards would they be taking home with them?
Teachers and school administrators need to understand that it takes more than classrooms, textbooks, force, threats and the fear of God and the devil to mould a child.
Good educators know that lessons can linger even in the atmosphere of a school. They are in the corridors, in the smiles and greetings, in school canteens and in the sports fields.
So, I wonder what lessons students are learning when teachers make jokes about rape or when they make body checks that almost border on sexual harassment or when they publish a sports selection guide that uses race as a criterion.
What were these teachers thinking? But the more pertinent question is what are they really teaching? Sexual violence? Disrespect? Racism?
At the start of the month, a school was reported to have closed its canteen for Ramadan. The rationale was that that it would help to teach non-Muslim students to respect those who are fasting.
Respect is indeed a valuable lesson to be taught. Yet, shutting the canteen when there were non-fasting students and hiding them behind canteens is certainly not a respectful act, no matter how they spin it. To me it borders on despicable.
This is not how we should treat students who are different. Such decisions can leave lessons in bitterness that can reach far into the future.
Respecting one group does not mean that we have to disrespect another. Schools do not have to resort to this. With creativity and ingenuity, schools can accommodate both – the non-Muslims’ right to buy food at their school canteens and the Muslims’ right to fast.
I have often wondered why schools gather fasting students in canteens. Why not engage them in a variety of enriching fun-filled activities related to Ramadan in other parts of the school, such as classrooms, walkways, halls or even corridors? Why aren’t our schools seizing on these opportunities to teach?
Many years ago, my daughter took part in an English language camp. That evening she was given a meal with beef in it. Having no other option and being a Hindu, she declined to eat it.
However, my daughter, being who she was, wrote about her dissatisfaction in her journal essay. She spoke about fairness and the need for more consideration. She suggested that the organisers could have a more inclusive diet for future camps.
It was not taken kindly by the panel and she was penalised for her ‘negative’ attitude. She had to drop out of the running.
I accepted the decision, but being an educator myself, I later asked the district education officer in charge of the camp, some pertinent questions.
I asked him if the judges were teaching my daughter to silently endure her situation with passive acceptance? I also wanted to know if courage and outspokenness were discouraged at the camp. If so, the participation guidelines should have stated this. Finally, I asked him if the judges were also perpetuating a culture of intolerance to constructive criticism.
Over the years, and especially in the last few weeks, I have become jaded by incidents such as these. I began to wonder if there is any real will for our educational institutions to move away from this increasingly narrow minded, paternalistic and lackadaisical culture.
I don’t think I was the only one, judging by the thousands who went out on a limb to save Convent Bukit Nanas. Were we wishing for the past to save the future? Were we desperately holding on to a fading idea of how the old schools used to teach?
And then, suddenly out of the blue, Ain Huniza Saiful Nizam happened! She spoke up against her teacher and she made me have hope again. Even as she was being verbally attacked and body shamed, even when she was threatened with rape, she was still speaking out.
She had the spirit of the old school. She is an inspiration despite her teachers and her classmates. She is not a follower or a victim of disrespectful or unfair cultural expectations. She is extraordinary and we need more Ain Hunizas.
If we have more Ain Hunizas, then we can have more who will dare to speak up and question when things are not right. She has given us a sliver of hope that our schools will change; that our teachers will think out of the box, that they will challenge the obvious.
Most of all, I hope they will learn to leave their biases behind … because biases have a way of standing in the way of growing up right.
Sukeshini Nair was a teacher in government schools for over three decades before becoming principal of a secondary school until her retirement