I was recently invited to speak with students from my high school. I offered lessons that were small but important acts of defiance. One of them could stir a revolution.
My senior-year school uniform was 49 shades of grey. Because 50 shades was banned.
A trip back home is a walk down memory lane: the kitchen where mother introduced me to the aroma of garlic, the mosque where solemn prayers were followed by loud cricket matches, the stationary shop that became a frequent stop-over for school supplies—a shop that's slowly downsized over the five years.
(It's also a repository of cliches like "walking down memory lane." I wish I'd become a better writer.)
The past few months I've spent in Dubai have brought me home, and in many ways have brought me closer to my high school. Not through a visit as much as through nostalgia. My high school is a sentimental reminder of what was once there. It would be a trite to call it home, but it was a place of refuge: an intellectual and at times emotional one.
My high school is a reminder of what was once there, and also a reminder of what I've become.
My high school playground, a spot that was recently defiled when a former student used the space to proposed to his girlfriend to marry him. They both dated in school but were never caught or disciplined. That never stood right with me.
Recently one of my high school teachers, who like several others outsized the role of an educator and became a mentor in life, asked me to speak with 5th to 8th grade students. They were conducting a week of "Skills Enhancement Program" and each week they'd invite someone from the alumni community to reflect on their time at school and talk about their journeys beyond graduation: skills and philosophies that have made them successful today. In my case, marginally successful.
The only skill I've really mastered is to scream yes! at any opportunity … and then asking for details later.
I'd have an hour to talk to students from behind a screen. I was assured I won't see how many doze in the middle of my talk. I was also reminded that since they're attending classes at home, their parents may listen out of one ear. This was an idea that filled me with excitement as much as pure dread. If I thought of the percentage of things I wouldn't want a parent to hear from me, it would rest somewhere closer to a 100.
Ms. Sonia Kohli taught English when I was in school. She's now a Supervisor and risked it all by inviting me to speak with her students.
If you're Indian, teenage can be a phase when your parents want to know where you see yourself at the age of 30. So this felt like a tremendous opportunity. An opportunity to, in a very small way, influence minds in the most critical, the most obnoxious and and one of the more confusing phases of their lives.
And also an opportunity to play the role of a revisionist: to remind that teamwork is above grades, that STEM students haven't been hand-picked to save the world, that we make sense of our society because of students who end up with bad rep in high school: those who pursue liberal arts.
And, maybe more importantly, to remind them that while teachers are important, we must be careful of how much control and power we cede to them in dictating how we view ourselves. This part had come after a serendipitous conversation with two high school friends. In a telling moment, I was made to realize how our experiences at high school were poles apart.
While I felt my mind was largely nurtured and allowed to grow, my friends—accomplished women in and outside school—were stifled. I spoke in prose about my memories from high school, theirs were soured by teachers who wielded too much power over their sense of self-worth and made them uncomfortable.
I presented these messages as lessons I'd pass on to myself in high school. But in reality, they were small acts of defiance. Some of them, like stressing the importance of Liberal Arts, could be confused for stirring a revolution in Indian middle-class households.
So for anyone reading this, here are five things I'd tell my 5th grade self in the Indian High School (IHS).
If you're in high school, I hope this is of some use to you. If you're an adult like me, I … just hope you have a job and not crushed under an unfair economic system.
You follow a crowd when you're lost at a pilgrimage, not in high school. But in high school individuality is seldom rewarded, and sticking to ideas that are popular with a crowd becomes an easy and understandable routine.
This may bode well with most teachers and friends, but it starts paying less and less dividends beyond school. Life's all about being respectful towards unanimous consensus, all the while trying to be and do something different. At least a little different.
I gave the students an example of how I broke away from groupthink to attempt an essay in an English exam. And that one step away from conventional wisdom likely changed my life - for the better. (But that story for another day and another post.)
Of course, they collaborate and don't work in silos. But here's a little shocker about my high school that may explain why I went a bit simplistic but militant with my message: the stream of Liberal Arts is closed off to boys. Only girls are allowed to pursue it, and that choice too is laden with stigma. It's common to assume that students with low grades are often pushed into picking Liberal Arts.
Someone tell me if that's changed since my time at school and I'd be eager to issue a retraction.
Whether that was English, Hindi, or a version of Arabic that I couldn't really use anywhere. The passion of my language teachers ignited my own, and set off some of the choices I made in life and career.
In a culture where one may think that language doesn't yield immediate results—like a job or a scholarship to university—it could help someone tell the story of their life.
It can be isolating for someone who doesn't perform well in high school. But thankfully life doesn't follow protocols set by a school curriculum. In life, and especially at work, you win if your team wins.
An individual wins respect when they help lift the game of others, even if they're at the top of theirs. In most modern workplaces, and especially virtual ones, a worker who looks out for the team and is empathetic towards their co-workers is arguably more cherished than someone who smashes it for the company's bottomline.
Teachers are grossly underpaid—for the work, emotional labour, the exam sheets they take back home...and all of this may be at the cost of looking after their own whimsical adolescents. And the respect that students afford to them can only go so far in bridging that gulf. But with great power comes…
Teachers who abuse their power—whether it's obvious or subtle—should be reined in. It's this sustained psychological pressure at the hands of educators that led my friends to remember school differently than I did. For them, a sequence of forgettable days shadowed the memories worth treasuring.
When you've outgrown high school and become an adult, it's only memories you can hold on to.
And wouldn't it be amazing to hold on to fond memories, and make high school so special you return to it to propose to your girl friend? (The answer is "no.")
Note: I was unable to find any pictures of me from the fifth grade. I don't think cameras were a thing back then.