“There is a parent-teacher meeting tomorrow.”

The principal looks around and surveys everyone’s reaction. As expected, no one is perturbed.

“Do we need to offer them anything?”

“Let’s just have a water cooler nearby. And let’s keep the meetings short.”

In a short while, all the teachers are back in their classrooms.

“Class, tomorrow there is a parent-teacher meeting. All students will leave early so we can make arrangements. Understood?”

The next day arrives and as the last student leaves, parents begin to enter the school. The teachers, unfortunately, notice that some parents have brought children with them. And one such child is a witness to this interaction. This is what he sees:

My mother holds my hand as we walk towards the school. Her confident posture and purposeful stride is what I have grown to admire.

She talks to mothers around her, giving them advice about how she helps me at home. How she ensures I complete my work and how she pushes my elder brother to support me.

She doesn’t share many other, subtle things. Like how she does extra household chores so I won’t need to. Nor how protective she is about my books and copies.

She makes the other mothers laugh and think — mostly both. A feeling of pride arises and rests comfortably inside me.

But as each mother inches closer to the school building, a sudden hush arrives and blankets all our conversations.

The walk from the school gate to the staff room is a silent and uncomfortable one. My mother’s grip on my hand is tight. As all of us sit facing the teacher, he begins to talk and his voice penetrates the air and fills it up.

I look again at the woman whose hand I’m holding and wonder where my mother has disappeared. This woman has her eyes downcast. She nods and is silent throughout the monologue except for occasional requests and pleas about my education and expression of gratitude for the teacher.

I look back at my teacher. At his unquestioned authority. His ease in dominating the conversation. Dominating people. His nonchalance in dismissing any insights or knowledge that others bring, and his calmness in evading his own accountability.

The pride I had felt some moments ago is replaced by a new respect for my teacher and the power he elicits.

***

“The District Education Officer is coming tomorrow.”

The principal looks around and surveys everyone’s reaction. As expected, she has everyone’s attention.

“He would be visiting the sixth grade classroom. I want all the staff to be on their best behaviour. Students should not be seen roaming around.”

The sixth grade teacher nods. And others also nod for him.

“Who is going to arrange for tea?”

“I can do it.” A science teacher quickly vouches (before anyone else can).

“Okay, make sure the tea set is new, clean and he likes only one spoon of sugar.”

“Sure, Sir”

“Good! All teachers will arrive on time, will have their planning diaries in their hands, and will not sit on their chairs or desks during the class. After visiting the sixth grade, he could drop by in any classroom.”

The principal lets the last seven words settle.

Every one nods.

In a short while, all teachers are back in their classrooms.

Each teacher announces tomorrow’s visitors. The air starts to grow silent and the whole school begins to practice synchronising their heart beats.

The sixth grade teacher has a special duty, though,

“Sixth grade, tomorrow we have an officer coming from the government.”

The word ‘government’ has enough power to dispense any noise that is left.

“He will be here in the fifth period. Afzal, Hammad, and Amir, I want the three of you to sit right at the back. Hassan, Asif and Nauman, you three will sit in the first row.

“And I will give you the questions that will be asked. When I ask the questions, raise your hand, and wait. The rest of you know what you have to do.”

Everyone nods (nodding is the only head movement that is allowed). They know the process.

The next day arrives and as the district official enters the classroom, one sixth grader becomes a witness. This is what he sees:

The whole day has been strange. I feel like I have walked into a different school. My friends who were boys till yesterday have suddenly matured into silent adults.

Our classroom also looks entirely different as the fans and lights are fully functional today. My tie and uniform has been checked at least thrice by different teachers.

Each teacher looks quite funny, almost awkward, with a planning diary in their hand, especially my sixth grade teacher. I almost feel bad for him, but not too much, because my friends and I are busy looking at the door, waiting.

Suddenly, we hear footsteps approaching, and he walks in. We rise and are quickly asked to sit. My teacher continues to teach and pretends that he has not seen him.

For some reason our teacher offers us a smile every now and then. And it’s the first time I notice the two crooked teeth in his lower jaw.

He teaches us a story from our textbook. One that we have read and memorised multiple times. Casually, he approaches a student in the front row, whispers into his ear and tea is brought in a second.

As the lesson is about to come to an end, the government officer speaks, and my teacher rushes towards him. So that his words don’t fall on the floor. Or maybe to ensure his vocal chords are not stressed.

My teacher nods at all his words. Before they are said. During. And especially after. And smiles.

He is silent throughout and when he speaks, his speech is filled with requests and pleas. About lack of school resources. About how our background and our parents are the cause of something.

Our teacher also expresses gratitude in the same vein. For the official’s presence. For his special attention.

I am confused. I look at my teacher and then back at the district official. I see his unquestioned authority. His ease in dominating a conversation. Dominating my teacher. At his nonchalance in dictating to him.

And then I realise that today it is not the textbook story we are learning about. We’re learning a far more important and useful lesson. How to (best) behave with the government.

***

The purpose of the fictional accounts above is to display one medium through which subservience is being perpetuated in our public schools.

One such opportunity arises when children witness their parents’ interactions with public institutions, especially public schools, and learn crucial lessons that shape (constrain) their outlook and expectations.

Children who look up to their parents as resilient, wise, warm and confident individuals are cognitively unsettled by the treatment that is meted out to them in public schools, hospitals and other institutions.

Children gradually internalise the subservient persona of their parents and conceptualise future interactions in a binary way: either be in power or be a subject to it.

Children begin to recognise that as long as they do not attain positions of power, the best approach will naturally embody a healthy mixture of obedience and servitude.

Reaching a position of power, thus, becomes an ideal and an end in itself, and gaining knowledge, and developing insight and expertise slowly become lower-order ideals in the matrix of power.

Also, as Paulo Freire writes in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an admiration sets in for those in power and the characteristics that they exhibit i.e. indifference to differing perspectives, pleasure in eliciting obedience, gratification in the ability to draw fear and ease with which one can evade accountability.

These mind-sets are facilitated by other complementing factors that characterise current Pakistani public schools.

After the flight of middle- and upper-middle income households from the public education sector, the public schools in Pakistan today cater largely to a lower-middle to low-income population, one that has a weaker voice in the system which translates, subsequently, into a feebler accountability mechanism.

Adding to this is the quality of teaching meted out to students where thinking and reasoning skills, which penetrate and question existing systems and how they are perpetuated, are absent either because of what they could lead to or because the teachers themselves lack these dispositions.

Read next: In hopes of providing an education beyond textbooks, I discovered the power of questioning

It would be unfair to lay the blame solely on educational institutions and public school teachers. Our schools only reflect the values that the society holds.

The inequitable growth, declining representation of the low-income strata in policy and in mid- and upper-tier management jobs, their consistently stifled voice, the country's national security narrative and its long-standing requirement for deference, and the subsequent deterioration in the quality of public institutions has impacted society’s values, dispositions and expectations at large.

Schools’ mission has become to produce citizens that can best adapt, acclimatise to and serve the existing systems (and/or the existing ruling elite).

Students who raise questions, evaluate opinions, offer critique, withhold conclusions and challenge existing interpretations, narratives and systems are missing in numbers and in the unwritten vision and mission of schools.

No wonder the common perception about taking arts in public schools is that it’s a waste of time. Koi future nahi hai.

And even students who take science subjects come out having memorised numerous facts without an understanding of how science connects with the world and lack skills with which they could acquire and construct new knowledge to solve problems.

Students in my experience, however, and those of so many others, continue to resist these attempts.

The curiosity, insight, honesty and courage that each child enters classrooms with is hit upon, constrained and intimidated consistently throughout their schooling, but they manage to retain it or at least a part of it.

Childhood, thus, continues to foster the greatest resistance to our inequitable educational systems. What we need is to accept responsibility of these systems and collectively disrupt and re-design them.


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