The learning curve
Reading the story was a real challenge to us. For sure, we did not know how to pronounce most of the words without someone’s guidance. We were not familiar on how the letters would combine to give the specific sound and practice the words pronunciation. We lacked the phonological serenity or other acquired knowledge of language regulations. There were two important aspects: the embarrassment of incompetency on one side and certainty of corporal punishment from the educator on the other. Even though we were quite amateur in decision making, many of the students started talking of not coming to the class on the following day so that we could avoid that uncomfortable class situation. We swore many inappropriate things, mostly of hopelessness but worthy of paying attention. The encouragements would be a healthier approach but sometimes the things askew from the normal curve.
For many of us there was no one to provide the extra help at home. For some, schooling was a rare opportunity or the only lucky person from the family would attend the school while other siblings were barred, snubbed or forbidden from the schooling. I was little blessed as I had elder uncles and aunts who would render me extra support during the need. I practiced the reading for the whole night. I got some scolding from my guardians for overusing the scarce kerosene that night. On the next morning I still struggled to read the story and still required some help for certain vocabularies. I had to spell most words to pronounce. I thought the overnight time was not enough to be able to read a whole story in English. In the morning I pretended as if I had some abdominal dysfunction but my uncle understood my play and took me to the school.
The time didn’t wait and we thought that very next day came too quickly. We prayed or wished for some kind of illness to the teacher but that didn’t happen. The teacher was there. The English period came, the teacher entered our classroom. All the students were nervous. The teacher asked us whether we read the story or not. He too said that whether we tried reading or not. We told him that we tried our best but it was too tough for us. He encouraged us and promised us that he would help us wherever we would be struck. After hearing such kind words we were little bit relieved from the stress. He ordered to start the reading from the last bench at the left corner. So the first person to read on that day was Som Ahley.
Ahley was probably the tallest boy in our class. He used to come from lower Sallayree, near Amphee Khola (river). He had to walk at least three hours to reach the school. He had straight upright hair and some students used to call him a ‘porcupine’ (in Nepali). So it was Ahley’s turn to read first. He stood up, hold his book at his hand and kept standing. He didn’t utter a single word for five minutes and Mr. Nair (teacher) told him to read and say at least a word. He couldn’t read or pronounce a word. The teacher asked him whether he practiced his reading at home. Ahley was honest and told that he didn’t have time to read. He also said that after reaching home he helped his mother in grinding the corn. Mr. Nair once again instructed him to give priority to study and help parents only after finishing the school works. The teacher asked him to practice reading again and he had to read the same story the following day. Once his case was resolved, the other students reading followed. Only the last row did their reading as the time allocated for that period was insufficient for every students to finish the reading. Some read a sentence only, some read two to three sentences and two of the students read a paragraph. Some got light blows on their head, some got ear pulled and luckily my turn did not come on that fateful first day as I used to sit on the first row.
As a time rule, which never waits for anyone, our next day school also began. We were at the English period. The teacher entered to our classroom, looked around and leaned by taking the support of my desk. Then he asked for Ahley to stand and read the story. Like the previous day he (Ahley) stood up and hold his book. He began spelling the first word of the story. He spelled the letters ‘o, n, c, e’ aloud but pronounced it ‘tortoise’. May be he thought that spelling ‘once’ was pronounced as ‘tortoise’. The whole class laughed. He turned pale and bit embarrassed also. The teacher told us to stop laughing and respect him. He couldn’t read further. He kept standing. Then the teacher asked him to spell ‘once’ and say ‘once’. He did it. He kept on spelling other words and the teacher gave the pronunciation and he also repeated the words pronunciation. He finished the first sentence. The teacher asked him to take his seat but told him that he must practice reading. He was asked to be able to read the first sentence without spelling on the next day. We didn’t know how he would do his reading practice and be fluent on the next day. I read the first paragraph on that day but got my pigtail (shika- commonly called as tuppe) pulled up as I didn’t pronounce ‘race’ correctly. Our topknot, the tuppee, was very essential part of the culture those days. We were strictly supervised for keeping our values alive regardless of place and authority.
Now we were at the third day of the lesson, Hare and Tortoise. The teacher asked for Ahley to do his reading. He repeated exactly in same manner as he did on the previous day: he spelled ‘o,n,c,e’ and pronounced as ‘ tortoise’. The teacher got furious which he expressed clearly by the body language but he didn’t utter a word. He left the class and went to his office. Now he came determined: a cane in his hand. The teacher asked him to show his right palm and struck him three times quite severely. While beating, he was cursing him and kept emptying his dissatisfaction. He too said that only the pain of cane would make him (Ahley) competent to read. Whether the fear of punishment would ever make a person perform better in academics or some improved instruction method would support better, we can leave the discussion open. After he finished canning the right palm, he also asked him to show the left fist, then asked to open the palm. He beat him quite hardly once on the left hand. With that strike, poor Ahley broke down and began crying loudly. The loud cry forced the teacher to stop beating him further. Then in a very commanding and threatening voice the teacher told him that if he could not read the first sentence on the next day, the punishment would be doubled. He also said that you already know the taste of cane, and the choice would be his. Ahley kept on weeping for rest of the period while other students were asked to continue reading.
Ahley dropped the school
On the fourth day of the lesson, we did not see Ahley. I do not know whether we became proficient reader, but the teacher stopped the reading session and continued with the comprehension exercises. That was a fatigue week, everyone worked really hard, and we were evaluated on our reading proficiency and rewarded with different degree of punishment. Although the very lesson was over, Ahley stopped coming to school. The week, the month passed and Ahley dropped the school.
We learned our lessons out of fear of getting similar punishment. There were no extra scaffolding of any level that would facilitate learning. We didn’t see extra books or valuable sources like library. Neither students practiced speaking English outside of classroom premises nor heard people’s interaction in English medium. There was no formal interaction with any native speaker.
Even after the British colonial rule ended in India, the region was still influenced by the British life. When someone talks of a white person, they mean British. I had met a British teacher. He was our neighbor’s son-in-law. People used to scare us by saying that white person would kidnap the young children. And our superstitious or illiterate community folk believed that the British people would have tail. One day I encountered that gentleman by himself on the waterspout as we fetched water from same source. Out of innocence I asked him regarding his tail. He knew some basic Nepali words. He understood my question and became too furious as if he would swallow me. I escaped the scene. I never committed the same mistake again. Apart from that, we rarely had the chance to interact with foreigners, especially the native English speakers. So how much could a child learn a second language under such circumstances? Reading needs longer time. No one ever tried to listen and understand the ‘hue and cry’ of students and their problem. Was there an attempt to know either? Students were blamed for not knowing the lessons and they were given all sorts of harassment. Some young children reached to a level of dropping the school. Parents were uneducated and they didn’t understand instructional methods. They rarely differentiate any system practiced in the learning process and would consider the teacher as noble and the sole giver. So all the blame on innocent victim, the poor students. Instead of giving sympathy or help, if we ever happened to complain of any misconduct or other unsatisfactory performances, there was a fear of getting extra punishment from the parents too. Weren’t we the yam between the mighty rocks?
As I grew up to know education better, I am never convinced of Ahley incident. With the fear of punishment he had to quit his education. We were too young to understand the problems but at least the other stakeholders should try to understand the situation. Ahley could have some learning disabilities, but who was there to understand that?