Lack of respect leaves the young untouched

21st August 1998 at 01:00
DIASPORIC people - and I am one - are irrepressibly romantic about their past lives; they were always a thousand times more diligent, hard working and ambitious than their children born in the new country.

The past, which some chose and others were forced to leave behind, is always more safe, sound and beatific and gentle. And the word respect crops up with such frequency that sometimes I wonder if our children decide out of sheer revenge to eradicate the word and what it means from their lives. Most are much more brash and, at least in their own judgment, more all-knowing than any of us could ever be - thus proving to their parents that the past was indeed more safe, sound and full of gentle rebukes and abundant respect.

One issue which always raises such quarrels between ourselves and our young is when we are discussing teachers. Almost all the children I know, and that includes my son who is at university now, have almost no respect (as we used to understand the word) for their teachers. They may like a few of the men and women who have helped them along their way, but there never was a relationship which went beyond the functional.

The recent television advertisements featuring successful people naming the most important teacher in their lives might be very difficult to make again in a decade, unless we stop to think about why so many children who have been through the education system have emerged untouched by the people who were fundamental to their lives.

Clever and high-achieving pupils and those who struggled seem to be, at best, indifferent to who taught them. Class sizes have something to do with this - mass production has little room for creativity or the development of relationships. Lack of time and resources, too, must make it difficult and I certainly do not wish to put even more pressure on much-maligned teachers.

Everything from the rigid national curriculum to the tyrannical and narrow-minded precepts of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, have turned teaching into a job - undervalued and stressful -instead of a vocation and, as that brilliant American historian, Henry Adams, wrote at the turn of the century: "Nothing is more tiresome than a superannuated pedagogue."

This cannot be right. I knew a wonderful deputy head of a secondary school who tried to act differently. She knew her pupils and made herself a part of their lives. One, for example, a victim of abuse by his father, found his mother imprisoned for debt and Carol, my friend took him in. I bet he will not forget her. But in the end, it all proved to be so impossibly difficult she took early retirement.

It cannot all be because of resources. I had my secondary education in a school with wooden huts, hot tin roofs and an awful lot of erasers which we used to clean off the notebooks of the previous pupils so we could use them ourselves. Each book had to be used five times - the teacher made this more bearable by explaining how the ghosts of knowledge build up.

This was in Uganda where I was born - where teachers were demi-gods. Not all deserved our worship; certainly not Mrs Bose, who was always on the lookout for moral slippage which included ensuring that our oily plaits did not rest near our bras in case the greasy patches revealed the undergarment; or the head Mr Rawel whose cruelty is still discussed, even on the Internet. But even he, when I did exceptionally well in my A-levels, gave me a 22 carat gold medal paid for from his own meagre salary.

Recently I met my primary school friends after 35 years. We talked only of our teachers, many of whom keep in touch assidiously. When I wrote about them in my autobiography, No Place Like Home, even when I was being wicked and laughing at them, many got in touch and said how proud they were. Mr Kavi, my history teacher, who was so poor that he carried his shoes to school, sent a message.

Mr Bagchi, one half of a dangerously exciting couple who drenched us in Shakespeare and lived out many of the plays in their own lives, wrote a faltering letter from Bangalore. Best of all has been Mr Bhattacharya who said deep things like "We need two projectors, therefore we have none". He reads everything I write, if only to tell me where I am going wrong.

All my friends - even the millionaires - are similarly connected to their teachers. Recently, Sen Gupta, our arts teacher, died. I looked at his picture in my album and wept. My son thought it was the silliest thing he had ever seen. I was feeling the loss for all sorts of reasons which I well understood.

The sad thing is that my son will never know that his inability to understand is his loss and the loss too for all those who taught him and should have made themselves matter to him more than they did.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, writer and broadcaster

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