I was thinking today and had an epiphany.

Now, I’d like to point out that I’m *not* 40 years old. I am not world-weary. I am not famous. Nor am I a particularly good example for anyone, unless you want lessons on how to be a decent writer.

I grew up in an “international” school in Battaramulla. To say that I was happy there would be understating it. Grade Two I spent learning French, acing Dictation, running crazily after my classmates in the P.T. period. Things only grew better as we moved on. I wouldn’t say it was all milk and honey, but overall I grew up as a child should.  My biggest worry in Grade 5 was not the scholarship exam: it was missing Tintin when I got home. I didn’t spend my childhood shuttling back and forth between classes: our teachers were strict but also managed to somehow managed to hammer in a fair bit of education into our heads.

We also had scope. When I was in that school we aspired to be writers, researchers, astronauts, football players, artists, mathematicians.We were constantly shown the world beyond. At almost every turn we were shown a whole wide world beyond that we could reach out and touch. That was our incentive. We were never pressured to get into university: at no point was it implied that, should we fail our exams, all life as we knew it would come to an end. We were given options rather than hurdles and solutions rather than problems.

That was totally us!

That was totally us!

Also, we grew up with girls. Another small thing I’m really glad for, because when the time came to go out, I wasn’t an awkward prick. I didn’t envy guys who already had girlfriends. I didn’t believe money was everything when it came to girls (although I’ll admit it does play a certain role). I could walk up to a girl and engage her in conversation without having to have a gangsiya back me up. But even better: I grew up knowing how to be friends with, and respect the opposite sex, something more important than the books will show.

And then I switched to a local school. Good god, it was horrible. I don’t mean the school was horrible. I mean the entire community I was immersed in, from this school to every other school in Colombo, was horrible. It was petty, narrow-minded, drudgery. From the moment you stepped in you would be thrown a set of retarded values, measured up, found wanting, and cut like meat on a butcher’s block until you fitted that narrow box.  The lowest common denominator of 6000 bored souls was what you were expected to be. Out went any regard for you as a person: all that mattered was that you were a cog in the machine, greased and oiled and waiting to be ordered about. And ordering about was something certain people lived to do.

I grew up knowing right is right and wrong is wrong. Not so. In national schools, the eldest is right. The older they are, the more right they are. Nevermind that stupid people get older, too. Age is always wisdom. New things, new ideas, are frowned upon. At the first sign of change that ancient weapon, tradition, is called into use – and who can argue against tradition? We have always done things this way: therefore, we will always do things this way.

Surprisingly, we were not taught much wisdom. We were taught to be parrots. Memorize this, memorize that: study, study, study, get into university, be a doctor, lawyer, engineer. Any questions like “Sir, why is this equation used? Why not the other?” were put down swiftly. “The syllabus is too long to explain everything,” we were told. “Just memorize and pass your exams.”

Even in literature, where traditionally one is supposed to come up with one’s own conclusions, we were taught that the teacher’s faulty analysis of Thomas Hardy was golden. And that the examiners were the only thing that mattered. Exams were a game, we learned, not a test: the trick is to second-guess the man marking your paper and make him happy.

Don't believe the happy faces. They won't last much longer.

Don’t believe the happy faces. They won’t last much longer.

Needless to say, we never learned much.  We learned instead to spend six hours in noisy, packed classes, wolf down lunch and immediately head off to tuition classes. In these we sat in ridiculous blocs – three hundred girls on one side, three hundred boys on the other, all pretending to pay attention to the whiteboard, from which we would emerge at 7 o’ clock, tired and bored stiff.We were taught that this was essential, that to get into campus you needed this, and getting into campus was the be-all and end-all.  It was a ridiculous waste of money.

But more, it was a waste of time. Our best years were spend not in societies or sports or such outgoing activities, but in cramped classrooms of hundreds of students apiece. Out of these maybe ten, twenty would make it into university, and the rest would turn away, convinced by the system that their lives were now worthless. Those lucky twenty percent who made it through would spend the next year being ragged like degenerates and later would rag freshmen in their turn.

We didn’t learn our subjects. We instead learned to sneer at those who did good and hit big. We learned to make excuses for everything. “Ah, those Royalists….they’re filthy rich, rolling in money, what can we do.”  We learned that school fights were mandatory, not optional. We learned that “gahanawa” could mean anything from one guy slapping another to two hundred people beating somebody to a bloody pulp. We learned that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.We learned to look at a beautiful girl and jeer at her and call her a slut behind her back. Frustration was the essence of who we were. We railed against the system, yet we were the system.

If you schooled in Sri Lanka say you didn’t pick up any of these things, then you didn’t go to the right schools. Hell, some schools made it an annual sport to jump into the girl’s schools, simply because they didn’t have the guts to talk up a girl and take her out of a date.

This is why I don’t ever want my child to go to a national school. No matter how large or prestigious, because they’re all the same. Not that I’ll have children any time soon, but still: the glamour of money and political connections only covers things up so far.  I don’t want my kid to grow up fearing exams more than Darth Vader. I don’t want my son to eye girls and hoot with the fellows and then tie himself in knots when it comes to asking one of them out. I don’t want my daughter to confuse affection for love and waste her life on the first fellow who lobs her a rolled-up letter in class. I want them to to know that there’s a life beyond exams and degrees, and that knowing how to talk to a person or write a letter well will get them further than knowing that Cotx + Tanx = 1.

Silhouette of a girl blowing dandelionI want them to live, laugh and be happy, and spend their childhood at parties and at home watching movies and out with friends instead of stuck in a boring class with a light bulb. I want them to reach out and take the world without hiding behind a dozen insecurities of age, education and a thousand other mythos drummed into their heads by smaller and more insecure minds.

And as much as possible, I want them to learn how to respect everybody and accept them for who they are.

And possibly get laid without having to sign a contract to do it.