For those of us who work with children – teachers in schools, college administrators – and those who labour from the home front – parents – this is a familiar time of year. The long delayed school-leaving exams are likely to consume most of the summer, there is debate around the implementation of new educational policies for the next academic term, and ambiguity about new and old centralised competitive college entrance tests.

What happens to a child’s well-being when an elephantine educational system organises itself around its immense weight merely to sort young people into those who qualify and those who don’t, employing mechanical tools of fear, competition, and elimination? Even as schools and universities grapple with these questions, national discourse continues to rage around questions of division, hate and discord, while a general sense of hand-wringing around the lack of institutional and individual will to work together hangs in the air.

As I see it, schools and society inform each other in equal measure. When schools limit and equate themselves to just academic achievement, our dream of building a just, equitable and humane society will stay just that, a fanciful vision. And so, in many ways, asking “What kind of schools do we want for our children?” is synonymous with the question “What kind of society will we be tomorrow?”

My relationship with memory has been a rather strange and inexplicable one.

There are stray episodes from the distant past, somewhat insignificant and of an everyday nature, which stick out with a startling level of sensory detail. In direct contrast with these, there are more recent and what one would consider critical moments in one’s life, of which I have embarrassingly little residual memory. What the mind chooses to cling on to and not let go of, and what it considers as dead-weight and dispensable, and why, has been a mystery to me, eluding any convincing analysis.

In writing this chapter, as I jog my memory for recollections of my several brushes with fear, there are faded contours of predictable moments – to do with exams, stage-fright, seemingly unmeetable work deadlines, losing a loved one – all of which I struggle to summon into sharp focus. But what comes hurrying back, charged with such vivid clarity that it takes me by surprise, is an incident from my early childhood.

I was six years old, and a student at what is now more than a 100-year-old school in Chennai run by the Diocese of Madras, Church of South India. It was the end of the school day – the final bell had rung, the class had been dismissed, and all of us children were at a loose tether. Our mothers were of course waiting at the school gates to pick us up, but not before a few precious minutes of “free play” outside of the confines of the classroom.

There was a full-grown Frangipani tree housed in a large railed enclosure with a soil bed, in the centre of what was otherwise a largely tarred expanse of school. The low-hanging, inviting branches, broad and bright green leaves, and the heady fragrance of the flowers added to the tree’s allure as my friends and I gaily horsed around the island of green.

I don’t remember how it exactly happened, whether we were playing a game of tag, if a friend threw a cheeky challenge at me, or I just felt impelled to climb the tree of my own accord, but all of a sudden I found myself hoisting my little body onto one of the branches and making my way up the tree. I found a comfortable branch soon and wrapped my legs securely on either side of it. As I closed my eyes and prepared to settle into my newly-found world of joy and security, I heard a loud and aggressive shout and looked down to see my friends gathering up their bags and scampering away in haste.

Things happened in a blur from then on. A khaki uniform-clad office peon appeared under the tree, roared at me for daring to climb it, extended his hand out and roughly pulled me down.

He demanded to know what my name was, what I was doing on the tree, and even as I attempted to answer him through tear-filled sobs, he caught hold of my fist and hustled me to the Principal’s office as other students watched in shock. He put me down on a chair outside the room and went in to report my sinful act.

He came out in a minute, asked me for my name again and whether someone was waiting for me at the school gate. I gathered that the Principal had refused to see me without a parent and the peon had been asked to go fetch my mother. I sat alone on that chair for a few minutes, my breathing punctured by heaving sobs, as I waited fearfully for what seemed like an interminable stretch of time until the peon returned with my mother in tow. All she had been told by the peon was that the Principal wanted to immediately meet her about me and that explained the half-puzzled, half-anxious look on her face.

The two of us were summoned into the room and asked to sit down. I distinctly recollect the Principal opening the conversation by asking my mother, “Do you know what your son has done?” She then went on to reveal my truant behaviour to her. She made my mother commit to her that I would be spoken to firmly at home and that I would never repeat this act in school. A meek and defeated apology from me followed and we were let off with a warning. My mother and I walked silently out into the bright sunshine.

I don’t seem to remember the Principal referring to any concern for my physical safety during the brief conversation, or in fact offering any other reason as to why my act of climbing a tree was unacceptable. What I do remember however, as I walked back home that day, was that suddenly, the world felt like a very large place. The yellow raftered ceiling of the Principal’s room felt dizzyingly high, the walls of the school compound seemed to tower over me, the road back home appeared achingly long, and worst of all, I felt utterly small and powerless.

The unhappy truth is that many of the Indian readers of this book who are now either parents or educators would have experienced some variation of this “shock and awe” treatment in their own school years. Some are likely to have been ‘punished’ physically as well.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, commonly referred to as the RTE Act, passed in 2009, has statutorily paved the way for rooting out corporal punishment from the education system, and that has made schools slightly more benign places.

But in most other ways, schools continue to be establishments which exist to robustly inculcate obedience in children towards older people, and to make them abide unquestioningly by a set of rules. If we want our schools to be spaces where children do not feel frequently wronged, hurt, and afraid, much more remains to be done.

In 2011, the editorial group of the Journal of the Krishnamurti Schools conducted a survey on students’ fears across several schools (government, private, urban and rural) in multiple states. The survey comprised four questions:

  • What are the things you are afraid of?
  • Recall one or two situations that have made you worried, nervous or afraid.
  • How did your body and mind feel when you were experiencing a fearful situation?
  • What did you do when you were afraid?

The results of the exercise confirmed much of what parents and teachers already knew. Some fears figured more frequently than others: exams and marks; failure and punishment; meeting expectations of people (teachers, parents and peers); animals (snakes and insects).

Following this, in 2015, the Centre For Learning marked its 25th year by organising a four-day conference, “Worlds of Fear: School Cultures” for more than a hundred teachers drawn from a diverse mix of schools across the country. Participating teachers had requested students from their schools to answer these same four questions. Student responses were disturbingly similar to what the Krishnamurti school teachers had noted 5 years ago. Children said they feared: physical hurt (at school and home); public shaming; academic failure; teacher authority and power; non-acceptance by peers.

There was a pattern to these responses. Children in the early years of school spoke mostly of fears of physical harm – from dangerous animals and from strangers.

As they grew older, children developed a dread of failing examinations and getting scolded and punished by their teachers and parents. When still older, on the cusp of school and college, they spoke of fears of letting people down, of being anxious of an uncertain future. A definite movement of fear could be easily discerned: from the concrete and the individual to the amorphous and the relational.

Fear, especially in a learning environment, has numerous pitfalls associated with it. Children who experience fear on a sustained basis find it hard to develop confidence in others or themselves. They come to mistrust their inner convictions and natural abilities. Fear thus leaves in its wake, a persistent and debilitating insecurity. In such a corrosive environment, learning fails to deliver on its potential of being the source of joy, wonder, and emotional well-being that it can and should be, for both the student, and the teacher.

The Krishnamurti schools have addressed the different forms that fear takes in the school context through a supportive school culture, and an imaginative engagement with the curriculum and classroom pedagogy.

Excerpted with permission from “Chapter 7: Examining Fear”, from Classroom With A View: Notes from the Krishnamurti Schools, Ashwin Prabhu, Tara Books.