The first school I attended had two boards with very valuable sayings on them displayed right at the entrance. They were placed strategically on each side of the main stairs through which one entered the school building. On the one on the left was written “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The other was on punctuality; I don’t remember the exact saying. It was a sadistic school that punished the kids rather strongly for many reasons. Hitting with a wooden ruler or a cane (if you are that special) was a common practice. One could be punished for not having a uniform in a particular shade of whiteness. The exact whiteness level was never clear until it was too late. I supposed they expected their students to shine literally rather than concentrate on shining light into their minds. It was not a surprise that I didn’t learn much here.
According to the strict dress code (by itself not an evil idea)—girls had to wear white shirts and dark blue box-pleated skirts (later we discovered how unflattering they were to the budding female body) that hang well below the knee and boys had to wear white shirts with dark blue shorts. Pleats on the shorts and the skirts had to be sharp enough to cut through cake. Common to both genders were white canvas shoes (on Mondays and sports days), black patent leather shoes (on other days), a dark blue tie with yellow stripes, and a metal badge in the shape of the school’s logo (on all days). It had to be pinned to the tie and if you were not careful, it could nick you fast and deep.
Invariably the white canvas shoes looked closer in colour to the black and the black ones closer to white. Most school students—like me—travelled by public transport to and fro school, which meant that our uniforms were always a little crumpled, our shoes a little stepped on, our shirts a little sweaty under the arms, which lead to us standing a little outside the class. To avoid being “outstanding” school students, most of us would religiously use our handkerchiefs to clean the shoes before entering the hallowed (or was it hollowed?) walls of the institution.
Once inside, it was question of dodging landmines—the prefects, the teachers, and the principal. Prefects were assigned duties to catch ‘untidy’ students of the day. I became a champion in trying to avoid getting caught. Just avoid looking into their eyes. If I kept my head down, and appear sufficiently humble and weak, they’d let me go. Once though, I felt real bold and looked into the hazel brown eyes of a prefect, and I was promptly dispatched to the principal’s office. Later, my parents were also called. I wonder if soap brands, which rely on pointing out how untidy and unworthy you are unless you subscribe to their brand, secretly sponsored this school.
Much later, I discovered that these robot-like prefects could be human too. I had tried to reason with one of them asking him to think how impractical it was to have spotlessly white canvas shoes while travelling by bus right in the middle of peak-hour traffic. He appeared to listen with his eyes. But his rigid body language was a dead giveaway that while he could sympathize in theory, there was nothing he would do in practice. He was as much a part of the system as I was. One other prefect caught me hobbling because of a shoe bite and was kind enough to suggest a remedy (apply coconut oil to the affected area). In an atmosphere where rules were followed to the letter (their spirit completely abandoned), those words seemed to be the sweetest words I had heard. I flashed him my most beautiful smile before continuing to hobble to class.
The same school had other rules: no running during lunch break was one of them. Lunch breaks were like oxygen to most of us. We could chat, fight, exchange notes, and play. We couldn’t always sit out in the sun, so we stayed indoors during the glorious 20 to 30 minutes of freedom before the drab classes began. I was in the 6th standard and my brother in the 1st standard. Suffice is to say that such rules did not register. He used to run around the campus on the hot sand (the school was close to the beach) for no reason other than the fact that he was a hyper energetic child. Far from supporting the fact that the child was using his meagre resources in the most non destructive manner to keep himself occupied, the school’s security guard, the guardian of the stationary lunch break, would run behind him with his bamboo stick ostensibly to make him stop running. The purpose of the stick was a little hazy. Such commotion usually caught the eye of the other children who would, as if on cue, run behind the security guard yelling as children normally do when excited. The scene was a sight to behold. To a spectator who was not involved, it would seem so harmless, even joyous. This was a regular event till one day mom happened to visit and was so horrified that her son was running such risks for the sake of education that she promptly transferred him next year to a school that ferociously guarded children rather than stationary lunch breaks.
The idea of instilling cleanliness or orderliness by itself was commendable. However, something was lost in its translation to practice. Their concern was so crudely conveyed that there was a big doubt in my mind as to whether cleanliness could indeed be next to godliness or whether not running during lunch was actually a virtue. I guess they wanted to clear all the debris from our path to heaven, so that we line up clean and neat and not definitely run to the pearly gates! Someone would have to tell them that this certainly was not the way to go about doing it.