"My Favourite Teacher Killed Me"
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
In a small room at 206 Ambagan, Jahanara Begum sits on the floor looking blankly in front of her, crying. In between her cries, she talks about her son. Thirteen-year-old Dipu Islam, son of a rickshaw mechanic, was a student of Nayatola Government Primary School. He was a quiet child and had completed reading the Quran four times and was in the middle of the fifth.
"He loved to watch cartoons," says Dipu's mother, "and I got a cable connection just for him. He would come home from school every day, tie a gamchha around himself, take the remote control in hand and watch television."
But when Dipu came home from school on July 2, he went straight to bed and asked his mother to hand him the remote. When she asked him to shower first, he said no. His mother asked him what was wrong, and, upon examining him, found dark marks all over his back, arms, thighs and behind. "There was a double mark on his buttocks," says Jahanara Begum, "as if someone had scalded him with something." Dipu had been beaten at school.
It wasn't the first time. Dipu was often caned for not being able to answer correctly in class. His mother had promised him that after the upcoming exams he could change schools. That Saturday, Dipu was beaten twice: once for not answering correctly in English class, and again for failing to give his attendance on time. "He was writing something and had become absent-minded," says his mother "and missed the roll call.
When he asked to give it later, the teacher swore at him and then beat him up."
Dipu had high fever that evening, and no medicine worked. The next day, he didn't go to school and threw up his food. On Monday, he had convulsions and, when the fever was still not coming down, he was taken to the hospital. His stomach and legs hurt. He was given saline but the fever had still not come down. He slept.
Dipu was visibly frightened. So much so, that even the doctors, after hearing what had happened at school, suggested that Dipu's teachers be informed and brought to the hospital to pacify his fears. No one came.
On Tuesday, July 5, 13-year-old Dipu Islam died in hospital. He was buried the same day, and it wasn't until Dipu's doctors informed journalists and the latter publicised the case that the police took it up. Despite rumours that he was ill -- which were in any case refuted by his family -- the autopsy report confirmed that Dipu's death had been caused by the injuries still visible on his head, face and body, when it was exhumed a few days later.
"Who will finish reading the Quran he had started?" asks Jahanara Begum. "I don't know how to read it . . . Dipu always said he would be a teacher or an engineer when he grew up. He would look after me, move us to a bigger house. Now who will come home from school and ask, 'O ma, tumi koi?' (Mother, where are you?) and kiss me on the cheeks?"
“Dipu always used to sit here," says Sajal, a student of Class 4, pointing to the middle of the three-seater bench. Sajal, Dipu and Sadeq shared the first bench of the fairly big classroom allocated for Class 4 on the second floor of Nayatola Government Primary School. They sat together for the last time on July 2 -- Dipu's last day at school.
There are at least two different versions about just how severely Headmistress Shaheen Akhtar and Assistant Headmaster Khurshidul Haq beat Dipu. Dipu's bench-mate Sajal and another classmate Tuhin, for the most part, corroborate the teachers' version of the story. Sajal shows a particular chapter in his English book that deals with 'time', which was their home task for Saturday, July 2. ("What is the time now?" is the question on the left hand side and a clock is drawn on the right showing the time. The student is supposed to tell the time correctly from the picture).
Most of the students, including Dipu, could not answer correctly and all of them received cane-blows on their hands. "I also got one and so did Tuhin," says Sajal, while Tuhin readily nods in consent.
When asked how many blows Dipu received, Sajal is quick to reply, "Just one. She asked us to extend our hands and gave each of us one blow." Then, as if not sounding convincing enough, he hastens to add, "Boro Apa loves us very much and hardly beats us."
Khadija Sharmeen, the first girl of the class, echoes Sajal's views about "Boro Apa". She however goes a little further, apparently to justify Boro Apa's actions, "Teachers punish us for our own good."
Rabeya agrees that it is okay for teachers to beat students and, actually, necessary to make them learn properly. And anyway, she says, "Boro Apa didn't mean to beat him to death."
Sadeq, another former bench-mate of Dipu, however gives a different story-line. "Dipu was asked to write something on the board, but he could not, then Boro Apa gave him four or five blows on his hands, shoulder and back," Sadeq says.
Jahanara Khan, a senior teacher who has been at the school since 1978 and is now the acting headmistress of the school, backs up the earlier version of the story. "As far as I know, Apa hit Dipu on the hand just once and he wasn't alone; some other students were also beaten the same day," she says.
Jahanara Khan as well as Sajal and Tuhin make a crucial revelation. "Dipu used to be quite naughty until Class 3. He even spent two years in Class 2. But after getting to Class 4, he became quiet all of a sudden," says Khan. "We have heard he had been suffering from some disease and his grandmother who came with his lunch used to bring him medicine," she says.
Sajal and Tuhin claim to have seen Dipu taking the medicine, but Sadeq is doubtful saying, "I never heard or saw Dipu taking medicine."
Dipu's family has completely denied that he was ill and his grandmother claims she never took him any medicine.
Some of the students of Class 5 of Shishu Unnayan Sangstha, an NGO-run school in the same compound, also claim that Dipu was beaten severely.
"We have heard from our friends in that school that Dipu was beaten all over his body," alleges Toriqul, emphasising "all over his body". Now a student of Class 5, Toriqul has bitter memories of "Boro Apa" at Nayatola Government Primary School where he completed Class 1. But the physical punishment meted out by "Boro Apa" and some other teachers at the school frightened him so badly that his parents made him switch schools.
Despite the other teachers' claims that "Boro Apa" was a very nice person, similar stories are common in the area. Only a few houses away from Dipu's, lives Chan Mia, a CNG-autorickshaw driver. His seven-year-old daughter Chadni also used to be a student of Class 1 at Nayatola Government Primary School. But barely a month had passed before Chadni started to complain about her teachers beating her severely. At first, her parents did not pay heed. But after about a month, Chadni came home one day crying in acute pain and showed her mother marks of torture on her hands where blood had clotted up. "Kaniz Apa" had beaten Chadni because she had not prepared her lessons.
Angered, Chadni's mother and grandfather went to the school and threatened to take the child out of it if she was beaten this way. "But Boro Apa," says Chadni's mother, "instead of apologising, started saying all sorts of bad things. She said we were illiterate people from the slums whose 14 generations never went to school and we had come to teach her about how to behave! And she threatened to throw us out of the school. I walked out of the teachers' room and never sent my daughter to that school again."
Though most current students of the school hesitate to blame the headmistress outright, Dipu's classmate, Naim, quickly nods his head saying that sometimes students get badly beaten at the school.
Both the accused teachers are currently behind bars, awaiting trial. Investigation Officer (IO) Sub-Inspector Abdullah-el Baqui has almost wrapped up his investigation and will submit the charge-sheet by the end of this month. The IO confirms that the autopsy report received categorically mentions that Dipu was beaten up all over his body, including on the head. But, while the accused admitted to beating Dipu when grilled by Baqui, they rejected the forensic report that states that the boy was beaten all over his body.
It took the death of a fourth grader to bring to the limelight what goes on in many schools in our country. Whether due to ignorance or in denial, many people refuse to believe that children are physically abused at school even today. (Even though on July 16, a Bangla daily reported a religion teacher actually going to his student's house and beating her. The student was apparently late in returning to school after the lunch break because of the rain. Later, when the girl's father confronted the teacher, the latter got into a physical fight with the father and an uncle of the girl.) Some people actually condone it, thinking it is the only way to control unruly kids. But no one who has ever been beaten at school forgets it.
Shirin, now a fourth year student of Dhaka University, still remembers the day in Class 8 when, trying to help a friend during a math exam, she was beaten with a cane on the back and arm.
Nirob was beaten all throughout school in Rajbari. "One day I was hit 41 times with a cane," he says. "It hurt so much, I climbed over the school fence and ran away."
Babul, among other times, clearly remembers being beaten for repeatedly pronouncing the word "quickly" as "quickoly" in English class.
Karobi recalls being beaten each time she answered incorrectly in math and English classes. "Once the whole class was beaten for not doing their homework," she says. "The teacher hit us with rulers on our hands and actually broke the ruler while hitting one of the girls."
Wali and Shammi both remember being beaten in religion class every time they did not pray.
The list is endless. Few people can be found who were not physically abused at school. The luckier ones were punished by being made to stand on the bench, kneel down on the floor or do "uth bosh" (standing up and bending down holding their ears). One boy from a renowned school in Dhaka was even beaten with his teacher's sandals. "At least I don't have marks on my back like my father still does," jokes Nirob.
Caning and other forms of physical torture in schools have certainly declined compared to a couple of generations back, but the practice still exists, especially in schools where the majority of students come from lower income group families. However, various forms of physical torture are practised even in some of Dhaka's renowned schools. Dhanmondi Government Boys' School is one such institute.
Fahad Hossain Reean, a student of Class 9, could not go to school on June 19 due to illness. The next day, his class teacher, Abul Kalam Azad, made him, along with two other students, kneel down outside the classroom for 45 minutes at a stretch. It was too much for frail-bodied Reean. His knees got dark and swollen, his back hurt and he could not stand upright. He fell ill with a high temperature.
Reean claims his teacher punished him not because of his absence from class but because he had recently stopped going to the teacher for private tuition. "The students who go to him are never punished so brutally," says Reean, "not even when they don't prepare their lessons, let alone for being absent. None of us who were punished that day go to him for private lessons," the boy observes.
ABM Golam Mustafa, headmaster of Dhanmondi Government Boys' School, recalls that a student's guardian came to him following the incident. He assures that he will look into the matter and also talk to the teacher in question. He is however emphatic that he is against all sorts of physical punishment and has asked teachers to call guardians or give other kinds of punishment. "We caught two students roaming around in Rapa Plaza bunking classes and banned them from coming to school for one month," he says, giving an example of the kind of punishment they are giving these days.
Many teachers have not mended their brutal ways even after Dipu's brutal killing. A good number of teachers, including two female teachers of Shahid Nabi High School in Gopibagh, still come to class armed with canes and use them generously almost every day, alleges a student of Class 6, understandably wishing to remain anonymous.
The Motijheel Government High School authorities however seem to have received the right message after Dipu's death. Rubaiyat Ahmed, a student of Class 8 of the school, says that at least two of his teachers have stopped bringing canes to class. He, however, adds that some teachers are still using canes in other classes.
One of the most frightening things about physical punishment being inflicted upon students by teachers is that it is actually acceptable to many. Even those who were beaten in childhood, though still remembering the incidents with loathing, believe some degree of physical punishment may be necessary to discipline children. Karobi, now a woman in her early twenties, has a friend who teaches at a village school where the headmaster actually advises the teachers to beat their pupils, saying it is the only way to deal with them.
Psychologist and professor at Dhaka University, Dr. Mehtab Khanam, however, does not sanction any sort of physical or emotional abuse. Physical, emotional and, most of all, sexual abuse which also takes place in many schools, says Dr. Khanam, haunts children for life. As to why physical abuse takes place at school, and in the case of it being perpetrated by teachers, Dr. Khanam says that, though never desirable, it may happen for a variety of reasons.
"Teachers are themselves stressed out," she says. "Whether due to poor remuneration, trouble at home or the classroom environment, there are many factors which may frustrate teachers. Most important is the teacher-student ratio," says the psychologist. "Where the ideal ratio is about 1:25, many schools in our country have one teacher responsible for up to 70 students."
"Physical abuse obviously causes physical pain and humiliation in the short term," says Dr. Khanam. "Children may also begin to suffer from school-phobia or fear of school and studies. In the long term, they may even become fearful of any sort of authority figure, from bosses, to, in the case of women, husbands." If the child feels highly insulted he or she may, even years later, react unnaturally to the smallest insult because of the previous history of humiliation, says Dr. Khanam.
Whether physical or emotional abuse has the greater impact depends on the individual child, says Dr. Khanam. "For children who are beaten at home, it may not be such a big deal to be beaten at school," she says. "But for children who are not, even the slightest touch may bring them to tears. It really depends on the child's perception of the incident."
The best way to discipline a child, says Dr. Mehtab Khanam, is through a system of reward and short-term deprivation which should start from the home. "Reinforce good behaviour," she says, "by appreciating and rewarding it. In the case of teachers, this can be done by appreciating good work or behaviour, whether by giving happy faces, stickers, or just a word of praise."
"Discourage bad behaviour by saying that it is so. But always disapprove of the behaviour and not the child," stresses Dr. Khanam. "Externalise the behaviour from the child. Term the behaviour as naughty, not the child."
Discouragement of bad behaviour can be shown in a number of ways, says the counsellor. "You can give a child the cold shoulder for a while or send them to their rooms for five minutes. Small deprivations for small durations," says Dr. Khanam.
However, it is important to be consistent, she says. "You cannot react dramatically to the same behaviour one day and not even notice it on another, depending on your mood," says the psychologist. "Be clear about what is expected. Set both negotiable and non-negotiable rules, making sure to let the child know that the latter absolutely cannot be broken. But never miss opportunities to appreciate and encourage children," she says.
The ideal relationship between a teacher and student should be one of mutual respect, says Dr. Khanam. "Only when teachers are respectful towards their students and their families will the students be the same." There should be no fear in teacher-student relationships, she adds. Rather, there should be love, warmth, friendliness, but, of course, with certain boundaries which neither party should cross. "It is important for teachers to set an example, be the students' role models in order to initiate model behaviour on the part of the children," says Dr. Khanam.
As with everything else in our country, simply passing laws banning abuse at school will not work. As psychologist Dr. Mehtab Khanam points out, there will always be scope for victimisation, and, until and unless proper implementation of the laws is ensured, they should not be imposed.
A few months ago, Dipu wrote an essay on his favourite teacher, Assistant Headmaster Khurshidul Haq -- ironically, one of the teachers who caused his death. Neither Haq nor Headmistress Shaheen Akhtar probably meant to kill Dipu. As one of the teachers of Nayatola Government Primary School puts it, "it was an accident". But the fact remains that it was their repeated and brutal assaults that led to Dipu's death.
The relationship between teachers and students is sacred, where teachers regard their students as their children and students regard their teachers as mentors. No law and no punishment can imbue teachers or anyone else with this sense of duty, responsibility and humanity if it does not come from within.
But we cannot count on these finer values in a society that is so indifferent to the rights of children. The violence meted out to children is an everyday affair, one that most of us do not even notice. Children are doubly victimised because they have no voice, more importantly, because often, the adults responsible for protecting and guiding them are the violators of that trust. The onus obviously lies on us, the parents, the teachers and the school administrators, to realise that the medieval practice of corporal punishment must be banned, shunned and considered reprehensible. Children often need to be given limits that do not involve physical or verbal abuse. It seems adults need them even more, so that they do not end up killing children or their spirit.
The names of some of the students of Nayatola Government Primary School have been changed to protect their identities.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005