Before arriving in Kolkata, where my family and I have temporarily relocated while I’m on a research fellowship, my 7-year-old daughter was excited about the prospect of wearing a school uniform, as most kids in India do. But while we were out shopping our first week, she shot me a look of panic as one shoe store after another presented the same black orthopedic shoe-style sneakers as the standard “school shoes.” She opted for the alternative — a Mary-Jane style — instead.
Within a few days, though, she wanted the sneakers, and I was heartened by how quickly she’d acclimated. Coming from the United States, where expensive sneakers are heralded as a symbol of self-expression, it was a relief when my daughter realized that shoes are not a reflection of who she — or anyone else — is.
But in the months since, I’ve realized that in addition to ushering in a refreshing break from consumerism, the orthopedic sneakers also point to a much bigger difference in the two nations’ approaches to education: Choice. Or the lack of it.
My daughter has a lot of choices at her public school in Brooklyn. She’s given a stack of homework on Monday to complete anytime before Friday. She’s encouraged to sound words out and, basically, spell them however she wants. The few times a year when she has to write something, she can choose the topic. In art, teachers encourage experimentation and parents praise originality. In the classroom, she is more or less free to roam around, ask questions and talk to other kids.
I never thought about any of this until she became the new student in class 2D. At my daughter’s school in India, there is no choice time. The children may not speak to one another during class. She has no recess. And there is a very specific, fairly elaborate list of which notebooks are for which subjects. Even the notebooks are a kind of uniform: They are all the same: plain brown, with the school logo on the front, covered in translucent white paper to keep them from getting worn.
The students all write the same things in those notebooks, extensively, every day. My daughter comes home with these notebooks filled with everything she — and everyone else in her class — has copied off the board, including French poems, complex steps in long division and notes on “Values and Virtues.” Though she has art class twice a week, it features a craft for which there are prescribed materials, steps and unvarying finished products. Every kid makes the same blue paper peacock, folded like a fan, with googly eyes stuck in exactly the same place.
My daughter summarized her perception of the contrast recently when she said: “In India, we never have time to play with our friends. In America, all we do at school is play with our friends.”
Not surprisingly, it’s been a rocky transition.
She has struggled to understand the math, to familiarize herself with both Hindi and French (as is required) and to memorize long lists of English spelling words. She has freaked out many mornings, worried a “ma’am” will “scold” her if she doesn’t bring the right notebook. More than once, she’s packed her suitcase in a huff instead, yelling to my husband and me that school is too hard and she’s leaving. Once, after agonizing over spelling words, she cried in the elevator in our building, suitcase in tow. I asked how she was getting to the airport. “I have 40 rupees,” she said, unfazed. (That amounts to a little more than 50 cents.)
And yet, I cannot overstate how happy, even buoyant the school feels. The children are delightful, and the teachers are kind. Though mornings are tough, every afternoon at pickup, my daughter is holding hands with her friends, planning Saturday afternoon visits to the library and hugging her peers tight before we say goodbye. In other words, she’s fine, and so is everyone else. Even without choice time. Even, or especially, with their drills in spelling words, long division and three or four languages (we opted out of Mandarin).
I certainly don’t want her to be crying alone in the elevator, and I do wish that the kids were given more time to run around during the day. But I’ve found my daughter’s school experience in India to be meaningful, even illuminating. And what I’ve come to respect most is the lack of choice. Because instead of choices, there are responsibilities.
It’s a cliche, but no one rises to low expectations. Confronted with long division, my daughter had to catch up on multiplication, something she hadn’t done in Brooklyn. After years of free-form writing, she was skeptical that spelling mattered. But while attempting to memorize words such as “obviously” and “unfortunately,” she began to study. And that is not the same as doing homework. To study means to focus. Concentrate. Try. Fail. Try again. Alone. Because no one else can do it for you. In the process, she has accomplished far more than she thought herself capable of (even though she still can’t really spell).
Beyond the academic strides, though, I also believe that seeing how seriously her classmates here engage with their schoolwork has helped my daughter understand that education is not just an individual task but a collective effort. The children learn together, and in that atmosphere, there is no negotiation, including with parents.
I’m not allowed in the school building in Kolkata unless I have a good reason to be there. One day she forgot her almanac, the novel-size daily planner in which kids write down their assignments and any communication about schoolwide events. I ran it over to the school only to have the security guard suck his teeth. “Actually, Madame,” the primary head said to me over the phone, after the guard called her from his booth, “it’s the child’s responsibility.” And aside from my very American shame, I was reassured. This mistake, however insignificant, was not mine to fix. My daughter has not forgotten that almanac, or anything else, since.
My observations are anecdotal, privileged and specific to my circumstances. As in the United States, school in India is fraught with inequity, and across the country, tremendous disparities in wealth and employment favor people who’ve been educated in private, “English Medium” schools like the one my daughter attends. And the tremendous pressure students in India face has been acknowledged as possibly being detrimental.
But alongside her habit of saying thik ache (Bengali for “okay”), I hope my daughter brings back to the United States a deeper confidence in what she and all children can accomplish. And the understanding that, in fact, she always has a choice — perhaps not in what she does, but in how she does it.
Liesl Schwabe is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @Liesllibby.