A schoolgirl`s suicide in Colombo has triggered a public uproar. Caught with a mobile phone in school, she decided to end her life last week. Her tragic death has shocked the education establishment into sitting up and taking a long hard look at what has gone wrong with schools. We hear various views expressed by politicians, educationists and parents and unfortunately they seem to be making an attempt to take the incident in isolation. They are also enacting Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. They have left out in the debate the most important person, the student, who alone can tell us why he or she is so frustrated as to take his or life at the slightest provocation or at the first sign of trouble.
Shaken awake, all of a sudden we have begun to ask ourselves why our children commit suicide. That, we believe, is the wrong question. The right question we must ask ourselves as adults is whether children have any reason to cherish their lives. For, they have been robbed of their childhood and their innocent lives have been fast-forwarded to adulthood through the medium of formal education. Late to bed and early to rise, they are taught everything under the sun except how to lead a happy life, from morn till night both at school and in private tuition classes. Schooling has ceased to be fun. Children trudge to school, crushed under bags full of books and their plight is no better than that of porters. School vans that they travel in are veritable mobile torture chambers. They lack space and ventilation in them. But who cares? We have pointed out ad nauseam in these columns that in this country rights of the cattle are better protected than those of children. Lorries that are overloaded with cattle are seized and drivers fined. But, we are yet to hear of a school van driver booked for overloading.
A good teacher is said to be like a candle, which burns so that others get light. But, today, can this be said of most teachers who have given pride of place to private tuition rather than the job for which they are paid by the public? School education has come to such a pass that the Ministry of Education has had to force students to attend GCE (A/L) classes. Counselling is noticeable in schools in its absence and there are only some Hitlerite pedagogues tasked with enforcing discipline at any cost. To whom can children turn to seek advice over matters that they are wary of discussing with their parents?
Parents cannot absolve themselves of the blame for this sad state of affairs. There are serious lapses on their part and it should not be forgotten that children spend most of their time away from school. Parents are in a position to pay children individual attention and keep a watchful eye on their behaviour.
It looks as if children had one goal set for them in life. Pass the GCE A/L exam with flying colours they must to follow dream courses of study in universities! They are given `commando` tuition for that purpose and told in no uncertain terms that if they crash, they will be doomed. They are without a fallback position in life. A few of them may have the rare opportunity to swim, play, sing and dance-not for fun but by way of competition. Is it surprising that they are seeking solace in virtual reality in the form of computer games and, in some cases, in narcotics and pornography? Their addiction to mobile phones and gaming, in our book, has the trappings of a desperate attempt at escapism.
No child should be given the freedom of the wild ass in school and discipline must be maintained. But, it is imperative that a safety valve be built into the system in the form of the care of kind and considerate teachers ready to listen to them without penalising them at the drop of a hat so as to prevent a build-up in tender minds of unbearable pressure that drives them to suicide or self injury.
The tragic incident at issue cannot be reduced to a mobile phone or lack of discipline. There is much more to it than meets the eye and a concerted effort is called for to find what has plunged schools into a crisis with so high a failure rate at crucial examinations, growing indiscipline and, most of all, the all too manifest taedium vitae of children. Many things need to be factored in. But, the bottom line is that children must be given back their childhood besides love, care and attention they richly deserve from adults.