Young, dumb, and broke

In the Bollywood film 3 Idiots, one of the characters, Chatur aka Silencer, mocks what he presumes to be the protagonist’s profession thus (in loose translation)—”Namaste Masterji. What heights you’ve reached! You’ve become a schoolteacher in the village! A for apple, B for ball!”

Now, despite how on the nose the film can be, I’ve always felt that it more or less makes up for it with its sense of humour and heart. However, in this climactic scene, where Chatur, an annoying but amusing pseudo-antagonist, is about to get his comeuppance, the film is unable to hold on to what it has tried to teach us for the last two-and-a-half hours, with the protagonist repeating several times throughout, “Don’t run after success. Run after excellence. Success will follow suit.”

The problem is that the comeuppance is only successful because the protagonist is not just a schoolteacher; he is primarily one of the world’s leading inventors and scientists whom, as Silencer states, even “the Japanese are desperate to work with.” After all, how else could his success be validated, if not through the eyes of the developed world, without whose seal of approval a person’s worth would find no legitimacy?

The film is not at fault for falling into its own trap. Like many of us, its ideals and values are in the right place: it wishes to show us that there is great pleasure in the very act of learning, and inspires us to question authority, to value those who differ from us, to pursue our passions. But, in the process, like us, it too cannot shed how it defines success: through validation from foreigners, through corporations which wish nothing more than to sell our ideas to the highest bidder, through humiliating the villain by beating him at his own game.

After all, what value can a mere schoolteacher hope to retain, teaching the alphabet in some remote corner of Ladakh? What validation will he or she receive from only the approving admiration of children—young, dumb, and broke as they are? What contribution to society is brought from providing guidance to the so-called future of a nation as their eyes burn with hunger to experience new things, as their minds expand to learn not only “A for apple, B for ball,” but also discipline and manners, morality and truth, the ability to think and question and respond, to empathise with their fellow human beings?

We condescend to schoolteachers for teaching our children the alphabet without understanding that every single word, every sentence, every paragraph and essay that our children will one day go on to write will be derived from the combination of these mere letters. We give them the responsibility of teaching our children everything they need in order to become responsible members of society, upstanding citizens of the country, contributing cogs in the machine of our economy. And then we pay them neither with the respect nor the finances worthy of perhaps playing the most important role in our children’s lives.

What ambitious and principled individual would dream of becoming a schoolteacher, then? There is no doubt that we revere our teachers and honour them for having been some of our biggest influences. And, sometimes, we come across young individuals who genuinely do wish to become schoolteachers, finding great pleasure and satisfaction in guiding children through what is indubitably their most formative years. But that is its nobility: to perhaps have the most important job in the world, but not to be rewarded with gold or recognition, but in finding oneself in the memory of adults scattered across the country and the world.

Such unsung heroes are rare, though—not because of some moral bankruptcy in the new generation, but for the generations preceding who have failed to recognise the invaluable, uncountable contributions our schools make in the lives of children. This is evident in how, for example, during the earlier years of my schooling, up until about Grade 5, “teachers” were always women (and I think they still are). Afterwards, when we had somewhat matured, deemed worthy of wielding pens which left permanent stains on our notebooks, could the men, the “sirs,” be bothered to interact with us.

(Experiences and mileage may vary).

It truly boggles the mind that, year on year, we create a budget that promises prosperity, but ignores the very ground on which prosperity is built, ignoring the very “A for apple, B for ball” Silencer was so eager to dismiss, ignoring perhaps the most overused axiom of our childhoods—”Education is the backbone of a nation”—spending much, much lower than the rest of our neighbours. It not only highlights our shallow definitions of success—big flats and even bigger flyovers—but also how our children have become the most marginalised members of our society, collateral damage on our journey towards prosperity, only for us to turn back and ask them to fulfil their duty to us.

If I may paraphrase a few words from a Kenyan proverb: The Earth has not been given to us by our children. It has been loaned to us by our children.

But not to worry: we have more or less ensured that most of our children—young, dumb and broke as they are—will grow up to be adults who will lack the capacity to understand that, along with their potential, the Earth has also been destroyed, that too by those who were tasked to protect them.

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