The Times of India/Summer 1997 

A child’s own choice

Hostel’s not a bad word if the child decides so, says Sheila Kumar.

I didn’t send my daughter off to hostel. She went. There is a subtle distinction, only it is lost on most people. And, as soon as she went away to school, my husband and I have been tried and sentenced on the altar of cruelty/negligence/indifference… the reader is free to pick his choice of word. The whole world is sitting judgment on us.

The questions come thick and fast. Are you about to relocate? No. Was there a problem with the school the child was in? Not really, unless one counted the deadening nature of the institution. Did you have a problem with the child? This question is barely uttered when the inquisitor has a pictorial flash of a heart-shaped face with a singularly sweet smile and a nature to match. The question is immediately dismissed.

Over the years, and it has happened insidiously, the word ‘hostel’ has come to take on the attributes of a boot camp. Hostel is the bogey word raised to scare recalcitrant children into submission. “Behave or I’ll send you off to hostel,” says the mother and the child subsides, as visions of barred gates and an eight-foot monster with an upraised cane slides into the little mind. Hostel is where little ones are kept hungry, cold and wet. And if you talk of places that look like home, with hot and hearty fare served at the dining table, manned by warm caring staff, where the surroundings ring with the laughter of children, you are met with both derision and disbelief.

“She will be a misfit in society,” pronounces another ‘friend’ with more than a hint of malice in his voice. This is the other side of the coin, the residential-school-as-elitest-club syndrome. While no one will deny that there could be a grain of truth in that, it is invariably the individual who is more to blame than the institution.

When day schools, too, churn out their share of less-than-savoury citizens, why must the products of residential schools be out under the microscope?

Actually, residential schools offer children a lot more than the mug-and-vomit routine of most of our day schools, not that you can blame the latter, handicapped as they are with their own peculiar compulsions. At residential schools, importance is given to academics, sports and extra-curricular activities. Children learn to co-exist with other children, to study, play and share and adjust. They learn independence, along with interdependence; to tap into their latent talents and develop them; to evolve into complete human beings. While it is no one’s contention that these values cannot be learned at home, there is just so much that parents can, and do, teach.

Yes, these schools are expensive. However, if you can afford this kind of schooling for your children, if you think it is the right thing, then why must you carry a cross for it?
Then, there are those Cassandras who talk of ‘things that happen’ at boarding schools, quite forgetting that these things could and do happen at home , too.

Let’s face it, it’s a cruel world out there and wrapping our children in cotton wool is not the answer. Keeping communication lines open, being understanding, is the answer.
There is no downplaying the guilt factor, of course. It smites you in doses, big and small.

Ultimately, however, the big truth lies in the small details: that the child is there of her own volition. That she likes it there and is discovering facets to herself that continually surprise and delight both you and her. And that, as a parent, you know you have done the right thing.

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