My younger brother was 8 years old I guess, when he was sent off to a boarding school in Delhi. A few years earlier at the age of ten, I had been enrolled in a Public school. I cannot quite recall my brother’s initial adjustment trauma, but I was miserable for the first few weeks.
Private schools in Canada are referred to as Public schools in India, England and elsewhere. I am not sure but it could be a result of the knee-jerk reaction by Americans after their independence from Britain in the 18th century, to do everything differently from their former rulers. Switches that are flipped down in England and across most of its former colonies to turn on the light, are flipped up in North America. Likewise, here we drive on the right-hand side while in colonies that were once dominated by Britain, drivers ply their vehicles on the left.
Boarding facilities at a Public school meant a “hostel” comprised of several dormitories. Hostels were divided into “Houses”, each with a unique name and its own “House Color” to distinguish its residents and also promote a spirit of competition in all inter-House activities. A “Tuck Shop” shared by the residents of all the Houses occupied pride of place. It was the repository of candy bars, chocolates, juices, flavored milks, ice creams, cookies and other goodies favored by young boys. One had to carefully ration one’s meagre “pocket money/tuck-shop allowance” to stretch it through a whole month.
Each House had its own large dining hall where the walls were covered with the portraits of past Principals and huge wooden plaques – listing, by each year for a quarter-century or more – students who had distinguished themselves as elocutionists, sportsmen or in various academic pursuits. Three strikes on a brass gong would announce each meal and we would quietly troop into the dining room in single file, splitting up to take our pre-appointed place at the trestle tables and benches. At either end of each table sat a Prefect (nominated Head Student recognized for academic/sporting/leadership qualities; usually also gifted with an exceptional ability to “suck up” to those in authority) and a Master (teacher). Remember, those were the days when “Master” had not yet been declared an offensive/racist expression in teaching circles; this has happened here only recently, when the title of “Master” was ceremoniously and publicly replaced by “Principal”.
It was not uncommon for an impromptu “auction” of sorts to stealthily take place as diners attempted to exchange foods they did not like with another dish of their liking. Rice pudding did not usually have any takers! I can still clearly recall one particular character, a burly thirteen or fourteen year old lad, wolf down up to twenty “chappaties” when mutton curry was served! In all the years spent eating those meals, we never had a “Please Sir I want some more” situation a la Oliver Twist.
Another cardinal rule, albeit whispered very confidentially by boys of similar age or sleeping in the same quarters, related to the use of facilities after “lights out” for the night. Anyone wishing to make a visit to the washroom felt safer waking up another boarder to get company as there was safety in numbers. There were dangers and ghouls lurking in dark hallways other than ghosts and assorted nocturnal creatures that are typically the cause of childhood nightmares!
After finishing secondary school, I later spent another 5 years in the Engineering College hostel. Unlike the residential school barracks, we were accommodated two men to a room. We would try and pull seniority or other tricks to get a single room. The fiercest competition however, was for rooms with a “good view”; ones that looked over the route between the local bus stand and the girls’ college adjacent to our institute!
A few years after landing in Canada one after the other, our kids went to university. Their mum shed more tears than the nest-vacating children, I suspect. Many years later, these tearful separations were re-enacted when our grandkids started their Montessori schooling, causing their respective mothers and the grandmother to lament, “Poor kid! She/he is just over two years old!”
Life had come a full circle. Many years after my brother and I were done with our boarding school days, our father told us how each time mum made a dessert that my brother and I liked, she would set the dish on the table and sit there with tears glistening in her eyes, whispering almost to herself, “If only the boys were here! They love it so much.”
But today, my eyes tear up for the many, many children forcibly taken away from their mothers under the infamous Canadian Indian Residential School System. Held in a completely alien and hateful environment, one cannot even begin to imagine the trauma these kids had to endure as they huddled in a cold, hostile bed, whimpering for their mothers with no one to hold and softly rock them to sleep. It is only now that I am starting to learn about this shameful period of Canadian history, thanks to the efforts of Gord Downie (The Secret Path), Tanya Talaga (Seven Fallen Feathers) and so many others. It is never too late to learn about past mistakes and come together to make amends. Here’s a soul-stirring lament of a mother for her son “Residential School Song (Indian Boarding School Song) by Cheryl Bear: