Thursday, April 18, 2013

Packaging - How my teacher taught me to fight Prejudices

When I was in class XI, I had a fantastic English teacher, one who encouraged us to think, to question and to form opinions. It helped that we were 16 years old, young adults, on the threshold of embarking on our adult journeys. 

We used to have a newspaper discussion class every week. Mrs.R (the teacher) once brought an article to discuss -  about a mom rubbing her teenage daughter's face with chili powder which would apparently cause the 'blackness' to rub-off, revealing her white skin inside. She asked us what we thought of the article. 

A girl said "Yes, its important to be fair"
Another one said "If her mom is so fair, and this girl isn't, her mom is right in being worried". 
A boy said "I want to marry a fair girl. She'll be beautiful, just like Sridevi". 
I remember thinking I had a 'wheatish' complexion and how I would never be judged by it. 

That's when Mrs.R said she was surprised that not one talked about how the girl must've been severely injured, scarred physically and mentally. She walked out of the class in a huff. 

Here's what happened next and the reason that teacher remains a "guide" in my memory. 

We had an English language lab a few days later. We entered the room to find it totally dark. She asked us to sit in a semi-circle and listen to the tape recorder. We listened to some short audio clips ranging from "I have a dream" to "He who owns the youth, owns the future" to "India has a tryst with destiny" and something to the effect of "Our country is an Islamic country and we support freedom of expression

She asked the same boy if he could identify which of the voices was dark or Muslim or educated or American.  We were stunned by that. 

She asked us all to name our favorite line. Dr.King won hands down. Many were surprised that he was a black leader. Next most popular was the "youth" quote (which then was my fave, I remember) and I was (and most were) shocked that we "liked" Hitler! 

She then switched on the lights and pointed to 3 packages in the room. One was big, shiny, tied prettily with a ribbon, the second was small, grubby looking, tied with a newspaper and the third was clearly packed by a child, in brown book-wrapping paper, medium sized. She asked a girl if she had a choice, what would she choose and WHY. The girl obviously said the pretty one and most of the class agreed.I confess, I did too. The girl said, it looks so pretty, am sure it has the nicest present inside. 

Not even one of us pointed to the grubby one. Mrs.R said she was upset with us all for judging not by the actual present inside, but the packaging. She went on to open all 3. The shiny one had 2 bricks inside, the brown one had ribbons inside, but the grubby one? It had bars of chocolate and Hero fountain pens inside. She refused to give us any that day and said we'd get it the day we learnt to use our brains to "think" and not merely accept lessons other people were giving us. 
She remains a powerful teacher to me (speaking in my mind) till date. I have fought the occasional prejudice that creeps up in my head if someone is dressed slovenly or makes obvious grammatical errors. I think of her when I pull back from being cruelly sarcastic about height or weight or any other physical characteristic. It doesn't mean you don't make fun of someone, nor does it mean that you make friends with everyone, it just means that stereotyping without giving a chance or worse, abating professional/personal growth because of prejudices is a big no-no. 

Most of all, I use her lessons when I talk to Button (my son). He knows better than to judge his b'day presents by cover already! He knows to go beyond skin color and see the prettiness inside (in fact all kids do, its the adults who forget). He will just as easily make friends with the maid's son as he will with my neighbor's. In fact, the incident of being in a minority while playing with my maid's granddaughter and her kids (when they spoke in Tamil and he couldn't meaningfully converse with them) taught him that only kindness and fairness (not of the skin color type) will let him belong, nothing else. 

Peace be upon you! 

* Both images are UCB ads, etched in my memory. 


  1. Teachers after parents play the most important role in a child's upbringing.Thoughtful post,enjoyed reading it.:)

  2. :-) Each and every single word rings true blue. Bless Mrs.R's heart - and interestingly, I'd always seen a huge influence of a certain teacher in all the people I thought were speaking and thinking sense:) - Meera, give yourself a pat for not being a good parent. As one of my friends said, The problem with today's children is that today's parents are idiots! ;) We should make conscious efforts to not belong in that category.

  3. Such thought provoking and profound thoughts were shared by your teacher. We are so used to judging a book by its cover!

  4. Such a wonderful lesson and taught so well ! The world needs more people like your teacher !

  5. A great post. Your teacher taught you all well. Shakespeare summed it up well with "the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shape"

  6. Beautiful, just beautiful, Meera! What a wonderful role model to have!

  7. Beautiful lesson, Meera. and kudos to you. You learned a good lesson from your teacher, made it your own, and are now sharing it with your son. Having read your posts earlier, I can say you've done a fab job. God bless your family.

  8. This is such a bful post !!
    UR teacher is a gem. She took extra effort to imbibe profound thoughts in To every ones minds
    U narrated it nicely too :)
    Good day

  9. You are so lucky to have had such a teacher. :)

  10. This post moved me like no other Meera ...even today the bias for fair skin continues abated ...the real inner beauty is ignored . I almost got goosebumps when I read the way Mrs R taught you about prejudices ...hats off to her :)

  11. Wow! those are some pricey lessons. I could trade my teacher for her.

  12. That is one teacher who really needs to be applauded, Meera. I'm absolutely amazed at her creativity and sheer determination to drum the best lessons into the pliable minds of her students! Imagine how many lives she touched. How proud she would be to know what an impact she had on your life.