No matter where I am, Burma is where I grew up and it’s my home. And thinking about Burma and going to school there is incomplete without the memories of corporal punishment my friends and I endured. Government school teachers in Burma are like ninjas without a cause. They’re swift and you don’t know when it’s coming. One time, I was writing what the teacher was reading out loud from a book, and before I knew it, my notebook was abruptly grabbed and I felt a painful slap on my upper arms. When I had realised what happened, the teacher had already threw my notebook across the classroom. All that drama because my handwriting was not legible in her opinion.
I went to an all-girls school and we pretended to be lesbians with one another if we didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t even know but it seemed I had girlfriends before I knew I was in a relationship. One time, one of my friends got caned by our homeroom in front of the whole class for writing a lover letter to a girl in the classroom over. We all wrote love letters to each other in secret and we low key compete in making them better than one another’s. My speciality was writing in English and it was unique. I wrote many love letters and short poems for my “lesbian” friends to give to their love interests. I also had really good hand-writing (despite what the teachers say!) and I made all my love letters creative and colourful. She, unfortunately, got caught and she was caned. She cried so much and I remember hearing the sound of the cane – almost like a whip. It’s a bamboo cane soaked in water all day and believe it or not – you can buy it at a speciality store in Burmese green markets. I don’t know which was more disturbing – the fact that we were all blasé about corporal punishments or that we expected our teachers to be violent most of the time or that we were back at writing love letters in no time for our make-believe lovers for our pretend lesbian existence (for some of us anyway). I don’t know how many of us were actual lesbians to be honest.
While there were some teachers who did these things because they did not know any better, there were also real sickos who should not be teachers. One particular teacher, who thankfully retired when I was in high school, would make her students kneel on plum seeds if they could not recite a certain paragraph by heart from our outdated textbooks. It seemed shaming and hurting people into doing what they wanted was their only way of making us listen. It was really odd because we would’ve done things they wanted us to do if they asked us politely also. There were some very kind teachers and we loved them and it made the violent ones even more volatile.
My last incident with the cane was also a very defining moment for me. It was in my eight grade. We have a rotating seating chart and that day I was sitting right in front of the teacher’s desk. My sister had finished high school and she was a top student. Unlike her, I was a bookworm rebel. I read a lot of books, just not the textbook. My English language was already way above the class teachers’ English and it’s not something I brag about but they all know it. I live in a small community where my grandparents and my mum grew up and people “talk” and people “know” each other. So the class teacher was talking about herself and somehow got to talking about my mum. She said I was probably not a good student because my father was always away and my mum couldn’t handle me as she was busy gallivanting around wearing fancy clothes. FYI, my mum was a librarian and she did not prance around. She was and still is a naturally beautiful and elegant woman who worked hard day and night for my sister and I to have quality education. Right after she finished talking, I told the teacher loud and clear that she was crazy and that she needed to take the bus to the asylum. I didn’t even know there was a bus to the asylum but those were the most hurtful things I could think of when she was insinuating insulting things about my mum. Anyway – I couldn’t sit for a whole week and she would just torment me every period. She even went further by failing my midterm exam, but I walked straight to the headmistress’ office and asked her to check my midterm. I got my full score but facing her every day for the rest of the year took a toll on me. I couldn’t eat breakfast and I cried before going to school every day. My sister found out about it and told my mum. So what did my poor mum had to do? She bought some cosmetics and went to appease the woman who insulted her so she would stop bullying me in school. The cosmetics did the trick but after I finished the eight grade, the teacher left because her young husband left her for another woman and as a result, she became depressed and left the school. I don’t know what happened to her or other teachers after that because I skipped most of the school year for the ninth and tenth grades and happily stayed at home with my grandma.
People in the position of authority have a chance to change a person’s life: positively or negatively. Some government school teachers like to blame economic hardships or a student’s background as an excuse to torment them for no apparent reasons. My experience of having horrid teachers on one end of the spectrum and amazing teachers on the other end has vividly dictated my identity as a teacher and also as a person. I’m just glad I came out of the situation destroyed. I am also proud of myself for standing up for my mum. I just hope that more progressive and rewarding teacher training programs are being given to teachers in Burma. These memories are memories now and I don’t feel negatively towards them. It’s actually a good conversation topic especially when I talk to foreigners who have no idea what corporal punishment is. It also just give you a newfound appreciation of education, and teachers at an entirely new level.