Tardy scholar

Sensing the child’s fatigue, she scooped him up into her arms, backpack and all.

Stuck in a traffic jam, I watched impatiently as the honking escalated around me. A slender young woman got out of the car ahead, clutching at a pre-schooler’s hand. The little boy had his backpack strapped onto his shoulders and seemed as anxious as his mother. A silver-haired gentleman at the wheel tooted sharply at the horn. The young woman turned back to pick up a forgotten water-bottle being held out by the man, probably the child’s grandfather. Mother and child made rapid strides, weaving their way towards the gates of the school some two hundred yards away.

I could see from a distance that the child was having difficulty catching up and looked longingly at the kerbside stones for a seat. The young mother was firm- they had to reach the school in time. Sensing the child’s fatigue, she scooped him up into her arms, backpack and all, and practically ran the remainder of the distance to the imposing gates of the most-sought after school in the city. She set him down and waited as the gateman opened the hatch door which was only four feet high-- no doubt intended to restrict entry to junior school students.

The jam started clearing up and I slowed as I negotiated the congestion at the gate. The tearful pre-schooler had barely enough time to say ‘Bye mummy’ before the gateman shooed him inside. A stern-faced teacher watched as the mother contained her impulse to stay at the gate a while longer. She entered the car and sank back in the air-conditioned comfort of the plush leather seat, out of breath after the sprint.

The scene unfolding in front of my eyes took me back to my days in school when latecomers were rebuked by a bunch of monitors while a teacher supervised from afar. Traffic jams were not common back then so such excuses were not accepted. The pursed-lip disapproval and stiff-backed stance of the principal is one image that has stayed with me down the years.

Under her eagle-eyed gaze, a monitor stamped the school diaries of late arrivals with a rubberstamp that read, ‘tardy scholar’ in quaint copperplate lettering. The font was beautiful but the stigma was so huge that nobody liked to have their diaries stamped thus. When the latecomers reached the classroom, they were made to stand out in the corridor while the teacher announced, “Please welcome the out-standing pupils of my class”. Such mortification!

A part of me blamed the unsympathetic school management for inflicting such tension on parents and children in an already stressful urban environment. But on reflection, I had to concede that schools are basically about inculcating discipline and good habits through reward and punishment. Tardy scholars are reprimanded for showing up late so that the message gets reinforced over time and punctuality becomes a daily habit, no matter what. ‘A large part of success is showing up’, the Americans say. The British might add, ‘On time.’

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