Wednesday, March 05, 2008


The Mad Momma has been going through some serious angst of late, of whether a high-end school is worth the rarified atmosphere. Dipali joined in at a tangent with her recollection of a privileged childhood.

And here are my two cents: from the way it felt, I had a very spoilt childhood. I was bought almost all the things I really wanted. We always had plenty to eat (too much, I thought, since I was a picky eater and didn't fancy most of what was on the table). I always had very pretty clothes. My brother and I owned good libraries of our own, apart from the books that the family had. We always had a car around, except for about three years, two in Hyd and a some months in Vizag, when we managed without. I usually had much more pocket money than most students in my class, even though any of them were from better off families. I also had a lot more freedom than any other girl I knew.

But you know, that's only how I saw it. There were plenty of things I didn't know and was too young to perceive. That whatever my parents couldn't afford to buy was either a gift from somebody else, or bought with money gifted to us, or I was tactfully convinced by my parents that it wasn't worth buying. And there were times when they spent a huge part of the family income on something that was very dear to my heart. Only because I craved it, not because I needed it or it was a good investment.

We didn't have plenty to eat. We ate very simple meals, and anything beyond chicken, eggs and the most basic fishes were rare treats. I was (still am) very fond of rice with butter, so difficult times saw us being served meals of just that. Then I thought I was very lucky. Now I know Ma was sighing with relief that the groceries could be stretched a little further.

Most of my nicest clothes were either stitched by my mother (who was a fantastic seamstress even if I say so myself) or put together out of cheaply bought cut pieces into wonderful designs by her and my aunt (Giga). Most people thought all my clothes were sent from relatives abroad. Ma and Giga would send a design to the tailor and Giga would embroider or add a button or two to the finished garment and the end result was a line of pretty dresses that were passed down to several cousins after me. I learnt to sew and embroider when I was seven or so and made my own dolls' clothes, accessories and later, even furniture.

We as a family started buying books only after we left Calcutta when I was nine. For the first time, the four of us came first in the spending of Baba's salary. We made the most of it. But even then, I remember how the new books were rationed by my mother. She would dole out a book per train journey or some such event, making a couple of purchases last me several months. To compensate, Baba used to buy us comics like Tinkle Digest. We were encouraged to borrow from neighbours.

When we lived in Cal, the cars were my grandfather's. (He also bought me my doll collection that I was justifiably proud of.) Baba's first car was our second-hand Fiat Emmy, bought as late as 1995, I think. That's only a dozen years years ago.

I asked for pocket money at the age of eight, and, intimidated by my own daring, named the sum of 25p when my father asked me to set a figure! Luckily for me, he decided to give me Rs. 3 and my brother Rs. 5. It was supposed to be spent on sweets or gifts for friends or saved up for special treats. Eventually it was increased to Rs. 1000 in class XII. I suppose I was naive but it never struck me that the allowance only increased with Baba's earning power. Somehow, our finances or lack thereof had never had a major impact in my life. The only times I was reminded that we had to careful of money was when Ma would go around turning off electric stuff, scolding us for our wastage. It's a habit she has now lost but it's passed on to me and I have environmental reasons to back up my parsimony!

And the freedom? That came with my parents being able to afford the books and the cable connection to open up my mind. Buying the clothes I wanted to wear. Having the security of a family car, should I need to be picked up/rescued from anywhere. It was a battle between my mother's wishes for me and my father's conservative ideas of what a girl should be like. (They both think they lost but I know I won.)

I've been writing "my" and "mine" because I don't know how Dada saw it. The older we get the more I feel that we had very different views of the years we shared. But I think it's all a matter of upbringing. Whether we had more or less, we always had enough to feed a guest, we always bathed with less water (or were asked to), we always saved all our new clothes for Puja, and we always counted the money we spent. This way, I never really knew when Baba got promotions and raises -- they meant precious little to my daily life. It didn't matter that the girls in my class were being bought jewellery and I wasn't -- I knew it was for their dowry and I was proud not to have a hope chest being made for me. If there was one thing my parents agreed upon, it was refusing to see marriage as an end (the end) for me.

Likewise, I learnt to share my pocket money with my friends and happily paid for those who couldn't afford our trips to Baker's Inn. I also learnt to not spend money when the people I was with opted for outings that cost less. My friends came from very different financial backgrounds but we all visited each other without a thought to how the meals, amenities etc. differed home to home.

It wasn't an ideal childhood but it was definitely a democratic one. And this is what I've been trying to say to MM all this while. I did study at one of the two best schools in town but it didn't guarantee anything. Sure, it was a small town, but a good portion of the students in my class came from filthy rich farming families. Nearly all owned land or at least their own home. But we never talked about it and indeed, I didn't even know all this until maybe the last two years of school. Yes, parents themselves are different now, and the kids they bring up may be far more materialistic than I'd like, but I can certainly teach a child of mine that an Xbox is less important than school uniforms and swimming classes. It doesn't matter whether he agrees, because I think in the long run he'd thank me for it, and I can wait for that.

Privilege is a matter of upbringing. I've seen friends of mine, rich beyond anything I can ever aspire to, tied down to their backgrounds, frustrated and unhappy. Their problems were the same as those of others from orthodox families from lower economic strata. And therefore, if privilege is all about what you feel you get rather than what you actually get, I personally think Brat's a very privileged kid. And he's lucky in that he has the kind of privileges that teach him to share his good fortune, to pass it on. He has parents he can take pride in; grandparents who adore him and have a rich history to give him; a comfortable home to bring friends to; and a loving sister to share his childhood. Kids are smart enough to know the value of these privileges, whatever they may say or express to the contrary. The Bhablet runs around strangers with open arms because he is privileged in having a family who think open arms are a good thing and that there is always a little love to be found. He is also privileged in having parents who would fight for his right to ask for love and expect it. An outsider might think his privileges are his expensive clothes and his flatful of toys, but his clothes and toys will not stay with him. Hopefully, this sense of love and security will.

Getting down to brass tacks, when selecting a school, I am thinking of the level of education they provide and how well-behaved their students are. How cheerful or not they seem. What their parents say. That really is all. If I can afford a school that will teach my son well, manners and morals as well as his studies, I'll be happy. I can teach him how to adjust to differently privileged kids, indeed, I consider that my job. Yes, I expect such a school in Cal will probably have mothers I can't identify with, but that's my problem and should have nothing to do with his education.

I guess MM, I owe you one, because I've been agonising over schools for a couple of months now and while my preoccupations are not the same as yours (haven't really gone into them here either) writing this post helped me sort out my own priorities.


Neera said...

I really like the pro-active tone in ur post!
The world, the way it stands today, there is no escaping the fact that our kids will interact with 'the differently privileged kids' like you call them. Our job as parents is to accept that and be prepared, tough yes but definitely doable! In fact, I think, how else would the kids learn these lessons of coming to terms with the reality of what they can have and what they can't unless and until they are exposed to kids who have more than they do.

dipali said...

Wow! Sue, you have written this so clearly and so beautifully, as always.
Yes, the upbringing is what is of far more value than any privileges we may or may not have had.

Ariel said...

awesome sure are amazingly articulate...:)

Mona said...

as always, very sensible approach. i agree with how it really is the parent's responsibility to teach children how to adjust and what to value.
great post!

Unmana said...

Beautifully written!

Itchingtowrite said...

I loved the way u say it is your job to tahc your kid not just what he gains in school with his peer group! lovly post & very optimistic

Rohini said...

Agree with what you say but like you also said, things have changed a lot since we were kids. We went to some of the best schools but most of the kids there were a lot like us. There were very few of the rich brat variety. What concerns me with some of today's upmarket schools is stuff like:
- Air-conditioned classrooms
- Annual foreign trips, that the parents have to shell out for or send their kids for the less-coveted Indian option
- Kids being dropped off in BMWs - a mom (much like me in terms of parenting philosophy) told me that her son was embarrassed to be droped in their Santro

I just feel that all this stuff creates a lot of discontent, especially in the younger years and I would rather not have my kid deal with it. And it also teaches your kid to live in a very rarefied atmosphere...

the mad momma said...

sue my love.. thank you and all that jazz...

now getting to the point. you bet the brat is privileged. he still goes to one of the best schools, with AC classrooms, he still has the most toys in our social circle, he has a devoted mother who runs circles around him, a little sister who thinks the sun shines out of his ass and a father who dotes on him and carried him on his shoulders around the city.

he is privileged in more ways than he will ever know.

but my points are the same as Rohini's. EXACTLY the same. Living in calcutta you probably dont deal with the nonsense we deal with in delhi and bombay. what business does a child of two have, going to an AC classroom? or a five year old have, going on foreign trips alone?

my post was not that I CANNOT teach him to adjust to richer and poorer kids. My point is just that - that a school should have a wide section of students. and he should have both richer and poorer friends. and that might be available in Cal. but in certain pockets of delhi and bombay.. not so much.

the mad momma said...

and yeah - i notice a trend in the comments everywhere about it being the parents job to teach the child.

no one is denying that. its rather an obvious fact to state because we are teaching them everything.

the point merely is, that i dont like to add the number of wrongs that i have to right. i want to keep the issues to a minimum.

dipali said...

@the mad momma: you don't have too much of a choice which doesn't involve sacrificing your lovely terrace!

choxbox said...

sue, very articulate post and like the positive tone.

just been through the schools rigmarole since we are r2i-ing soon. from my experience, if you have clarity about what you want and then look hard enough, you WILL find a school that matches your expectations.

i believe that it still matters what the parents are up to in terms of attitude to education, people, values, life, everything.

karmickids said...

Sue, exactly what I feel. The kids are fine, the disparities are with us adults. My take has always been give the kid the best education you can afford, and a sane life at home. The sanity and the groundedness will hopefully follow. A good education can only come from a good institute which sadly requires money to pay them fees for. And the whole wide world is full of haves and have nots, its never to early for them to start learning that...and deciding what is important to them. Children are greatly democratic. Its as they get older into their teens that subtle issues start cropping up.....yes we have the ac classes and the rs 50 grand foreign junkets in the guise of class expeditions, but then thats the choice one makes for the rest of the deal.

Nisha said...

Wow! Great Post Sue. Chennai hasn't joined in the race yet, but then even with this low comp between parental peers and thinking about the disparities, hubby dear and I have put the brat in a good school, but not in an expensive one. I guess it is fodder for another post of mine :)

Sue said...

Neera -- You put it very well. Yes, our kids will have to learn and I'd rather my son learnt these hard lessons from me than elsewhere.

Dipali -- I think all I had to say was pretty much encapsulated in "privilege is all about what you feel you get rather than what you actually get". That's what I felt on re-reading later.

Ariel -- :)

Mona -- Yes, but remembering what a brat I was, I can understand why MM is cribbing about "extra" work... :(

Unmana -- Thank you.

Itchy -- I'm such a worrywart in actual life, Sunny Days is where I indulge in a little optimism! :)

Rohini -- Yes, that's why I told MM I wdn't send Rahul to this school. I don't like AC classrooms, I think kids suffer more when they have to come out.

I'm sure Rahul will want much more than we can provide. I depend on Vicky and myself to keep him on the straight and narrow (whether he likes it or not). We have often denied him little things my father wanted to give him, because I don't think he should be used to anything his own parents can't afford. Like sleeping in AC. Luckily, my mother did the same for us when we were kids and supports me now in the same thing.

MM -- I'm saying, this particular lesson was never optional. You can send him to a school full of kids from your own background and he'll find friends from different backgrounds in college so he'll have to deal with the same stuff then. Take it from me, it's not easy at any age. I swung between wildly differing groups in Uni mostly because of financial reasons.

Choxbox -- You know, that is what I believe as well. And I can't understand how my brother and I are so different and see things so differently despite sharing the same parents. It's such a paradox, I can't ever pin down a rationale behind it. Sigh.

Kiran -- You know, I just think twenty years ahead. The childhood agonising is a matter of a few years. But he'll thank me for the harshness for the rest of his life after that. Even if he doesn't realise it was just as hard for me as it was for him.

Do I ever mention that my respect for my parents grows every day now???

the mad momma said...

I'm not unaware of that Sue - I know kids will meet diff ppl everywhere.

And you are right - i dont want to put the brat there but I simply have no options. all the damn schools around us - have ACs. Though this is not abt ACs. Its just that i dont like the schools on offer - go read spaniard's post on the same topic.

i am unable to find a school that satisfies me. you might have found one... but then Cal and Delhi are very diff places.

Sue said...

MM -- LOL! The school I've put at no. 1 was not one I wanted to even consider, for personal reasons. But then, as with everything else, V said no to the ones I wanted and therefore I'm stuck with this school. Mind you, R's not in, will not be in for another year, and then it's hard to get in!

Do you think we mothers are being too fussy?

Your problem is what I'll call the whole AC culture; my problem is what a probashi Bangali like me calls the bheto-Bangali culture. I guess I'll have to come to terms with bheto-Bangaliness like you'll have to cope with the foreign trips et al. *Sigh*

Grafxgurl said...

i went to school with kids who were all about be honest, some of the nicest and most friendliest kids were the rich ones. They shared what they had and i was the recipient most times just because my parents didnt believe in giving me pocket money and i didnt complain about it because i still got so much from my friends....its what the parents teach the kids that matter.. Ed and i are going to teach our kids to be good stewards with money....its what you do with it... not how much or how little you have of it. both sides of my family had rich and poor relatives and i learnt good lessons all around...

its all depends if the kid turns out to be an arrogant brat inspite of all the effort put in... lol.. then a good spanking is in order.. or loss of privileges.

Shuki said...

Wow, Sunne... 1000 bucks pocket money in Class XII? I think I got 100 bucks in XI and XII! And as for electricity, it was only when I was paying bills in NY that I realized why Ma and Baba would be constantly after Dhruva and me if we left lights/fans on in rooms we weren't in ("Who is the light for?") :-).

the mad momma said...

sigh. i guess so. i think parenting would be easier if the fathers didnt have opinions :p

@grafx gurl:i dont think rich kids are spoilt in particular. i just feel that kids should grow up in a school that actually reflects the outside world in terms of diversity. i'm finding it hard to find such a school in my area... :(

Sue said...

Grafx -- It's not about the money or the kids really. It's about the upbringing they are getting. I was easily from one of the worst off families in my circle, but I had the most pocket money. Money is not exactly what we are talking about. It's the outlook that worries MM. The outlook in Cal worries me because I think it's too focused on studying and the kids are boring as a result.

Different concerns, but similar in that we are not sure that the schools we've found will give us what we are looking for.

Shuki -- Oh a story goes with it. I caught Baba when he was busy and distracted one afternoon and casually suggested a doubled allowance. Am not sure he heard just what I'd said before he okayed it and Ma was most indignant later, but to his credit he never revoked it.

But you know, I did everything with that money. I continued to receive the same amount for the first couple of months in Cal, when it was utterly inadequate all of a sudden.

MM -- Fathers, I say! :)