A new circular by the Sikkim education department took me back to a conversation I had with Aama a few years ago; the notification makes it mandatory for school students to come to school in their traditional attire on Saturdays (once the pandemic is over).

“All school heads are to ensure that children attend schools on Saturdays in traditional attire, once the schools reopen. Further, the District heads are requested to ensure compliance of the order,” read the circular issued on June 18 by Sikkim’s education department.

It is a simple notice. At first glance it looks like an effort on the part of the education directorate to inculcate values of tradition and culture, of re-introducing our roots at the school-level, and at best an attempt to encourage communal feelings and harmony among the many different cultures that make up the demographic of Sikkim.

At a time when the world is divided on multiple fronts like race and religion, where several cultures, traditions and vernaculars are on the brink of extinction, this does come as a welcome change. A curriculum invested in conserving our culture and tradition.

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But where do students of various government schools of Sikkim fit into this? The circular making traditional attire mandatory is essentially for them. That is what Aama and I discussed.

My mother has been a primary school teacher for over 20 years now. We are a family of educators and conversations generally tend to gravitate towards areas like students, curriculums, books and everything that pops up in between. I told her that it would be a nice change for students to be able to come to school in their casual clothing for at least one day in a week.

In my opinion, it would break the monotony of the week and give students something to look forward to. And mother brought me right back to earth (like she tends to do most of the time). “Why do you assume our students have the luxury of coming to school in their casuals,” she asked me.

I told her that students would feel fancy and they may even start looking forward to school (we know not all students like going to school). She then told me that among other things, one of the biggest motivators for some students to come to school is the mid-day meal that is provided during lunch break. Apart from that, they also really look forward to the free set of uniform provided at the beginning of each year, a school bag if they’re lucky (at the primary level). 

All of this reminded me of my own school days, when on rare days we were asked to come in our casuals and we would be mortified if we had nothing nice and/or new to wear. Aama’s perspective began to make sense to me.

The June 18 circular as issued by the education department

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Things always look different after we adjust our perspectives. When this notification came out more than a week ago, I immediately thought of the hundreds of children who might not even have a full set of uniform, or even an extra pair of socks for rainy days. I thought of the parents who had a hard time when the pandemic hit and their children suddenly needed smart phones and internet access. These parents are grateful for the one time meal provided in schools, as they don’t have to worry about lunch.

In private schools, I have seen students on lunch plans with set menus for different days of the week, dessert included. I have also seen students with steel bowls and dalley khorsani in their backpack. It’s clear that economic disparity is very much an issue in Sikkim, like everywhere else. The economically weaker section will always be seen as a project – for improvement and for their “own benefit”. But, these policies will hardly have any input(s) from the people that will actually be affected by it – in this case students of government schools directly and their parents (directly and indirectly).

I have thought about this quite considerably, and I understand the intent of this order/notice. But how will this affect our students? Will they find this as a welcome change in their school routine or will they be terrified of coming to school on that one day when he/she/they will be among the odd ones with nothing “appropriate” for the culture and tradition day?

Peer pressure is a real thing and the effect it has on a young child’s mind could be anywhere between begging their parents for an entirely new set of clothes that they might not be able to afford or an “I want to drop out of school” situation. I have seen friends and family who have children going to private schools and the kind of competition there is for that fancy ‘Frozen’ themed cake or the ‘Hulk’ outfit for fancy dress day.

Government school students definitely do not have that same luxury. Are they ready for this added financial (and mental) strain during an already vulnerable time? Pandemic or no pandemic, this would still be very difficult for some students to adhere to, especially since it appears to be mandatory.

I can only hope that this order is implemented in a way that is inclusive and feels comfortable for students on every level. That this does not become another one of those things that look good on paper but becomes a logistical nightmare to achieve.

As an educator, this is my personal input and an attempt at starting a dialogue (if necessary). I am here to say that something that bore out of an intent to inculcate holistic growth and development of a child might become the very thing that threatens it.

(Arpana Gurung is a teacher with Sikkim government.)

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