A 17-year-old from New Delhi, a 16-year-old swimming champion in the making from Ghaziabad, nursing students, IIT students, medical students, engineering students, students who went through the grind of SAT and GRE and GMATS to get admission in the premier educational establishments of the world – what do these young people have in common?
They have a similar sounding suicide note in common.
Invariably these deaths, result in the usual cacophony about a system that is failing all of us. Which I am sure it is. However, to place these deaths at the unheeding doorstep of the system is extremely short-sighted in my opinion.
In an interview to The Telegraph (http://rense.com/general67/sdui.htm) P. V. Sankaranarayanan, of Sneha, a charity that runs a helpline for students in Madras spoke about the questions that haunt these children. “The pressures are manifold,” Sankaranarayanan said. “Will I gain my required marks? Will I satisfy my parents? Will I get on my preferred course? And if they don’t, often the feeling is of overwhelming shame and guilt.”
It is the beautiful Indian middle-class dream. Get an education and make something of yourself and help improve your own life and that of your family. This has been a dream that has survived with very few changes over the years. Sure, medicine and engineering are no longer the only way out of the daily mind-numbing grind of existence that life can be for a lot of people. (And, no you don’t have to be poor to be desperate to get out of your situation in life.) However, the dream lives on, fuelled by the midnight light being burnt by our kids and paid for by us.
As parents, almost every single one of us wants the best for our kids. A great career, a happy marriage, kids, success, a flat or two, a car or two in the garage, jewellery in the locker and money in the bank. That’s it. And we work for that. Boy, do we work hard for that dream!
So our kids grow up watching us chase the future – their future. Most never get to see their parents living in the present… except maybe when they are watching a TV serial or a cricket match… in which case, it is not even their lives they are living and celebrating! This is how it was when my parents were growing up. This was how it was when I was growing up. And shame on us, this is how it is when our kids are growing up. But the great middle-class dream is sacrosanct. It lives on.
And yet, too many of our kids are killing themselves, unable to bear the burden of our dreams.
I cannot begin to imagine what the family of a suicide victim must be going through. Truth be told, I don’t want to imagine or ever know those feelings. But the recent spike in student suicide rates reminded me of another death. A suicide, a few years ago, by a Grade 10 kid in a neighbouring emirate.
The parents realised something was amiss when the school called them up to find out why the boy had not appeared for his Grade 10 final board exam. The parents were shocked. He had left the house on time. But the kid had not gone to his school. He had gone to another building in the neighbourhood to hang himself. He took this final step because he was convinced he was going to fail his 10th math exam. You see, he didn’t even attempt to write the exam. He killed himself a few hours before he even appeared for the said math paper. It wasn’t failure, but the fear of failure that caused him to take such a drastic step.
It was a death that shook a lot of us parents and got many of us re-thinking our parenting style, our priorities and the lessons we were imparting to our children.
I honestly believe that the real malaise is not just with the education system – in that it insists on teaching fish to climb trees and birds to meow like a cat. The problem also lies in the fact that while we focus so much of our energy on teaching our kids how to succeed and keep reiterating how special they are; we don’t focus enough on teaching them how to handle failure.
Failure can be our best friend. It can teach us more than success ever will. It will also make us more capable of handling success when it comes our way. Our kids need to be taught that. Most of them grow up surrounded by stories of successful pop stars, sports stars and YouTubers. They may, quite often, believe that success is something that comes easily to everyone else. With age, we learn better.
The current generation has grown up with two things – depending on which side of the financial fence you are on. A sense of desperation and a sense of entitlement. Both demand success. For the child who has grown with a sense of entitlement, success is a habit – either because he or she never fought a battle that was not already rigged in their favour by a well-meaning society and/or lady luck, or because they have never met another who is equal to or better than them. These kids have no idea how to handle a setback in life.
For the child who is desperate, there is no other option but to succeed. Failure of any kind is not acceptable because they believe that they will not get another chance or shot at success. They may be right too! They may not get another shot at passing whatever exam it is they are appearing for… they may never get another shot at success within a limited canvas. But they are wrong in believing that this is the only way out. They are wrong in believing that success is only limited to what they imagined it to be.
We all need to know that oftentimes failure leads to greater successes, if not in the same field then in some other field. That proverb – “when one door closes, another opens” is true.
In a world that worships popularity, likes, hits and shares, we need to teach our kids that it is ok to be normal and ordinary. The definition of success has to extend beyond fame and acknowledgement by peers. In my 20s, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with world famous names. It was an opportunity that was a blessing. But it had another impact on me too. For a while, no matter how well I did in my life, I felt that my life was an ode to mediocrity. In my head, I had equated success with fame. It took me a while to get over that.
As we spend time carting our kids from one activity to another, as we drop them off to yet another tuition, as we motivate, encourage, nudge, push and chide our kids to greater accomplishments; maybe we need to spend a little time telling them that it is ok to trip and fall. They can always get back on their feet. Real failure is when we choose to stay down.
Maybe along with math, science, and an additional third or fourth language, we should teach them about grit – the quality that American researchers have identified as the prime quality and reason behind a well-balanced and successful life.
Image courtesy: http://www.metanoia.org
This does not mean that we don’t demand the best for, and out of our children. It just means that we teach them to handle the ups and downs of life. Life is not going to be a series of ‘best moments’ captured on Facebook. It is also going to involve fear, loneliness, anger, regret and guilt.
This is not a commentary on a particular suicide. No parent rears their kid for this act. Sometimes we can do everything right and yet things go wrong. But too many kids have been killing themselves off late. And while we can blame the systems – caste, education, politics – I think that is a simplistic outlook. We can try and change the world. But we may or may not be able to. I don’t know. What we can do is to try and equip our children to handle this world and its vagaries… its beauty and disappointments. And let us not depend on our educational institutions to do that for us.
* This post has nothing to do with Rohith Vemula’s death or the suicides caused by other trigger factors, like depression, mental illness, unresolved childhood abuse, emotional anorexia, racism and loneliness. The focus of this blog post is only on suicides in India triggered by the fear of failure suffered by students.
** You can get more information about suicide prevention hotlines in India at http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/international/india-suicide-hotlines.html.
*** In Dubai, visit https://twitter.com/suicidedubai.
**** Featured Image Courtesy: http://www.theweeklyobserver.com