Over the last month or so there have been a few illicit-substance-related incidents at school involving the Class VII boys from the boarding hostel. Most of the teachers are saying that the school has never faced these kinds of problems before and some are frustrated, seeing it as the influence of a few overly-worldly, ‘very naughty’ students who've been kicked out of schools in Thimphu and been sent to our naive little village school for 'second chance'.
In my under-slept, over-worked frame of mind, I also reacted to these incidents with frustration. Frustration that the students perpetrating them should be bringing their negative influences to bear on the sweet, kind and (in the best way) innocent students and school that I have grown very quickly to love.
The Bhutan education system is currently in the process of transitioning from a corporal punishment model of behaviour management to a model in which 'beating' is now against the law. Corporal punishment still goes on in most (if not all) schools and definitely still occurs at our school. In my limited experience, it seems that many schools are struggling to come up with more appropriate approaches to behaviour management and seem a bit confused as to how to set and reinforce boundaries without resorting to giving children a good ole’ clip over the ear.
And whilst there will be those out there who believe that all corporal punishment is wrong and others who believe that it should only be used in very extreme circumstance and when all other strategies have failed, I've noticed that there is a big difference between those teachers who beat the children because it's their only behaviour management strategy and the only way they have of 'motivating' the kids and those who will give a kid a whack for a specific misdemeanor such as bringing drugs onto school property, stealing from other students or deliberately inviting outsiders to the school for a 'gang fight'.
Needless to say I found the school's disciplinary response to these incidents to be very different to how they might be handled at home. Despite the unfamiliarity of this, I eventually felt like I could understand where the school staff were coming from and what they were trying to achieve even if I might have chosen to do things differently. The irony for me is that whilst physically punishing the students (in this case a group of about 10 boys) in front of the whole school might seem like an outwardly stronger form of discipline, the students themselves receive little more than a quick swipe across the butt with a bamboo cane, cushioned by thick layers of gho material that has the reputation amongst Bhutanese of being strong enough to deflect flying arrows. Very little more than this is done. These 'naughty' students retain the same privileges as other students, are sheltered from the real legal consequences they would face in the real world, get to enjoy the popular notoriety that comes with being the 'celebrity' bad-boy and in a final bizarre unintended irony also get to live out their subconscious psychological desire to be part of a group initiation activity through which they form closer bonds with their peers and get to test out the limits of their nascent adolescent masculinity.
In this particular case, the students in questions weren’t feeling remorseful for what they had done, nor were they feeling inconvenienced or even uncomfortable about the consequences they faced. Every student is different and for some students it is enough to simply talk with them to see that they regret the choices they have made and will try to do differently next time and no further ‘consequences’ are needed. But in this particular case, the students in question were laughing and grinning at each during their punishments and repeated similar behaviours in the weeks that followed.
I think it would have been much more effective and relevant for the future development of the students if they were forced to write and then read out in front of the whole school a sincere and well thought-out apology explicitly detailing what they had done, the consequences of their actions for the school community, how they would compensate the community for their actions and how they would change their behaviour if found in similar circumstances in the future. This kind of apology could be carefully and explicitly scaffolded by teachers and would help to make students accountable to their school community for their actions and future behaviour.
The students would have also benefitted, in my humble opinion, from missing out on some of their normal privileges – for example, a boarding student who steals from his fellow roommates could lose the privilege of sharing the camaraderie of the shared hostel room and instead be made to sleep in one of the empty hostel rooms all by himself. Similar arrangements could also be made during leisure and study times. Surely this a reasonable reflection of what happens socially to someone who continues to steal from his friends and colleagues in real life.
Such students could also be made to miss out on inter house sports, weekend movies and outings and should also lose their free time during interval and lunch times, during which they should do community service (SUPW) to make up for the time and energy the community has had to direct towards them in breaking up their fights, meeting with their parents and running investigations to recover their stolen goods. Students involved in explicitly illegal activities, such as entering the hostel and stealing others property or bringing drugs onto school property could also benefit from a frank and open discussion with a couple of members of the local police force as to what might be the consequences of any repeat infringements of this nature given that they are almost adults and will soon face the full force of the law without the protection of their parents and school to shield them.
But of course all of this meting out of punishment, whilst important, also misses many of the essential reasons why these boys were wanting to use drugs, engage in gang fights and steal from each other in the first place.
A quick search on google reveals that some of the key psychological motivations for drug taking in teenagers are:
· an intense need for novelty and new experience driven by the hyper-activity of the limbic system during adolescence.
· an overwhelming desire experienced by most teenages to feel like they fit in with their peers – a desire that is often so strong that it will often easily outstrip any more rational or moral imperatives a teenager may have for chosing how to behave amongst friends.
· the sense of social confidence and togetherness that shared drug taking can provide – a motivation that is particularly relevant for those teenagers stuggling to find alternative strategies for making new friends, expressing themselves and dealing with awkward social situations.
· the pleasant physiological sensations that many drug taking experiences can provide is also attractive to teenagers – especially those who experience limited positive emotions in other dimensions of their lives. This makes those teenagers who are disconnected from their families, who experience frustration or confusion in their studies, who are socially isolated or who feel disengaged with the extra-curricula activities presented to them particularly vulnerable to developing a dependence on drug taking.
· a sense of boredom or meaninglessness is another reason why teenagers, who are often characterised as looking to push the boundaries and have new experiences, will turn to drugs to counteract their ennui.
Apart from the boys’ various individual histories and psychological predispositions which of course will contribute significantly to their likelihood of engaging in ‘very naughty’ activities, the boys spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week on school premises. Their structured activities, apart from evening and night time study for two hours, end at 3:15 and at 12:40pm on Saturdays and there are precious few ‘carrots’ that can be withheld as alternatives to using ‘the stick’. They receive very little pastoral care outside of school hours and are not allowed to leave the school grounds or receive visitors. Many come from loving, devoted families, but many do not. Some struggle with their studies and are already behind their cohorts at school, whilst others cope admirably with the pressures of studying in a foreign language even though they have to work extremely hard to do so. Like most teenagers they are stuggling to find their place socially and it’s no surprise to see that a few of the ‘overly-worldly’ older students from Thimphu have assumed alpha roles in the group and seem to be dictating the social agenda – effortlessly determining the parameters of what’s cool and what’s not. Passing through campus on a weekend, I often find both the girls and the boys hanging around the school gate looking listless and complaining to me that they are ‘feeling so boring, Sir.’
When I first began visiting the boys during their non-study time so that we could all play a game of Uno together, most of the boys were beside themselves with excitement. (Cards are banned in the hostel due to prevent arguments). They jostle and wrangle, falling over themselves to make me feel welcome, bringing me pillows or plastic carpets to sit on so that I am comfortable. In their enthusiasm they holler random phrases in Dzonglish: “I! I! I! Fifteenth graduate!” (read: “I’ve finished my bachelor’s degree! I’m a genius! I also don’t smell badly of musty adolescent B.O.! In fact, I have excellent personal hygeine and lady-killing social skill to boot!”) This is a nice thing for me, because I get to feel like a post modern combination of Santa Claus and Mary Poppins (picture if you will, a transgender Disney character with a white beard, carpet bag and cherry-red lipstick) just for popping around (pun intended) for a game of cards with a group of students who are almost uniformly polite, funny and full of youthful enthusiasm.
Lu and I decided to continue this kind of fun and activity based engagement by organising to go on a Sunday afternoon outing with half of the boys, up to the local monastery – Talakha Goempa – perched high on the crest of a ridge, one and a half hour’s walk from Chamgang - the subject of the next blog post!