The old lady, who helps my better half in keeping our home clean and tidy, walked up to me hesitantly and stood as if in two minds. I put down the book I was reading and asked her if she wanted to say something. She produced a slip of paper with the following scrawled across it in handwriting that was barely legible, “Peas and Tolerens in 650 words”. It took me some time to decipher the words that had been penned by the woman’s 13-year old daughter - an eighth class student in a rural Islamabad Government School.

It transpired that this little girl was required by her teacher to write a 650-word essay in English on the subject of ‘Peace and Tolerance’ and since the girl was unable and unwilling to produce the assignment, the mother had come to me with the request that I become the ‘proxy’ author of the piece. I explained that getting someone else to do her daughter’s school work would be dishonesty on the one hand and, more importantly, would spoon-feed the child to the detriment of her education.

As the disappointed woman walked away, I sat musing over what had happened. I wondered if the concerned teacher would have been able to complete the same task that she wanted the girl to accomplish. I also wondered if the same teacher had ever written an honest essay in her days as a student and whether she had chalked the topic on her black board (if there was one in the class) and asked the children to faithfully reproduce what she had written.

And as I mused deeper, I grew angrier by the minute. How was a village girl in her early teens expected to write an essay in a language that was alien to her? And even by a stroke of genius she could, how could she tackle a 600-word essay on a topic that was likely to ‘stump’ many an adult?

The ‘maverick’ inside me kept urging me to undertake a visit to the concerned school and have a few words with the Principal, but better judgment prevailed upon me to smother the impulse, in view of a previous experience many years ago.

It was somewhere in the eighties that I lodged myself in an old rest house during a tour of duty in southern Punjab. I was awakened in the morning by a number of young voices raised in what sounded like a ‘tribe of cannibals’ hyping themselves up for the hunt. I looked out of my bedroom window to discover that the rest house wall was a common entity with the local village school and the chant was coming from a large group of boys, who were swaying forward and backward ‘looping’ the same line from one of their school books. Then my eyes took in the ‘show stopper’ in the scene - the ‘master sahib’.

The man was reclining on a broken down chair with a pair of unwashed feet resting on a stool. One student was vigorously massaging his head, while another was straining hard to ‘press’ his legs. It took me a second to open the window and admonish the man, who got up and countered me with invectives that could shame the vilest in the land. I hurriedly shut the window and then spent the next 30 minutes remonstrating with myself for having instigated the incident.

As a journalist, it is well-nigh impossible for me to ignore the guilty, especially when the wrong being committed concerns our children and the future of this country. This week’s piece illustrates the criminal apathy and neglect that hallmarks our education system. This is one area, which warrants radical surgery without mercy, for if we let status quo run its course, then all is certainly lost.

The writer is a freelance columnist.