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Manners Matters

by AMRIT & RABINDRA KAUR SINGH

 

The Singh Twins were recently rated the top contenders, out of forty-four artists, in a public poll conducted worldwide over the internet to nominate a Liverpool-based artist for the "Liverpool Turner Prize". Inspired by the famous London Tate Gallery's "Turner Prize", this new prize will be awarded  for the first time later this year. As a result of the poll, Amrit and Rabindra have been shortlisted, along with five other finalists.

The following is the third installment of an ongoing series, exploring their unique and eventful lives and featuring their tandem talents.


Despite the somewhat secondary status we sometimes felt we were afforded as the only non-Christians in a Catholic school, we look back on our days at Holt Hill Convent with great nostalgia.

It was one of those old-time institutions where discipline and good manners underpinned every aspect of school life. These traits were considered to be essential ingredients for a thorough, all-round education and as important to the individual student's development as academic instruction.

Kindergarten and upper school pupils alike would have to stand whenever staff and senior class prefects entered the room and talking was absolutely forbidden in the corridors when moving between classes.

A short but painful rap on the palm of the hands with a wooden ruler or a sharp slap on the back of the legs was an acceptable form of punishment for anyone caught misbehaving in class or failing to complete homework.

Obtaining permission to do anything would always involve having to say "may I" rather than "can I". Using the wrong term simply meant suffering the embarrassment of being totally ignored. As we recall our Maths teacher commonly explain, "If the question is whether you can, then it is clearly possible. But whether one is allowed or not, is an entirely different matter".

To a seven-year-old, desperate to be excused to use the bathroom (as was the case when we first broke that particular rule of etiquette and grammar), this was not only a highly confusing response but an agonizingly drawn-out reply to a desperately-needed short answer.

But it has to be said that the explanation was most effective in driving the point home, as it still echoes vividly in our ears today, whenever we hear anyone begin to ask for something with the words "can I".

Proper table manners were taught as standard fare with each meal, beginning with a prayer of thanks led by the senior teachers' table. It was, of course, situated at the head of the room, strategically placed there to oversee what the pupils might be getting up to at any given moment.

A member of the staff was allocated to make sure we all held our knives and forks correctly and rested them down on our plates whilst chewing. And, at the end, every plate would be inspected to make sure that nothing was wasted  -  scraps of meat being the sole exception, because of one teacher who delighted in collecting any left-over bits for her cat.

Pride of appearance and good grooming were definitely taken very seriously, to the extent that our kindergarten teacher made a point of keeping a nailbrush in her desk, which, we can say from personal experience, was used without hesitation on any little girl found to have even the slightest speck of grubbiness on her hands.

We have not-so-pleasant memories of failing the hand inspection in our first year at Holt Hill, and being marched into the toilets to have our knuckles and nails lathered up and scrubbed whistle-clean, but red-raw. Needless to say, it only ever happened once.

There was a strict dress code for different times of the year. Winter macs, bowler hats and beige knee-length socks gave way to woollen blazers, white ankle-socks and straw hats in the summer.

There were also endless pairs of shoes that would have to be changed several times throughout the course of a single day  -  including outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, sport shoes, and no less than three separate sets of soft footwear for ballet, English Country and Scottish dancing. Even one's underwear colours had to match the seasons!

There was no getting away with it, as uniform checks were carried out without warning, at the whim of the head nun. Woe betide any girl who neglected or forgot to comply that day. Thankfully, some element of discretion was exercised with senior classes, who were spared the humiliation of having to prove whether their underwear conformed to regulation or not.

The school's reputation was everything. So, eating of any kind, particularly sweets, outside the school premises whilst still in uniform, was a definite no-no.

Throughout our entire time at Holt Hill, it was especially frustrating to us that even if we had dared to, we had no chance at all of defying this particular rule, due to the fact that one of our teachers followed the same route home, marching at a brisk pace, never more than a few steps behind us.

Maintaining that public image was regarded as both a collective and individual responsibility.

There was one occasion, for example, when every pupil was required to write an apology note to a man who had complained that children had been making too much noise in the area of the playground which adjoined his house.

On another occasion, we were reprimanded after a school coach-trip for singing "She'll be wearing spotted bloomers when she comes", for a verse of the song "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain". Somehow, the blame for instigating what was described as a display of vulgarity "unbefitting young ladies" was placed squarely on the "Singh Twins". We were summarily marched off to the head mistress to explain our apparent lack of decorum.

Perhaps some aspects of discipline and notions of etiquette at Holt Hill Convent might have been a little extreme. They would certainly be regarded so by today's standards.

But, without a doubt, they provided a solid grounding and personal understanding of standards that we continue to value in adult life. Good citizenship, mutual respect, pride in appearance, dignity of behaviour and a sense of belonging to a community that has the responsibility to be a good role model for others are all ideals that, in fact, sit perfectly with the Sikh perspective.

And for all that, we wouldn't change that experience for anything.

 

Conversation about this article

1: Inni Kaur (CT, USA), June 29, 2007, 1:48 PM.

Your piece made me smile. The discipline you write about was the discipline that I too experienced at Convent of Jesus & Mary in Simla, India. The nuns were firm and not always fair. I too had my fair share of knuckle-smacking. Many Re.1 fines (from my meager Rs. 5 pocket-money) were paid for rocking my chair. Woe befell if you were caught chewing gum. Some things stay with you. But looking back, I too would not change a thing.

2: Mehtab Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), June 30, 2007, 1:55 AM.

You have captured so well the childhood experiences so many of us have had, those of us who "did time" in schools run by nuns and priests the world over. I agree with you wholeheartedly: tough though it was, and seemed so as we were living through it, those years now glow "golden" through the lens of memory. And it has to be more than mere nostalgia at work - surely, now that we are out in the world and benefitting from all that we learnt then, we now recognize the value of a life of discipline. Tough love, some would describe those days ... and rightly so!

3: Ranjit Kaur (Birmingham, U.K.), June 30, 2007, 2:06 AM.

I like the parallel you've drawn between your school days and the path of Sikhi. True - Sikhi is nothing, if it isn't a life of discipline.

4: Jimmie (Austin, Texas, U.S.A.), August 01, 2008, 4:36 PM.

I disagree ... the rigid stylized way we were subjected to was artificial and elitist. Sure, I feel that discipline etc. is important, but not to the conditioning dimension it assumed. Bur let's not pick on the the institutions ... We blind ourselves because it's easier to follow the path of least resistance. Great path. No energy required. Nostalgia is great, but what are we doing with what we have been given? We have been given a gift of knowledge and strength and um ... discipline ... that few others have and all we have done with it is talk about it, or go down memory lane with it. Sorry if I don't get dewy eyed over all this. I would have liked to see a little more edginess ...

5: Aannsha Jones (Australia), July 08, 2010, 6:51 AM.

Having attended Holt Hill Convent from 1970-78, reading your blog made me smile - it is so reminiscent of those bitter-sweet memories of school!

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