My sixth-grade Sanskrit teacher in India had a sadistic ritual. When he felt like it, he would quiz the class on conjugations and tenses. If a student did not get an answer right, he or she remained standing. The student who finally got it right was commanded to slap all the students who failed.
On one occasion, I got the answer right when about half the class did not. My buddies quivered in their places as the teacher demanded that I strike my peers.
I slapped the first boy as gently as I could. This made the teacher mad. He insisted that I slap the students much harder. He told me clearly that he could demonstrate by hitting me, if necessary. I gulped and tried to hit my good friends a little harder.
By and by, I had managed to go through the line of boys and it was the girls’ turn. At this time, I am not sure what came over me. I looked at the teacher who was revelling in some sort of sick pleasure and told him that I do not hit girls. Ever.
To this day, I imagine this moment. Here I was- a scrawny, undernourished 10-year-old standing up to a burly authority figure. At that instant, I was scared and yet, sure of myself. I disagreed while trembling at the possibility of the swift and painful punishment that would be delivered to me. Ultimately, it was an act of courage- even though I did not do it to feel courageous. I just was not going to go against everything my parents had taught me to satisfy the ego of a bully.
My dissent made the teacher madder. He made me an offer. He provided me with a foot-long ruler and suggested that I hit the girls with that if making physical contact was objectionable. I refused. The teacher then decided that I was the one that had to be punished. He slapped me and hit the girls with the ruler himself.
The matter did not end there, thankfully. My Mom noticed my bruised cheek and put two and two together. She complained to the principal and the teacher was reprimanded.
This incident has remained with me. I think now about how I stood up to the bully of a teacher. I had read about Gandhi and non-violence. That is not what motivated me that day. It was just a stubborn belief deep inside me that I did not agree with what the teacher was saying. It was a moment when I felt that I had to disagree. I simply had to.
Today, I am an educator and I teach my students to disagree. This is something my students take for granted. And, yet, open and civil disagreement is the basis for a modern society. Disagreement is not a sign of disrespect. Rather, since disagreement begins with an understanding of the other person’s point of view, it is the ultimate sign of respect. Apathy is built on disinterest and disrespect- not civil dissent. A society where individuals feel scared to disagree is one where control dominates volition. And, that is not the kind of society where I would want to live in.
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