Mar 31, 2008 - published work, Society    2 Comments

The mirage of cool

An article of mine got published in Dawn’s Sunday Magazine but I am pasting the non edited version here.


A couple of months back, I went to my colleagues home to drop some papers off and witnessed an argument between her and her teenaged son. It was about vacations during the winter break. My colleague was preparing to go to Lahore for a host of weddings in the family while her son wanted to go to Europe for a ski trip in the winter break. She tried reasoning with him for various reasons, but he was adamant that he must go skiing this winter as it is a matter of life and death for him. His argument was that all his friends have been to ski trips and he does not want to be the only ‘uncool’ person who has never experienced skiing. When my colleague said that ski trips are very expensive, he should think about it. He accused her of being partisan as she can pay thousands of dollars in tuition fee for his older brother who is studying in a posh private university in US but cannot rustle up enough funds for him to go skiing. When I tried to lighten the mood by telling the 15 year old Ahmed that I sat in an aero plane for the first time when I was 14 and bungee jumped at 25. His response was a sardonic look and ‘I don’t wanna do things when I am geriatric.’ I have to say that I was quite taken by surprise for his contempt for losers like myself, his knowledge about costing of international luxury vacations and tuition fees of Ivy League schools and his vocabulary. One must admit that not many 15 years old would use the word geriatric.

It is not just Ahmed, most teenagers, at least the affluent and upper middle class teenagers, these days are like that; materialist and seeking instant gratification. They don’t want to share things even with their siblings so everyone want their own music systems, ipods, laptops, digital cameras, mobile phones and they want the latest possible versions of all the gadgets. Not only that, they are extremely brand conscious and will only be happy with the clothing or gadget of their brand choice. Sadly, the schools are feeding into this trend. Students bring in their latest possessions to school; they compare notes and if their gadgets are found wanting, they urge their parents to upgrade it. Those who cannot afford argue with their parents and are bitter, some even go into depression.

What is sad that there are no checks on it by the school administrations. Children are allowed obscene display of wealth, whether they are flaunting imported stationary, designer school bags (yes, there is something called designer school bags) or bragging about their expensive vacations to exotic locales. It is agreed that the primary responsibility rests with the parents but schools need to come up with some rules to control the exhibitionist streak in its young fellows. Most posh schools do not offer van services and discourage parents to use outside van services. They insist that parents drop and their pick their children themselves. Not only that it is wreaking havoc with the climate, it creates what now is normally known as ‘School Hour Traffic Jam’. Imagine how environment friendly it would be if there were just 12 buses ferrying school children instead of 400 cars per school, but school managements discourage that. So mummies come in their 4000 cc Cherokees to pick up 3 year old toddlers and anyone who wants to step out anytime between 12.00 pm to 1.00 pm in that area either has to battle the mummy traffic or stay put till it is all over.

I recently volunteered as an alumnus of my university at an education fair and most of the students wanted to know about degrees in actuarial sciences, medicine, merchandising (I swear I did not even know what merchandising was when I was a teenager) and business and finance. When I tried to point out that studying medicine abroad is extremely expensive, almost all the prospective students (most of them were either in their last year of GCSE or first year of GSE) brushed it as an irrelevant irritant. An hour later, I went to the ladies room and overheard two students. One of them asked her friend as to why were she making repeated queries about a course (medicine) that she cannot afford and the other one replied that initially she did not know but later did it so save face. Apparently she was embarrassed about the fact that her parents do not have an insane amount of money to send her abroad for a extremely expensive course.

As an alumnus of a convent school, I remember we had to strictly follow the uniform down to Bata shoes which was a great leveler. We were not allowed to wear even hair clips and other such accessories. I remember that one of my class mates brought a Rs. 500 note to school cafeteria and created a stir amongst the rest of us who had, at best, a 50 rupees note. It was so out of ordinary that her parents were called by the school administration and duly reprimanded for setting up the bad example of exhibiting inappropriate amount of money in the school. With the exception of a very tiny minority, all of us used van to get back home which instilled a sense of camaraderie in the students from different grades and section. Some of us are still friends and keep in touch even though it has been over a decade since we passed out.

Providing children with comfortable life is something that all parents aspire to, but they should also be taught about the value of money and its importance in determining life choices. Similarly teachers and school administrations cannot be absolved of their responsibility towards their wards and should encourage community activities and discourage display of wealth and other luxuries to develop a more harmonious environment in the schools, such practices will lead to a society which values humans more than material gains.

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  • Everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses. I am so fortunate that our school had a really strict policy when it came to Uniform and bringing gadgets to school. Times have changed so drastically that if you can’t conform you don’t belong. I thought the basic idea of schools was to make sure that it gives you an education. It’s amusing to know that our so called elite schools get away with such behavior. I also feel sorry for all these Kids who cant do without their material fixation. This does not bode well for them in the future as they get away with demanding stuff or if they don’t they develop a severe inferiority complex. Schools should start cracking down because this can lead to severe consequences in their psyche. We can learn from this and instill the value of money into our progeny (whenever we have them) and save them from doom.

  • Education has become commercialised now. These children are not learning anything useful from such institutions. I had never heard of porche or ferrari in my school life but today’s even 5 year olds know various makes of cars and other luxuries.. They are living in a dream world .. and keep running after dreams.. one student of mine had a dream of buying a BMW in Islamabad before 6 years and now he has it…but what next? Another one wanted a big room for his A Level studies, now he is living in a studio flat in Dubai. He hardly stays there and mostly hangs out with his friends. Now he knows that its not the luxuries but people that make our life worth living. That’s the life we should be yearning for.

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