It has been over ten years since I went to a five-day camp-contest bringing together ‘Whiz Kids’ from schools across South Asian countries. I can say without any doubt that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I hadn’t even applied for it – I just won the quiz contest in my district, got a chance to contest for special entry into the finals only to unexpectedly make it.
I couldn’t relate to any other participants. For one, most of them spoke in Hindi, a language I was not comfortable with. I remember feeling alienated for an entire two-hour drive when they played antakshari and I waited for an A.R. Rahman song to come up so I could sing along in Tamil. But more importantly, the others were all so sure of themselves and comfortable in their skin to a point that mildly scared me.
I spoke to very few, and most conversations were uncomfortable. “Why do you wear that necklace when you’re wearing jeans?” one of the girls had asked, making me realise for the first time that the pairing happened to be strange outside of my town in Tamil Nadu.
“My parents won’t let me not wear jewellery,” I mumbled, adding “It’s a thing where I’m from,” unconvinced that she’d understand. A few others had asked me why my school uniform was so old-fashioned, or inquired if I broke something when I fell off the tire-wall during the activity.
When you’re from a small town, you’re always catching up. Your confidence is constantly running on low while the city people seem to have more than a 100%. Your modesty is set at maximum that even you don’t believe in yourself!
That day, I was waiting for my turn at the speaking round, terribly under-prepared, because I simply didn’t know how to. Seated squarely in the middle in an attempt to be as unnoticeable as possible, I watched one smart city kid after another use their five minutes to say something incredibly intelligent, profound or emotional that awed or moved the audience and the judges.
As I stiffly waited for this ordeal to get over, I wondered for what seemed like the hundredth time in the previous few days: How is everyone here so talented, confident and great at socialising? And here I thought I was a confident person! That camp had shattered all my beliefs about myself. A lot of self esteem went down as collateral damage.
The prompt for the speaking round was: Your biggest lie. If asked to speak on this today, I’d have to be shooed off stage for overtime. But back then, I severely lacked self-awareness, social skills and emotional intelligence. These were never brought up or required at school, and my parents weren’t great in that department either.
So when my name was called, I dragged my ill-prepared self on stage, narrated a story which did not happen, and wrapped up saying that that was my biggest lie. I’d known fully well that mine was a bad speech, so I did not expect any recognition for it. But nor did I expect what came next.
At the end, when the organiser of the camp got on stage, he made a special mention of me and a few others. It’s normal to forget what one hears a decade ago from a near-stranger. But I clearly remember what he said in an angry and disgusted tone.
“How dare you lie to all of us that you have never lied before? Couldn’t you be truthful for one moment of your lives?” A barrage of other accusations followed, for ten full minutes, as we sat painfully aware of how all the nearly 100 kids there knew who it was directed towards.
He said that the speech given by me, and two or three others who pulled a similar (what we believed to be funny) trick, was disrespectful to everyone else who opened up about themselves. In hindsight, I see his point. But I cannot digest the anger and authority with which he reprimanded us like that in front of everyone.
His words that day would have affected everyone at whom his attack was directed at. But it broke me.
It broke me so bad that I spent the rest of the camp second-guessing everything I did. Let me rephrase that: I spent the next few years of my life second-guessing everything I thought and felt. It broke me deep enough for the layers of self-confidence, self-esteem, and independence to take a blow, and for new creepers self-doubt and self-hate to take root.
Today, after years of practice in reflection and exercises in self-awareness, I look back at that day. After learning from psychotherapy and the literature I’ve read, I’ve come to terms with the “trauma” I had experienced. I realise how that man and his team were so under-qualified to handle and “judge” a hundred emotionally-vulnerable children and adolescents.
Each of us who made up a story that day made a choice to do so. And they had the right to that agency, even if it was to make a fool of themselves. A good host would have laughed it off as lame, not picked a one-way fight with powerless children who were at his mercy for the next few days.
I’m now a communications professional with a personal interest in mental health and if I could I would keep children away from big, highly competitive events. And I often dream of organising a camp where children are told not to judge; to play and not compete; learn from each other; perform and not be judged. In this one, the slow, introverted and socially awkward ones will be given special spaces where they feel comfortable, and coached for the activities.
“Welcome. Tell us all about yourself, your town or village, your language, that beautiful necklace, and your silly stories. We’re all interesting, and each of your thoughts are valid!”
Nirupama V is a writer and podcaster working in the development sector; passionate about mental health and Kdramas. She tweets @upmavenkat.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty