When I was probably
eleven or twelve years old (maybe thirteen, actually), we learnt about conducting debates (the formal kind) in Indonesian Language class. The details escaped my memory, but I think later on in the semester, we were going to form small groups and conduct non-moderated debates as a final group exam.
I can only comprehend it now, but the reason I was so excited with the idea of participating in a debate was the opportunity to have controversial opinions and speak up about it. Again, I didn’t understand it then, but I was excited because whether I realised it or not, it was a rare luxury for someone whose education by that point in time had been packaged exclusively in Catholic and Christian contexts*.
It also helped that I quite liked the teacher, a tall middle-aged man with big mustache and glasses and deep voice. We had two teachers for Indonesian Language class, one for the rules of language: grammar and sentence structure and poem structure, while this teacher on the application of language, the more interesting stuff: stories and debates and newspaper articles. Try as I did, I couldn’t remember anything this teacher (whom I supposedly quite liked) had taught me, as if all my memories related to him and his class had been erased to make space for this singular incident.
Approaching the end of that Introduction to Debate class, we had listed out the possible topics for debate – capital punishment and cloning and child adoption were there on the whiteboard. He concluded the lesson with asserting that ability to debate with evidences to back up your claim is important when we enter real life, because, “everything, any subject, can be open to debate…”
When he said those words, I felt a surge of strange excitement I still could not explain today. I felt that somehow those words indirectly permitting me to form and own and express my opinion and this lesson was preparing me for that. I experienced this weird moment when I was getting to be happy – not yet happy because he hasn’t finished his sentence, but I was getting to be happy. The only other instance in my life in which one moment invoked that kind-of-similar-but-not-really feeling was the few seconds between me seeing an email from my university of choice and finally opening it.
“…except abortion. No debate about it. GILA itu, orang yang pro aborsi!**”
And then the bell rang.
His lesson was over for the day and he walked out the classroom for the next teacher to come in. I felt like losing mandibular control and remained gaping for a while. I was getting to feel happy and then suddenly, I wasn’t. And now, more than a decade later, I have never forgotten that moment. I couldn’t. The entirety of the scene is too vivid. His strong emphasis on the first syllable of the word chosen to describe pro-abortionist. His deep and authoritative voice. His conclusive tone. His dismissal of possibility of debate on the subject. The finality of it all.
Is what I wanted to ask. I wanted to raise my hand and asked, because I, the whole eleven or twelve year-old me, could think of at least one reason that the subject could be debated without being “gila”. My reactionary argument was “What if it was choose-the-mother-or-the-baby type of scenario?” Today, I can definitely name more and better arguments. Sarah Silverman’s answer to Bill Maher comes to mind: she never had an abortion. She doesn’t know if she’d do it. Maybe she will put it up for adoption. But she know she will be damned if that prevented her from speaking up for other women’s right to their bodies.
I didn’t know what I wanted to happen even if I did ask, but I know wasn’t happy with that statement and I wanted him to justify saying it. I wanted to raise my hand and asked but I didn’t. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t and my inaction will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I interrogated my young self and demanded why she didn’t raise her hand and ask. She said she was scared.
Prior to that day, I was being a smart-ass in History class. I vaguely remembered the teacher was saying something about oversupply of coffee beans during the Dutch colony time and that they had to throw what they had in the sea.*** It made no sense to me and wearing my realist’s thinking cap, I asked in a matter-of-fact manner why didn’t they just store the beans somewhere and hide it until there were demand again and hurrah, they’d be rich. And there was one second of silence followed by a boy who shouted jokingly, “You are so evil you are born to be a corrupter****!” – or something to that effect. The other kids laughed, too.
I remembered that after the laughter died down a bit, the teacher thought for a few seconds and answered that coffee is perishable commodities and such tactic wouldn’t work since it required complicity from a lot of people. I thought that was an okay, safe answer. I was eleven or twelve and did not know what supply chain was. What I knew was that I was not going to a corrupt politician or anything bearing semblance to it.
I was not being evil. I was being a realist and I put myself in the shoes of colonial-era Dutchmen, and could not understand why we (the Dutchmen) were cool with slavery but not with hoarding commodities. I had divorced myself with morals and ethics when making that comment, but of course I didn’t verbally state that caveat. I could see how my peers were somewhat appalled at my line of reasoning, but that incident never led into bullying or anything awful (for obvious reason, a classmate expressing an point of view of an evil capitalist in one boring History lesson was not a scandalous enough incident to be made fun of – I mean, what mean names could they even call me? Coffee Tycoon?).
But I hated that they called me evil for that brief moment. So, I was scared. And I remained scared that day in Indonesian Language class that I would be called evil again. Even more so because, this time, I would have expressed my idealist side. Realist thinking is often cold and clinical; I had that on my side when I was divorcing ethics and morals commenting about those freaking coffee. I was thinking as a corrupt Dutch and I was evil – I can make sense of that.
But, if at that time I had spoken about what I believed (and still do), I would be called evil again when I wasn’t coming from a place of evil. And in that split-second I unconsciously knew that I and my whole eleven or twelve years of living would not be able to argue my standpoint eloquently. I hadn’t even developed a standpoint yet then. I only knew it was a subject. Abortion is a subject and it should be open for a debate.
But, I was scared. I didn’t raise my hand. I wished I did but I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t.
And then the bell rang.
I struggled to find a balance when writing this blogpost. I don’t want this post to encompass all what I think about abortion or corruption and less about what I want to say about education. On the other hand, I don’t want to write in such a way that abortion or corruption, both important topics, to be mere vehicles for my self-reflection as well. More than anything, I want to write about my experience being educated, and how those important topics came into play in my education. It is also about me regretting and setting the path to redemption for what I did not do more than a decade ago.
Jumbled, yours truly,
*A little bit of background: most schools in Indonesia from kindergarten to high school were and are religion-oriented. Majority of public schools are Islam-oriented, while private schools, which are fewer in number, are often Christian or Catholic or Buddhist. International schools that I knew of at the time were mostly Christian-oriented.
**”INSANE , that’s what those pro-abortion people are!” The translation to English just doesn’t convey the same emotion.
***I’m not even sure which part of Indonesian history was this, I couldn’t find the record of it anywhere in the Internet. But I am sure this was not in any way mixed up with the limited knowledge I have about Boston Tea Party.
****Corrupter is not a common term used in English-speaking nations as far as I know, but in Indonesia, white-collar criminals with embezzlement, fraud, or other cases of abuses from being in positions of power are often grouped together under the banner koruptor.