“He has to go! He is extremely indisciplined and an absolute failure! There is no place in our school for such students!!” I stood there feeling a little awkward but don’t remember feeling terribly ashamed. My parents had been pleading with Father P, the principal, but all to no avail. Finally, he insisted that we leave his office. As I walked out of those hallowed gates for the last time as a much maligned nine year old, my parents were inconsolable. Hitherto, they had taken a lot of pride in the fact that they had managed to send me to one of the country’s most respected schools, but now, here I was, expelled even before I could learn to spell the word.
Now, think about it! I hadn’t killed a fellow student over lunch money, nor had I been an instrument of moral capitulation for any of my teachers (as far as I know or can remember), and yet, the headmaster was calling me a failure and my parents were ashamed of their only son, simply because I found science and math too boring to pass. Let me remind you that I was in the fifth grade at the time.
Was I a very bad student? Honestly, I don’t think so. Other than obstinately holding on to the notion that every number had to be an ‘odd number’ all through my early years, I was a surprisingly pliant child. I was good at languages and history and too shy to be naughty. But sadly, I was being ground between millstones that demanded conformity and industry, a system that condemned an obvious weakness far more than it praised an obvious strength. All I was told was that I was bad at this and bad at that. My parents, with their misplaced sense of reverse motivation repeated the same patter, thus driving home the point that within the walls of ‘school’, I really was good for nothing. And since no human being, child or adult, particularly likes feeling like he is good for nothing, I would cycle to school, contemplating the prospect of another dreary day, and on occasions end up in a garden instead where I would spend a happy day with Alexandre Dumas or Conan Doyle… That was of course until the bubble burst and I and my parents made an ignominious exit from school one.
I went to a new school, made new friends and was lucky enough to make new friends who helped me discover that I wasn’t all bad. I still was embarrassingly inept at math (my scores all through rarely crossed the 50% mark, and consistently hovered around 20% or less) but it really did not matter because I wanted to work with what I enjoyed, the humanities, and as long as I did better than most at them, I was happy. I know what you are thinking. Did I make it to an IIT or an IIM? No I did not. But one of my friends made it to IIT and the other went to Delhi School of Engineering and then to Wharton and while their cars and bank balances might be marginally bigger, I suspect I’m having a little more fun.
This just isn’t my story. This perhaps also is your story, or your child’s perhaps…. And I’m putting it down for you because I really believe that while most of our schools might forever remain institutions where we are sent more to be judged than to learn, let us as individuals retain a balanced perspective about a school report card. Every child is good at something because of a certain genetic or cultural orientation, and perhaps because of the very orientation, is also disinterested in certain other things. Academic excellence is usually proof of discipline and industry, not potential and as long as that potential is encouraged, one will emerge a happy and a successful human being, neither of which can be measured in ‘degrees’.
The slip stream
The carefully regimented lifestyle that schools claim to foster often ends up constricting the creativity and enterprise of students. Those who conform are held up as paragons of virtue, to be emulated and followed, whereas those who choose to differ are often derided and humiliated. Most often, schools fall into the trap of having a ‘tunnel vision’ towards the achievement of good grades by their students, of getting the highest passing percentage and grooming the kid who would top All India rankings. Rather than realising that a student who tops in every subject perhaps needs more direction than one who knows his strengths and weaknesses and concentrates on the former. Great personalities and free minds over the ages have often rebelled against this system of ‘rote learning’; prominent ones include Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. Churchill who was rebellious and a non-conformist did poorly at school and often got unduly punished. Einstein on the other hand found the careful regimentation too stifling for his creativity. These once-upon-a-time school ‘failures’ ironically enough went on to rewrite school books, which students continue to memorise, unfortunately, still by rote.