RECENTLY in a book which I purchased with a lot of enthusiasm titled What Young India Wants, a collection of essays by popular Indian author Chetan Bhagat, I came across an article in which the author narrates a story of how, having scored lesser marks than he had expected in a chemistry test at school he was plagued with fear and self doubt to such an extent that he decided to take his own life. The remainder of the article was only a description of the hare brained scheme that he plotted for putting an end to the dreadful misery which was his life and how a friendly neighbourhood aunt and a street dog brought about an epiphany consequent to which he decided against committing suicide. He also spoke a bit about how we should be thankful to wounded stray dogs and nosey neighbours for bringing about life altering moments for the better. Frankly speaking I did not comprehend any deep rooted message if any within the piece and I seriously suspect whether there was any in the first place. However, this chemistry story did remind me of a chemistry related experience I had in my school going days as well. It may be an absurd and juvenile anecdote, but having said that I feel that I might be able to throw some light on a possibly pertinent issue using my chemistry story as a medium since Mr Bhagat did, in my opinion, fail to do via his own.
I was in 7th grade at the time and chemistry had just been introduced as a subject distinct from the science paradigm. We had a new teacher who taught us biology and chemistry. She was a Bengali lady, tied her hair in a neat bun, dressed in an immaculate saree and was an irritable disciplinarian. She had recently started the concept of balancing chemical equations in class and even the brightest and the best were having a hard time grasping it, or so I would like to believe, because I sure was. The concept itself did not scare me. But it was when she announced a 25 mark class test that I started shit panicking. I did not want to subject myself to the humiliation I would have to endure if I failed to manage a respectable score with respect to the rest of my class. It so happened that my cousin from Delhi was in town at that time and was staying at our place. She was a good six and a half years elder to me but I still considered her to be my competitor. I would never have asked her for assistance had it not been for the fear of the impending chemistry test. So I decided that I would rather let my ego take a battering now rather than in front of my entire class when the results of the test were declared.
My cousin was more than willing to help but what was more surprising was the fact that what she explained actually started making sense to me. To this day I have never made a mistake in balancing a chemical equation. Anyway the day of reckoning came and our teacher came to class and dictated the questions following which we were to solve the paper in one hour. I, for the first time since the topic was commenced in class was able to sail through all of the balancing equations and finished my paper about 15 minutes in advance. Once the test finished everyone ran to their friends and started a threadbare discussion of the paper line by line and word by word. After our science class we had our art class in which some of the self-professed geeks of our class sat sullen faced, utterly disappointed by their performance in the test. I figured that if they are so distraught and unsure then I must most certainly have failed, completely neglecting the ease with which I had completed the test. For the first time after my science lecture in the morning I seriously started fearing the consequences of today’s performance.
Next morning our results were declared in two instalments. One half of the class got their result in the first period while the latter unluckier group had to bide their time till the second to last period. I was in the second group and on hearing the marks of the supposedly brilliant students, none of whom had crossed 19 marks, I was convinced that I had flunked. In the second to last period when my science teacher handed me my corrected notebook she smiled at me and announced my marks to the rest of the class, I had scored an unbelievably astronomical 24 and a half on 25 more than any other student in class and had left behind the second highest scorer by a margin of 6 marks straight.
Clearly this left a few of the intelligentsia of my class baffled. I was never very far from the best. However I was never in touching distance either. Now all of a sudden I was the undisputed best. We did not have any other class evaluations after that. Unfortunately just before the finals I had a bout of gastritis and could only secure a 68 on 80 in my total tally for the subject which was just not good enough to maintain the lead I had secured in the class test. Worse, by then everyone had long forgotten the blue moon day when I had topped the class by an enormous margin. All that mattered was the finals report card which did not include the marks of any other class evaluation. My great feat was no longer any feat at all.
The point of this story is that if I had also been given the same amount of recognition which the toppers of my class used to get from every teacher or better still if such a halo was not created around any student by any teacher maybe things could have been different for me as far as my attitude towards academics was concerned. It is not only in my school but in most schools all across this country teachers indulge in the vicious habit of eulogising some students more than the others making the rest feel inferior and thus treat them as inferior in every respect. Probably it is because they have been reared in a similar environment. Even at home and in residential colonies all across the country a sense of awe and splendour surrounds toppers, students who ace mathematics and chemistry and everything else. There is a basic flaw in our approach to academics in every regard. We obsess over marks rather than on the knowledge being gained, idolise those who get marks and completely neglect the rest.
You can blow holes as big as boulders in the education system. However that can be reformed only when the academic atmosphere in the households and schools of our ‘to be’ policy makers is reformed. It is very easy to rip apart a large and ineffective system but it is not all that simple to analyse those minute aspects that make the system so lumbering and inefficient. Every child in the country might be having a chemistry story like mine. It is up to us whether or not to imbibe the moral behind such stories irrespective of whether we are achievers or not.
(The writer is a Ist year student, Gujarat National Law University)