Our 14-year-old starts to study for her tenth, the big state exam next year, and suddenly, you can’t see the woods for the cloaks and daggers.
The year began innocuously enough. The school has had, till now, no system of competitive grading, didn’t send assessment answer sheets home, and has always discouraged extra tuitions. As a result, my girls have been gloriously innocent of who ranks first in their class.
Of course, some children win inter-school debates and singing contests. Others are flown to different cities to play violin with their fellow little geniuses in an international orchestra. One of my daughter’s classmates has won every skating contest she has entered. One is nearly six feet tall. That has been the extent of the competitive differentiation.
Then Kid A’s best friend’s mum called a couple of months ago with news that kids were forming groups, hiring tutors this year so they weren’t left scrambling for the best ones next year. And she – this funny, lovely woman, not a single burnt bridge behind her, who cheerfully endures the class WhatsApp group and volunteers at school – had only just found out.
I moved to India toward the end of Class 8. On my first day of school here, a new classmate walked up, hand on one hip, and said, “You! New girl! What rank did you have in your old school?” I would soon learn that academic rank is very important in the Indian system of education. “Maintaining your rank” was something even the preteens were obsessed with, and they were willing to be wily about it. The learning curve was sharp for me – and I don’t mean school learning.
“I’m not studying for this terminal, forget it,” one would say languidly.
“I’m just doing these three chapters and leaving the other three out. It’s so boring,” a second would say, smoking an imaginary cigarette.
“My mum and I have been watching The Bold and the Beautiful every night and eating ice-cream,” said a third.
This new school sounded amazing! They got me. I turned up for the exams half-prepared, fat from the ice cream, sleepless and slightly perplexed from The Bold and the Beautiful – but feeling "one with the crowd". When we finished, I was slightly disconcerted by Languid, Imaginary Cigarette and Third’s momentary seriousness, as they did a post-mortem on their question papers, but gosh – this was chill.
Then the results came.
I was somewhere in the obscure middle of the ranks, but despite all the playing hooky, my friendly academic advisory committee had maintained their status at the top of the class. I went home nonplussed. My mum was aghast at my drop in form. And then I told her that maybe the system was loaded against me because the other girls had not studied at all and done remarkably well. She laughed! Then she looked at me seriously and completely exhausted her colloquialisms for "naïve peasant". There were boats, beasts of burden, and vegetables involved.
I had been HAD. By the competition. I learned my lesson and worked hard no matter what my peers told me. Later in life, a dear friend and I did a very tough maths exam together. We expected terrible results, but when I got a 4/100, I burst out laughing; it was so bad it was ridiculous. She laughed and laughed with me, until her answer sheet arrived. She had earned exactly two marks. This was maths I could do – it was TWICE as funny! But she put her head on her desk and began to sob. We were not friends for much longer.
I’m well aware of the narrow funnel we’re hoping to squeeze our large armies of offspring through. Every year, college admission percentage cut-offs look increasingly unattainable. For most of the kids, the conventional educational route is still the only option, and it is imperative to get into a "good’ college" as springboard into career specialisation.
But I’m still not convinced that withholding information and study strategies from each other is going to really benefit our kids in the long run. A few mums who were only last year trading fashion bargain tips and behaviour hacks are now eyeing each other warily and telling their children, “Don’t tell xyz that you’re doing abc, or they will do better than you will.” The children, as a result, are burdened not just with early onset Rat Race Syndrome, but have started looking at their classmates as competition, rather than comrades. Where they could be banding together, inspiring and supporting each other, the kids smell fear.
Most of my energy is spent trying to raise the village that will raise the children, and though I don’t have many, I share all my strategies. For example, next year, as the academic pressure builds up, I have told Kid A she will maintain her sports schedule but we will add music and singing, which she loves, to the weekly repertoire. (This is not only as a stress-reliever. I will be using these newly created privileges as leverage against indifferent exam results.) It is a brilliant strategy, I think, but the one mom I enthusiastically shared it with looked at me like I was smoking an imaginary cigarette, fingers still sticky from ice cream.
This article first appeared on The Swaddle.