Here in our land of grounded dreams, the winds of spring arrive with the tidings of final exams.
Just when the cold in the air seems to be abating, the sun seems to shine a bit warmer on the white walls, and the sky seems glad to have back its shade of blue, – when you are ready with all your soul to surrender to the holidays, they serve you the notice, and they serve you the menu. You can’t pick, though. The items have been chosen for you at the beginning of the year.
I am a member of the catering team. So in a way, I am the enemy. However, I am also a Vidyapithian – batch of 2007, to be specific – and I was brought up on different values. I don’t always play by the rules. This results in this idea some students have that they can come to me and say things that wouldn’t be appreciated elsewhere. Or, they can come to me when they need someone who wouldn’t look at it the same way as ‘the rulebook’ dictates. They are not wrong. I am a pupil of Rabindranath when it comes to these things. Freedom of the Spirit always supersedes the boundaries of the Structure. So I go with my gut. No student in the world could truly love exams, because of the simple reason that to be subjected to examining is an insult to the learner’s humanity. Yes, they might have been conditioned to crave what follows – the results, so to say – but that is merely a Pavlovian reaction, an engineered response which is as artificial as the utterings of a caged parrot.
Examinations should have been a process that lets us test ourselves so that we can pace ourselves better in our long climb to perfection. It should have been a tool for the students, and not the teachers, that they would use to improve themselves through creative growth. What do we have instead? A giant pedagogic machine that is in part a monstrosity and in part a joke, an apparatus that aims to appease the crowd at the lowest levels, and thin the herd at the highest.
And the seeds that get crushed in this machine are the students. As Carlin would have said, ‘The poor little fucks.’ Back in Carlin’s day, I’d guess the situation was less dire. Now it is worse. We have parents who have been absent from their kids’ lives forever, and now want to get ‘professional’ at it. Of course the gap doesn’t close. What was it that Jane had said in American Beauty? – “Dad, what do you expect? You can’t all of a sudden be my best friend, just because you’ve got a problem.“
The teachers could have been a solution, but the system wasn’t made to accommodate for that. Our teachers are not meant to nurture life, they are meant to be the service clerk at the drive-in window. – The funny part is that this realization is not even new. For years, our leaders-in-education have been developing our schooling models along Western lines, and all along, they have been making a mess of it. Every time someone points out the mistake, they go back to churning a new toy out the same faulty machine. Tagore had tried to tell us, –
The students of the European Universities not only have their human environment of culture in their society, they also acquire their learning direct from their teachers. They have their sun to give them light; it is the sun of the human relationship between the teachers and the students. We have our hard flints, which give us disconnected sparks after toilsome blows; and the noise is a great deal more than the light. These flints are the abstractions of learning; they are solid methods, inflexible and cold.
To our misfortune we have, in our own country, all the furniture of the European University – except the human teacher. We have, instead, merely purveyors of book-lore, in whom the paper god of the bookshop seems to have made himself vocal. And, as a natural result, we find our students to be ‘untouchable’, even to our Indian professors. These teachers distribute their doles of mental food, gingerly and from a dignified distance, raising walls of note-books between themselves and their students. This kind of food is neither relished, nor does it give nourishment. It is a famine ration strictly regulated, to save us, not from emaciation, but only from absolute death. It holds out no hope of that culture which is far in excess of man’s mere necessity; it is certainly less than enough, and far less than a feast.
And then at year’s end, we ask them to jump and measure how high they go.
One of my own came up to me, asking for a signature in his notebook, and a line, if I had one. He said it was because his ninth has been a great year. I wondered what to write, and then decided on something from years back. It is not even my own memory. It is something I read in a memoir, published by my school in its 50th-anniversary magazine.
It was a day of the annual exams. They had Biology that day (the author’s batch was from sometime in the 80s) in the afternoon, and in the morning the study hall was in a nervous uproar. Everyone was apprehensive. Everyone was talking to others, worried about what might turn up and what was not quite properly prepared. It was a dismal state. Then Swapanda walked in. Swapanda, teacher of English (and a lot of other things that I can’t begin to talk about here), was the warden. Immediately he made everyone drop their books, notes, and anything else they might’ve been studying, and made them march out of the study hall straight into the hostel. No more studies, he said. This is a travesty; you’ve studied enough. – He closed the hall and locked the door.
The author wrote, “We took the exam later, just like that, without having laid eyes on a book for the past several hours. And we all did excellently. The funny thing is, we were not really surprised.”
It was Swapanda’s credo that you need to perform your best as per your preparation. On the day of the test, there would be no cause for worry. Never mind if you’re not prepared enough. You cannot ever be fully prepared for life. Whatever you have done throughout the year, wherever you stand now as a result – just do your best from that spot. That’s your measure as a student. The rest is trivial, – it doesn’t count.
And that’s what I wrote in the notebook.
If you are trapped in a system that trades your freedom to buy you mere passage through life, if in the name of exams you are subjected to physical strain and mental abuse for year after year, – if your natural process of growth has been institutionally mechanized and rebranded as a kind of WAR, – then you need to treat all of it with the same disdain they had for you. You shouldn’t have to burn yourself up for this. Any person that asks you to sacrifice your wings just to be allowed out of the cage is full of shit. Keep your wings, and do everything you can to give yourself the best chance at escaping the bars, and let go.
If you have been honest to yourself, if you have done your personal best, then you have the right to expect the world to recognize that. There are plenty of well-wishers and do-gooders standing by the lines, piling their burdens of expectation on your backs. Hold your head high and tell them, – I have done whatever I can. ‘…and if that’s not good enough… then screw you.’
(And be ready for later. You know what followed that line, right?)