The Superschool series is written by Sir.
Sir writes, “This was a story about the school, and the class I took, that I started writing in 2014–15, intending to publish as a book. With so many other pressing work claiming my time, this was never completed. But I thought I will put up the unfinished work anyway, a bit of it everyday, for our students to read. If you like it a lot, maybe I can be persuaded to write more!”
‘Bring out your sentence homework,’ I say.
This is one of the few conventional stuffs that we do — students have to write sentences using the words given.
‘The first word is — absorb. Anybody has a sentence on it?’
Urgi raises his hand. His enthusiasm never diminishes, no matter how many bad sentences he writes.
‘I absorbed the lizard which was walking on the classroom wall.’
The class erupts into hoots of laughter, shrieks, screams. ‘That’s observe, Urgi, not absorb,’ I say. ‘And it is evident you observe lizards on the wall, rather than listening to the classroom discussion, otherwise how could you write sentences like this?’
‘Well, next one — extravagant– who has a sentence on that?’
‘We did not understand the meaning of this word,’ Fluffy volunteers to explain, bravely.
‘Well, you are being extravagant when you spend excessive amount of money for something.’
‘Like the Shah of Iran, who used to take bath in milk?’ Bhau, always the first to connect issues, apply concepts.
I talked about the Oscar winning movie ‘Argo’ once in the class, and talked about why Iranian people were furious with the Shah because of his excessively luxurious ways.
‘Yes, yes, but it was not the Shah of Iran who bathed in milk, but his wife.’ I corrected.
A torrent of comments.
‘But why would somebody like to bathe in milk? Won’t it feel sticky?’
‘Yeah, and she would smell funny!’
‘I want a WC which uses milk to flush.’
This comment takes the class to a frenzy of imagination — a bathroom where there are separate buttons in the WC, giving you various options for flushing, one with milk, and another with Pepsi.
‘Why Pepsi? I like Coke!’
‘You are not going to drink it, it’s just for flushing!’
‘Well, well,’ I find it difficult to stop the flurry of comments. Raising my voice over the din, I say, ‘Well, such a bathroom will be called an extravagant bathroom.’
‘Shah of Iran did one other thing — he supposedly got his lunch flown in by concord planes to Iran — such a thing can also be called extravagant.’
‘That day we saw a picture in the newspaper where a politician was wearing a garland made of 500 Rs notes,’ Bhau says, ‘such a thing may also be called extravagant.’
‘Correct,’ I say, ‘now let’s move on. We can’t be learning only one word during the whole class.’
Cloudy day. Light drizzle.
The students come to me even before the afternoon class begins. ‘Sir, let’s go out somewhere.’
‘No, no, we are always going out. We are hardly staying in the class. The parents are complaining.’
‘Oh, you always say that. That’s just an excuse. Only you are complaining.’
‘Ok, ok, we’ll see. We can go out after the school, if the weather stays like this. But now we have to work. Come on, get inside — open your ‘Life is beautiful’ booklet.’
Life is beautiful, an Oscar-winning movie by Roberto Benigni, is a favourite with the students. We discuss the screenplay first, then show the movie. The dialogues are full of humour, and of course, we can sneak in some history of World War II and the holocaust without the students noticing it.
But today they are in no mood. Goody-Goody crosses out the ‘beautiful’ in the booklet name, to change it to ‘Life is disgusting’. A few others see her and follow suit.
We wanted our kids to know important news around the world, but newspaper articles are too difficult for kids of class IV or V. So we collect a few articles, simplify the language a bit, and give them to read as a weekly newsletter. This class always produces a lot of lively discussion.
Today’s first news item — ‘Woody Allen refuses to screen his latest movie in India’. The director felt that the anti-tobacco scrolls during a couple of smoking scenes in the movie will be distracting for the audience. Since those anti-tobacco scrolls are mandatory in India, he refused to screen the movie in India.
‘So what’s your view on this?’ I ask. ‘How many of you support the idea of the anti-tobacco scrolls?’
No hand is raised. A very anti-government class, I think! But lack of support could also be due to lack of opinions, lack of a desire to speak up. So I decide to stir things up a bit.
‘Many movies show a lot of violence, killings. Shouldn’t the government also make it mandatory to write: ‘Murder is an evil activity’ during those scenes?’
Now they get the idea.
‘Yes, and during chase scenes — ‘Running around in busy roads could be injurious to health’?
‘And when lovers hug and kiss on screen — ‘Kissing is not recommended for kids and teenagers’?
‘Ok, enough, let’s not go to that direction,’ I say. ‘At this rate, the scrolls will be running for the whole duration of the movie, along with the subtitles.’
We meet everyday after school to discuss how the day went, and to prepare for the next day. This is also a time when we talk to the new teachers about the way we teach.
‘Are we really following the syllabus prescribed by the board?’ a new teacher asks.
That’s a question that has been asked a hundred times — by parents, new teachers, visitors to the school. It bothers me that people are so caught up in prescribed syllabus that they forget what real learning is all about.
‘For the elementary level, say from LKG to class V — there is nothing like a syllabus prescribed by the board. Obviously, there are milestones — you are supposed to learn multiplication by class III, fraction by class IV and so on. But primary classes are more about developing skills, so that you can tackle more mature subjects like history or science in the middle school. You need to be good at reading and writing, good at calculation and logic, good at applying concepts to solve problems. Those are the skills that we prioritise.’
‘But the textbooks prescribed by the board will be followed in higher classes, right?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I reassure her, and she seems satisfied.
In reality though, I have no plans to follow any board textbooks till class VIII. Obviously, I need to get my students prepared for the board exams, so we have to do the standard syllabus from ninth standard, but before that I am determined not to put them through the standard grind. I will plot, conspire, lie, delay — I will use every strategy in the book, every ‘art of war’, so that dry, outdated textbooks are not unleashed on our children.
‘All — please submit your homework, put it on this desk,’ I say.
We did not have any homework for our students in the first couple of years after the school started. Kids studied only at school, and the results showed that lack of homework was not affecting their learning. In standardised tests, most of our school students ranked among top 15% nationally — and the school itself was ranked among the top-10 schools based on its results.
Still, the parents were not happy. It seemed just the output is not enough — you need to demonstrate ‘input’ too. How would they learn if there is no work to be done at home? How did we learn during our childhood, for god’s sake?
May be you did not learn much at school, I wanted to retort. Do you want your kids to have the same life that you had? Do you feel proud of making no difference, working in a government job where young kids, sometimes without a college degree, are changing the world? Do you want your kids to stay rooted in age-old thoughts, prejudices and superstitions while the modern world passes you by? Or do you want them to be in sync with the changes, or possibly even bring about some of them?
But I say nothing. At least these parents were enlightened enough to send their kids to a school which is so obviously different, I reason with myself. I cannot have a school without students. Without students, how can I prove that this is the only method that works? I need their support. I cannot afford to piss them off — at least not too much. I express my thoughts politely, reasonably –while seething from inside. One day people would see the light, I say to myself.
But that does not happen. The questions continue. ‘When will you give them books?’ they ask.
‘I thought something with printed letters inside is called books,’ I say. ‘We have many books at school that they read.’
Then I get the point. I see the light, instead of them. Books are defined as something that you memorise at home. Books are not something you learn from. Books are not something you read for pleasure. So whatever we teach at school cannot be classified as books. After all, if kids are enjoying reading them, how can they be books? Books have to be boring, mind-numbing, full of jargons and definitions.
I do not give in to their demand for such ‘books’. But they are insistent about homework. Now the questions are phrased differently. Our children do not know what to do with so much free time at home. They watch TV, they jump around. Evolution is working backwards — they are transforming into monkeys. Please give them something to do at home.
In the end I give in. I try to find some stuff that they can do at home. Yes — handwriting. That obsolete skill. Parents complain that in our school no ‘writing’ is done. They actually mean handwriting. Why not give that as homework and make parents happy?
Only handwriting will not keep kids busy. Come on, one page of handwriting per week? Are you crazy? They will finish it in half an hour. What about the rest of the zillion hours per week?
So we create a math homework booklet, for each class. Again, obsolete, mind-numbing, calculation oriented activities are given as homework. School does not want to inflict rows and rows of multiplication and division sums on the kids. But the parents complain that kids are forgetting basic calculation. They cannot seem to do a three-digit by two-digit multiplication quickly. Other schools are far more advanced. Their students can even do a five-digit by four-digit multiplication.
They can use a calculator, I say. Or an excel sheet. Do you do multiplications every day, I ask the parents. When you really have to do it, do you not use a calculator? Is it not enough that they know how to do it?
Anyway. We create the homework booklet — full of dreadful calculations. Parents are happy. Two pages from those booklets have to be submitted every week.
Today is one such day.
Everybody submits — but not Hulk.
‘What happened, Hulk? Where is your homework?’ I ask.
‘I went to a marriage function,’ he says.
‘Your own, or somebody else’s?’’
‘Not my own, obviously.’
‘Then this cannot be allowed as an excuse. I could have excused your homework submission if it were your own marriage.’
‘But the marriage party was in Calcutta, I came back only yesterday evening.’ Hulk replies.
‘Well, then you should have stayed up late and finished the homework.’
‘I stayed up late, but still it was not finished.’
‘Then you should have woken up early today and finished it.’
‘I woke up at 5:30 today, but then I had to come to the school for the extra class.’
‘Oh, I guess then you really need more than 24 hours a day. You know there are planets where you have more than 24 hour-days? May be you should go to those places. Why did you come to the extra class anyway?’
‘I missed a few classes before the puja vacation, and I need to catch up on the history booklets.’
‘Oh, what’s the status on that? How far has the class progressed on history?’
The class says that they are on to Russian revolution, where Hulk seems to be still stuck at American Civil War.
‘Which part of American Civil War? Has Lincoln been assassinated yet?’
‘No,’ Hulk replies.
‘Well, then assassinate him soon. What are you waiting for?’
Everybody laughs. Hulk remains serious. The prospect of assassinating Lincoln does not cheer him up.
‘Open the Big Questions booklet. Turn to the page, Do miracles really happen?’
Tamoghna raises his hand. He is a new student in our class. His father recently got transferred to the nearby Bakreshwar Thermal Power Township.
‘Sir, which subject is this?’
This question stumps me. The Big Questions booklet contains questions like,
- Are rich people happier?
- Will it be good to live forever?
- Are the great stories like Mahabharata or Illiad true?
- Why do wars happen?
Now, which subject is this, really? I understand Tamoghna having a problem with our approach. Till class IV, he studied in an ICSE board school in Kolaghat, another thermal power township. Like all schools, there must have been rigid routines and clear subject boundaries. If we are doing something in school, it must be under one of those subjects, right? How exactly should I make a child understand that in real-life, problems do not come neatly packaged in narrow subject boundaries?
‘Tamoghna, in this booklet we discuss topics which are not directly under any subject, but still important enough to discuss. Broadly, you can consider this a combination of history, science, philosophy and economics.’
Tamoghna’s face lights up. Looks like in this school I’m getting to study more subjects than I did in my old school, his expression seems to say.
More subjects are always better — this is a lesson I learnt of late. In the parent-teacher meetings, a standard question is, ‘In this school, kids seem to be studying English most of the times — what about other subjects?’
‘Yes, when will history and geography be introduced?’ an eager mother of an LKG child speaks up.
Suddenly, there is a clamour for history, geography, science, computers — as early as possible.
‘In the XYZ public school, they teach computers right from class I,’ somebody says.
‘And St Xaviers school has eleven subjects, including moral science,’ another person says.
I let them speak for some time. Finally, they look up at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.
‘How do you expect them to study any subjects at all, if they do not first learn the language well? Right after you were born, did you study geography? Or you just learnt to understand and speak Bangla? For them, English has to be like their mother tongue. If they cannot read English fluently, how will they read history? In which language?
‘And what is the hurry? The board prescribes that social science and science are introduced only from class VI. Primary level, till class V, is a time to prepare the child. They should learn to speak, read, write. They should develop a logical and analytical mind. That’s all the goal we should have till class V. Other subjects must come after that.’
‘But at least computers can be taught earlier, no?’ a father of a class I student asks, hopeful that at least one more subject will be added to the measly list of English, Math and Environment Science. Only three subjects? How awful is that? My neighbour’s kid is learning double of that.
Double, yes. Learning? No.
‘Yes, you can teach painting in computer, or playing games. But if you have to teach something real, like using internet, or using MS Office — then we must wait till their language skills are better and they are more mature.’ I answer.
‘Yes, in the other school they only teach them to paint during the computer class,’ he sheepishly admits.
I know this is not the end of it. In the next parent-teacher meeting, the same questions will be asked. May be by the same set of parents, may be by some other group. Sometimes I feel like recording my replies to the standard questions of homework, textbooks, more subjects. Well, you have a question about homework? Let me press button one on this record-player. About textbook? Let me press button two.
We are nearing the yearly ASSET test. We put our children through this test every year to benchmark their performance compared to the rest of the country. This is similar to the standardized tests that are quite common in US or other developed countries. In India, the concept is fairly new — ASSET is just 10 years old. But looking at their success, several new wannabe players sprouted up, offering ‘cheap’ assessment services to schools. The schools themselves of course know no better to assess the assessment services.
ASSET checks a student’s basic skills — ability to read, ability to apply common sense to solve problems. The other assessment services have memory based questions that test knowledge. But most schools are not enlightened enough to differentiate between the two approaches. They get swayed by fancy names. Some of the tests have an ‘Olympiad’ or ‘International’ inserted in their names. Obviously, something that is of ‘international’ standard cannot be bad, right?
Naming is a big scam, particularly in the domain of education. There are international schools which have neither any international student, nor international teaching methods. There are schools which exploit the names of famous people of the past, like Tagore. Tagore would be turning in his grave if he could see what kind of education most of those schools impart. There are schools which use the name of Rishi Aurobindo, or Swami Vivekananda. If you run out of ideas, put a saint before an English sounding name. St John’s School, St Francis’ School, St Paul’s School. Something with such a name must be providing quality English medium education, parents think.
I wonder why they did not (dis)honour Mahatma Gandhi by using his name in schools. I find it quite baffling why they named so many roads after Gandhi, but not schools or colleges. May be Gandhi had nothing useful to teach us. May be he is not too fashionable, with his loincloth and focus on cleaning toilets. Or maybe he walked a lot on roads — so it is better to name roads after him.
But I digress. My students say I can never stick to one point, and they are right.
Coming back to ASSET, thankfully it scores in terms of how many students sit for it. With lakhs of students all over India sitting for it, it comfortably beats those other con-tests. We cannot make parents understand the finer points related to why ASSET is better — but at least we can tell them that ASSET is very popular. That sells. For anything to be good, it has to be liked by a large number of people.
So by definition, anything new cannot be good — because new things are not yet liked by a large number of people. ‘Is your method being used in other schools, or is it entirely new?’ parents ask fearfully. It is futile to tell them something new may not necessarily be bad. So I take a different track. ‘Yes, most schools in US or UK teach in this way,’ I respond. Finally, I discover the golden balance of being truthful as well as politically correct.
I digress again. Come back to ASSET, for god’s sake.
In the class, students show me the question paper of an assessment that was recently taken by another school. An International Olympiad. The biggest Olympiad, the question paper proudly claims. Biggest among how many, it does not say. It must feel quite lonely at the top, when you win a competition where you are the only participant.
They are eager to show me the questions from this test. There is a question about clock in the mental ability section:
A clock hand is currently at 6. It then goes 90 degrees clockwise and then 135 degrees anti-clockwise. Where is it now?
‘Has the clock gone mad that it would behave in this way, swinging like a pendulum? Why would a clock go anti-clockwise at all? It would cease to be a clock then.’ I retort.
The class sees the merit in my argument. This question is not worth solving, they decide. They move on to another question.
‘Sir, see this question — who is the father of computer? There are four choices. Do you know which one is correct?’ Motu asks me.
‘No, I don’t know who the father of computer is, but I know who the 100,000th great-grandfather of computer is. According to the theory of evolution, it must be a monkey.’
‘And one billionth great-grandfather of computer must be a virus,’ Aranya takes the argument forward.
‘Such an evil grandfather, instead of protecting its descendants, it attacks them!’ Bhau says.
Jokes apart, it is really a sad state of affairs when we ask our children to memorise who the father of computer was, but do not teach them how to use computers. Einstein was right when he said, ‘Only two things are infinite — the universe and the human stupidity. And I am not sure about the former.’
But then Einstein was right about most of the things.
From class VI, we encourage our students to read newspaper. It is actively driven by the school — we select a few news items from Times of India every day, students are supposed to read them back home. We discuss them in the class in the next day. It is perilous territory — newspapers are full of news items which children ideally should not see. But the world too is full of cruelty and violence — newspapers just reflect the state of the world. If we shield our children from everything — we have to ask them not to use internet, not to read books and confine them at home.
Today’s main news is about Aam Aadmi Party, which recently won elections. ‘Arvind Kejriwal sets up Junta Darbar’, it says. The chief minister of the newly elected party decided to meet common people regularly in front of his office.
‘Do you think he is doing the correct thing?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ most of them answer. Some, like Sreedutta and Vulture are silent. Sreedutta always waits for everybody else to offer their opinion. Vulture normally does not have any opinion.
But most of the class seem to approve of the chief minister’s decision to personally meet common people. The newspaper, too, is full of praise for such a novel and down-to-earth gesture.
‘Think about this school,’ I say. ‘Let’s say the school does not function well. The teachers are not teaching well. The teaching materials are full of mistakes. The transport does not run on time. The toilets are unclean. Who is at fault?’
‘You!’ everybody shouts this time, including Vulture and Sreedutta.
‘Not me, not me. I am not so incompetent. Let’s say there was another director running the school. He brought the school to such a condition. So now I, who was just a teacher before, have been promoted to the position of director — just like Kejriwal.
‘Right after the day I’m appointed, I announce, any parent who has a complaint about the school can come and meet me every day between 9 am to 12 noon. Your child did not understand multiplication table? You can tell me. The boys’ toilet stinks? Raise the issue with me. The school bus reached your stoppage twenty minutes late? Talk to me about it. Would that be the correct approach?’ I ask.
‘You will be wasting a lot of time talking to the parents, and will not be able to spend much time running the school,’ Aranya says.
‘Exactly. My job is to hire the correct people, to set up proper systems and processes. If I do my job well, there would not be so many complaints in the first place. I was working in the school before — so I know its problems. What’s the use of wasting time hearing about them? In Kejriwal’s situation too — he knows what the problems are. He should get down to solving them.’
‘Looks like a young girl came to him complaining that her boyfriend is refusing to marry her,’ Motu reads out from the newspaper.
This gets the class energized.
‘Menelaus could have gone to Kejriwal, complaining about Helen leaving him and going away with Paris,’ says Nonny, referring to the battle of Troy.
‘But Kejriwal is taking complaints only from common people, and Menelaus was a king,’ Fluffy, always with an eye for details, points out.
‘And Menelaus did not know the way to Delhi,’ says Goody-Goody, always eager to provide some help to her best friend Fluffy.
‘And he had a thousand ships, but Delhi had to be reached through land.’ Points out Motu, using his recently acquired Geography expertise.
‘Ok, enough, enough — you people specialise in talking nonsense,’ I try to stem the flow. ‘Digressing is not what we teach in this school.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ asks Bhau cheekily.
I give him a stern look and he promptly lowers at head, pretending to focus on the newspaper. ‘Kejriwal also promises to reduce electricity prices by half and give free water,’ he says seriously, pointing at the next news item to be discussed.
‘Yes — this is something various governments often promise and do — to give things away for free. Is that a good thing?’
‘No,’ Aranya says, ‘he will anyway collect the money from the people later on through taxes.’
‘Yes — it’s like giving with one hand and taking back with the other,’ I say. ‘Again, coming back to the school analogy, will it be good if next year I halve the school’s fees, or better still, make it free?’
‘No,’ this time many more students respond. ‘It would bring down the quality.’
‘Yes — if I have to run it at half the current fees, then either I have to pay teachers much less, which means I will get lower quality teachers, or I need to pack more students per classroom. Either way, the school’s quality will suffer.’
Everybody nods and understands. It’s easy to teach them this concept. It’s not so easy to teach the same thing to the parents, though. My mind races back to the last parent-teacher meeting — where we discussed the fee structure of the school.
‘Our school is the Bradman among schools,’ I thundered at the beginning of that meeting, using a cricket analogy.
In Test Cricket, I explain, there have been many great batsmen — our homegrown Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, past greats like Gary Sobers and Len Hutton and modern legends like Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis. They are among the top-10 batsmen of Test Cricket. Most of those top-10 batsmen averaged around 55–60 runs per innings.
But Bradman was unparalleled — he stood head and shoulders above the rest by scoring at a rate of around 100 per innings. He averaged an astounding 67% more than the other greats.
‘Levelfield too’, I assert, ‘scores much, much higher than the other top-ten schools in the ASSET test — making us the number one by a wide margin. Your child is studying in the best school in the whole country.’
I look at the faces in the audience. No shock, surprise or joy. Your claim is so far from the truth that it does not even merit disbelief, their expressions seem to say. Come on, we are talking about a school in Suri. Here, if we just achieve mediocrity, it would be considered good enough. Extraordinary things do not happen here.
‘No fee is high enough for the best school in the country,’ I plod on, ignoring their scepticism. ‘The best things cannot come cheap.’
A hand is raised from the audience. ‘Will the fees again be raised next year?’ he asks. Don’t waste our time beating about the bush — come to the point, his tone seems to suggest. Tell us how much we have to shell out of our pockets.
I feel exasperated — but I manage to keep my cool. Sidestepping the question, I respond, ‘An average parent spends about Rs1.5 lakhs on sending his child to IIT or other engineering coaching centres. He also spends around Rs 50,000 on his child’s MBA entrance coaching. But you are fortunate — your child will be able to take a shot at those exams without those extra coaching, and extra spending — because at Levelfield, we teach them in a way that equips them for those future challenges.’
The crowd looks bored. They are not interested in future savings, when money is taken out of their pockets now. I try another line of reasoning.
‘Imagine your child studying in another school in Suri. Even if she is intelligent, she would get no more than 80–85% in board exams. She would be good at rote-learning, but poor in problem-solving, so she will not get through competitive exams. She will not be able to speak English well, so will not be able to get a private sector job after her graduation. If she is lucky, she will finally land a government job, after years of sitting for various examinations — and will earn a mediocre salary — and will forever be confined to a life of mediocrity.
‘Now imagine the same child at Levelfield. Confident, English-speaking, in sync with the demands of the modern world — the whole world will be open to her. Which one of the futures do you want for your child?
‘No, we want you to maintain the quality, but please keep the costs reasonable,’ somebody from audience says.
Very sensible, right? The best of both worlds. Cheap and high-quality. My inspirational speech seemed to have no effect. No belief in the basic economic laws.
Disappointed, I mumble, ‘Yes, I will see what best can be done,’ and conclude the meeting.
I ask the class to do some basic internet search — find out three great quotes of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare and Rumi.
Rumi is a great poet from the middle-east, whose poems typically adorn the first pages of books of celebrated Asian writers like Khaled Hosseini. If you are not familiar with Rumi — do not feel bad — it seems Microsoft Word is not familiar as well.
Bhau raises his hand after a couple of minutes. ‘Sir, Microsoft Word gives a red underline to Rumi — indicating a spelling mistake. It claims that the correct spelling should be rum.’
Rumi is lucky. Everybody imagines being named after various types of liquor. ‘I wish my name were Vodka, instead of Bhau,’ Bhau says.
Nonny finds out a quote of Einstein which she wants to share with the class: ‘Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.’
The class is appreciative. Einstein was a cool dude, it seems. Nonny’s respect for science and scientists shoot up.
Soon they find Shakespeare to be a cool guy as well.
‘There’s many a man who has more hair than wit,’ Fluffy likes this one from Shakespeare.
‘I am not such a man,’ I say, regretting it immediately.
‘Is that due to the fact that you have more wit, or less hair?’ Bhau asks innocently.
I need to teach him to respect elders. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,’ I say, quoting Julias Caeser.
They find many more lovely lines of Shakespeare.
“The fault, dear Brutas, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Based on this yardstick, they agree most of their fathers are not wise.
At the end of the class, they are in love with Shakespeare. Can’t you teach us Shakespeare, they ask me.
‘Ok — I will teach you Hamlet, which is my favourite.’ I say. Ours will be the only class in the world where Hamlet will be taught to students of this age.
Our first batch of students will reach class ten next year and will sit for the board exams. Before summer vacation, we call a meeting of their parents.
‘We will have a preparatory exam right after the summer vacation,’ I announce.
Everyone perks up. I know nothing stirs the attention of parents than a talk about exams.
‘The reason we will have it after summer vacation is to ensure that they utilise the long vacation. I see a lot of them waste time chatting on the internet during vacations — that must not happen.’
Trrng…a WhatsApp notification sound rings from the phone of Dos’ father. All the adults in the room look embarrassed. Only Dos’ father is unperturbed. Children in the room looks jubilant — their expression seems to say, it’s not only us who do it.
Vulture’s father raises his hands. ‘Sir, will you mind if I ask a question?’
‘I cannot say whether I will mind or not unless I hear the question,’ I say.
He plods on, fearlessly. ‘I saw the marks in the weekly tests of Chemistry. Can you tell me why is there such a large difference between the top students and the bottom students?’
Existential question. Why is there such a large difference in wealth between Bill Gates and me? Such questions are beyond the syllabus, as far as parent-teacher meetings go.
I rephrase him, ‘I think you are really asking why Vulture is there at the bottom of the list, and not towards the top, right?’
He seems unhappy. He did not want his son’s performance to be brought into focus.
Aranya’s dad rescues him by asking a different question.
‘Sir, will you give them some coaching for the KVPY exam?’
‘Is it something to do with Kishan Vikas?’ I ask.
I am stunned that Aranya wants to do something with farming. I always taught them that Agricultural revolution has been the undoing of humankind.
‘No, no, it’s not Kishan Vikas. It’s Kishore Vaigyanik.’
I quickly check it on my phone. It’s a test that acts as an entrance exam to institutes like IISc, Indian Institute of Science.
I hate these entrance tests and the coaching culture they spawned. I suddenly wish it was really Kishan Vikas, instead of Kishore Vaigyanik.
‘No,’ I flatly declare.
Aranya’s father looks quite disappointed. I give him some reassurance. ‘We will teach them well in the school. They will not need any special coaching for anything.’
He seems happy again.
But that was a lie. I have no intention to inflict ‘science’ on our children in 12th standard. They will study it if they are genuinely interested — but not to fulfil the unfulfilled ambition of their parents who could not become the engineers or doctors that they themselves wanted to become.
Board exams are approaching, but the class has never entered the labs. We had many theoretical discussions about the lab though — mainly about how to enter it, and who will guide us after we do enter.
‘Under Motu’s able guidance we should be able to do the experiments,’ I suggest.
‘What makes you think Motu will be an expert?’ Nonny counters.
‘Because he is good at pouring things. He really poured tea very well from the pot to the teacup yesterday. Chemistry lab is all about pouring.’
Everyone concurs. Pouring is all that counts. It’s all Motu’s responsibility now.
‘What happens if we pour wrongly?’ Aranya asks.
‘Anything might happen. Explosions, earthquakes, who knows? We cannot trust anyone other than Motu.’
‘Is physics lab also about pouring?’ Bhau asks with mock innocence.
‘No, it’s all about making circuits. But there too, explosions are the final result.’
I think I manage to sufficiently reassure them here. It cannot be so very difficult when there is only one result, right?
‘How do you know so much about explosions?’ everyone asks.
My mind races back to my IIT days, in the Electrical Machines lab. We had to make some real wirings based on circuit diagrams. I did not mind making those circuits. What I really disliked was pulling down the main switch after the circuit was made. All hell would break loose. The resistors would start burning with lots of scary sounds. On top of the scary sounds of burning and explosions, the professors would bark loudly too, blaming me for this mayhem.
Since then I never liked to enter labs. But now, for the sake of my students, I have to do it again.
‘How did you manage to pass the course when you were always wiring circuits wrong?’ they ask.
‘Oh, we mostly had group projects. And I had partners who could do circuits.’
‘But why would they choose you?’
‘Because I provided interesting companionship. Take them out for tea, bread-omelette, amuse them with stories.’
The class understands the value of conversation and interesting companionship. At least, our discussion about labs resulted in some valuable life lesson.
In our school, students always loved history. History meant movies like ‘Downfall’ or ‘The Pianist’. History meant literature like ‘A fine balance’ or ‘Animal Farm’. History meant endless discussions about why Dara Sikoh lost in the succession battle against Aurangzeb. History is fascinating.
But suddenly, after reaching class 9, the students started disliking history.
The reason is the history textbooks. Though our school is affiliated to the CIE board, and textbooks are supposed to be more interesting, but in the end, all textbooks are tools for passing exams. They are the enemy of learning.
Anyway, I manage to persuade the students to open the history textbook. Today we will discuss Russian revolution.
For a while, it is interesting, till the time we get into the nitty-gritties of the civil war. I see most of the students’ eyes glazing over while I am discussing the attempted coup by Russian general Kornilov to overthrow the provision government.
I think now is the time to ask some questions to wake them up.
‘Bhau, tell me about the reasons behind why the Kornilov affair failed.’
‘Uh, Kornilov? Who did he have the affair with?’
The whole class erupts into laughter. Though nobody else has any clue about the real Kornilov affair either.
But at least the question woke them up. Or was it the answer?
We continue to study Russia under the communist rule. The actual history is quite interesting, but the blur of dates and names in the textbook takes all the fun away. Students yawn. Some asks what’s the meaning of it all. I see that they get very philosophical when they study boring subjects.
A few days later, we successfully survive Stalin’s bloody purges and Khrushchev’s skirmishes with the West and reach the era of Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev’s time in Soviet Russia is called the era of stagnation — because no economic growth took place during that time.
I ask, ‘What did Brezhnev mainly do during his tenure?’
Pope replies, ‘He stagnated.’
‘Oh, he did not stagnate, his country stagnated. Normally when a country stagnates, the leader prospers!’
This provides some comic relief. The class comes alive. Someone points out, other than stagnating, he also gave a doctrine, called the Brezhnev Doctrine. This sounds interesting. A summary of one’s policy insights, articulated in the form of a clear one-line statement. Must be earth-shatteringly wise.
‘When enemies of socialism threaten one socialist country, all socialist countries must collectively defend that country.’
Oh oh. Such insightful doctrine. The class is disappointed. Brezhnev was a certified bore, clearly. But maybe other Presidents and Prime Ministers did better than this. Everyone starts checking Wikipedia in search of insightful doctrines.
Someone finds out that almost every American president gave a doctrine too. Nixon doctrine, which seemed equally insightful as Brezhnev, argued for the ‘pursuit of peace through partnership with allies.’
Kennedy doctrine called for ‘Containment of communism.’
Bhau says, ‘Let’s check out Bill Clinton’s doctrine. He was an interesting man. Maybe he gave a doctrine about the Monica Lewinsky thing.’
We are in for a bitter disappointment there as well. Clinton doctrine also turns out to be equally boring.
‘Let’s make our own doctrines,’ Nonny suggests, ‘We will fill the doctrine-gap in the world.’
‘Yeah, my doctrine is that I will always remain smarter than my smartphone,’ Bhau says.
‘I will always work harder,’ Motu says.
‘Harder compared to what or who or when?’ everyone asks.
Motu is nonplussed. It seems he needs to refine his doctrine more so that it can withstand rigorous scrutiny.
‘Yes, let’s do it as a homework,’ I say. ‘You all will write your own doctrines. Maybe it will not be published in Wikipedia, but it will surely be better doctrines than those presidents.’
We all hope Sir will write more of these amazing stories.