Why school exams still haunt me every day

Musings on everyday life


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 14 Mar 2024, 5:51 PM

Phew! Exams are nearly over.

Nay, I didn’t write any. This was the sigh of relief let out by hundreds of students — and parents — in the UAE just the other day. Pupils who wrote board exams would soon be rushing to catch a flight back home, seeking college admissions in their home countries.

I can empathise with such parents and I am reminiscing about those harrowing days when education was anything but fearful. As in the case of Generation Alpha, there was nothing sweet about studies due mainly to poverty and the archaic education prevalent. Life would not travel beyond medicine, engineering, legal, teaching, banking and clerical jobs. Most would drop out and inherit what their parents did. A junior carpenter would be ready by the time the senior aged or died. A coconut plucker’s son typically would never rise taller than the tree his father climbed.

For the uninitiated, there were four types of schools — private aided ones which were run by some families or some societies, but teachers were paid by the government; convent schools run by Christian missionaries; public schools run by affluent people where the lucky lot studied; and government schools. You might ask how public schools are run by affluent people. They should be called government schools. That’s one of several paradoxes that make Malayalis proud. To mention another example: Plastic bags are banned by the same government which continues to give licences to manufacture plastic bags.

Coming back to exams, they still haunt me every day and would do so till the end. It’s a fear embedded under my skin and in cognition. In our growing-up days, corporal punishment was the only alternative to child counselling, so teachers wielded it randomly as a punishment for reasons that could vary from mischiefs; not remembering a poem; not doing homework and scoring poor marks. It was your choice where to receive it: On the left or right palm. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the teacher would decide if you deserved it on your palm or back. If you are lucky, you could get away with an ear pull.

Going to the school wasn’t as joyful as what the Alphas get to enjoy now — airconditioned bus, Apple iPad, or money to splurge in the school canteen. Rain or shine, we walked kilometres to the school and back; delayed purchase of books until parents found money; and wore no uniforms. Thanks to Care International NGO which provided food for Indian children since 1950, we never starved.

If ever my parents happened to meet teachers, Amma would shoot first: “How is my boy doing?”

“Not at all good. The boy has potential but won’t make an effort.”

“Give him good whacks, daily.”

Orders would keep coming from different quarters at home, day or night. Luckily, listening to box office chart and movie soundtrack broadcast by All India Radio was allowed. The rest of the day back home was like taking a hail of bullets from across the border.

“What are you doing here? Don’t you have anything to study?” That was when I loitered in the back yard. So, I would hobble into the front yard.

“Why are you here? Go and study. If there is nothing to study, do some chores. Play scarecrow to chase away chicken and birds scavenging the paddy heaps or go and water the kitchen garden.”

“It’s so hot where you are drying the paddy.”

“Then go to the grocery store, don’t wait until the evening.”

Commands coming from various corners would reverberate across the house, and I seriously believed the entire world had ganged against me. Fast forward to college days. I couldn’t understand subjects like physics, maths and chemistry. Neither could they understand me. Campus politics made up for my melancholic days.

Exams came and went, as did holidays and results, but I was in a trance, I was dreaming up things beyond science, but the mental maths about the future never failed me. I was looking at a canvas larger than botany record books. I learned a+b+c whole cube is equal to the whole cube of what you dreamt of; how you realised it and what you achieved at the end. Never mind, the theorem of life is riddled with brackets.

Forty years later, when I get ready for the office, the same exam fear creeps up the legs and consumes me. Every day is like the first day of my maths class. You want to miss it; you want to pluck fruits from the highest branch in the school compound, but looking back, it’s all fun when you recall how you learned to climb up the heights. Did I miss it?


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