Feminism India

Exams, Ranks and Suicides

Last Wednesday, I wrote about certain numbers that society likes to fixate on when it comes to marriage in India. I discussed how I myself had been taunted about my height (or the lack of it) and the age difference I shared with my husband.

But today, I wish to take the discussion on numbers a little further by addressing the same in the education scene in India.

If you aren’t familiar with the education system in India, you should know that at least back when I was still in school, we didn’t have a grading system. What we had was a mark system. So for every test, the marks you scored were of utmost importance and the sad thing about marks was its precision. 39.5/100 would let a kid know that he failed a test by just 0.5 marks. If there were 50 students in a class who took a test for 50 marks, it was actually a possibility that all 50 of them could have 50 completely different scores. So unlike the grading system that gives out a grade to a bunch of kids who fall under a specific score-bracket, the mark system told the kids how much exactly they scored, or in most cases, how much more/less they scored in comparison to their best friends.

I have actually heard a very funny conversation between two competitive boys in my class where one proclaimed to the other that he was the better of the two since he got 2 extra marks. The funny bit was that they’d both failed the test but they were still arguing about who was better. I believe that the marks you score in an exam is the first of the many numbers that people fixate on in the school front. And by people, I don’t just mean students. The teachers and parents are sometimes way worse than the students who later pick it up from them.

I remember our biannual parent-teacher meetings as very chaotic events that my parents dreaded. A teacher would be asked to occupy a classroom and she would hand out the results of the term papers directly to the parents and help summarise the child’s performance. This made it interesting for most parents to attend the event because they got the answer sheets first hand from the teachers. Moreover, they also got to meet other parents and compare the results of their respective kids. The chaotic part however, was that people sometimes forgot to be civil at these gatherings. My heart went out to some of the teachers who got surrounded on all sides by loud, disgruntled parents the way toddy shops do right before closing time. It was almost as if waiting in line for your chance to meet the teacher would make your kid come second and not first in class. It was pathetic.

At one such event, I remember how a teacher handed out an answer sheet to one parent and said she didn’t have any comments on this kid because he’d scored a 48/50 and was obviously a good student. But this parent looked so pissed off that I thought he was going to burst into flames. He moved to the side, went through the answer paper once, marched back to the teacher who was already trying to handle a mob and screamed, “There’s a mistake in adding up the marks. My child scored 50/50 and you withheld 2 marks from him”. The teacher tried to explain to him that she was dealing with another parent at the moment and would look at his son’s paper as soon as she was done. To that, the man said, “Why is this so hard? It took me less than a minute to spot your error so why can’t you just give us our marks so we can go home?”. Classy.

Another incident I remember clearly is from when my parents met my Hindi teacher at one of these gatherings. Because I was raised in North India, I was fluent in the language. However, I was a lazy student who made a hell of a lot of spelling errors. Despite my spelling errors, for one particular term, I happened to top the class in Hindi. Just in Hindi. That too, simply because my base was strong. So my teacher told my parents, “She’s topped the class but I swear to God, this kid is too lazy! She never completes her grammar workbook and makes all kinds of spelling errors. She topped because she has a good base and enjoys prose but you should make sure that she actually starts working on her lessons”. After which my embarrassed parents and I moved out of the line. The parent who stood behind us in the line was that of the class topper. This was the kid who always topped all of the subjects including Hindi, except in this one instance. The teacher started off by telling his parent what an amazing student he was, how he always completed his workbook and how hardworking he was. But before she could finish, the parent said, “Then why didn’t he come first this time? You have to be honest with me. Is he slacking? Is he not paying attention in class? You should know that you have my full permission to discipline him in any way you want to ensure proper results”. When my shocked parents and I walked out of that room, my dad asked me if I’d be willing to give up my ‘Hindi topper’ status for this term. And after a second’s pause, he even added a courteous ‘please’.

When I was in college, I was at a peer’s house and happened to stumble upon her report cards from Kindergarten. She had scored a 100 in almost all her subjects so I exclaimed what a smarty-pants she must have been as a child. When her mother overheard me, she said, “Oh yes. Why do you look so surprised? How much did you score in Kindergarten?”, and when I said I couldn’t remember but that I was pretty sure I never scored many 100s in my life, she looked at me sympathetically as if I had ‘LOSER’ painted on my forehead.

And if all this wasn’t horrifying enough, I heard one of my classmates proclaim before an exam that she was telling her mom how unprepared she was for the exam, so her mother said, “Darling, the other kids being prepared and you being unprepared is the same thing so you have nothing to worry about”. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you SMOTHER India.

Is it any wonder that most of these kids grew up striving to get this mark or that mark in an exam, only to feel disappointed in a new environment when they weren’t the smartest people in the room anymore? Or that some of them are parents today who ask their kids to make friends with the studious kid on the first day of school?

But let’s set the parents and their obsession with marks aside for a bit, shall we? Because the teachers are in no way different when it comes to feeding this idea into young minds.

I don’t know about other schools but at least when I was studying, the whole process of distributing answer sheets took up an entire period. The teachers actually called out the names of the students followed by their marks so that the whole class could know who failed and who topped the test. The worst bit was that when your name and marks got called out, you had to walk to the front of the class to collect your paper. And this wasn’t accompanied by any kind of positive feedback. It was just an exercise to embarrass the weak and reward the smart.

When I was in the 10th grade, one of my teachers addressed us to say, “You have to make sure you give your life’s best performance in your 10th standard board exam because research has shown that the human brain reaches its maximum level of development at the age of 15 so your marks will prove how brainy you are, which in turn will determine your employability in the future”. Can I just take a moment here to call bullshit? I knew even then that it was just a huge pile of crap but I wonder if there was anyone in that class who believed it. Or worse, felt dejected after the results came out.

My point is, for generations, Indian parents and teachers have fixated on all these numbers like marks and ranks, all the while putting unnecessary pressure on kids and worst of all, shaping their mentalities in a very negative way. Most of the time, they act and behave like a poor exam result is the end of the world and that the kid will never get employed because he or she failed a test. In 2014, 2,403 students committed suicide because they failed an exam. That’s 2403 young minds that our country lost because of this bullshit. If only adults could just grow up and be adults about their kids’ performances in school, we could bring up a generation of well-rounded individuals who were taught from the beginning to pay more attention to their strengths than their shortcomings. And trust me, our country needs those individuals today because honestly, if I saw someone from my generation screaming at a teacher for making a mistake in adding up marks, or someone who slyly hinted at extreme measures of punishment for a child who didn’t top a class, I would be beyond disappointed but not too surprised. Because I know how my generation was raised.

Image courtesy: Parth Joshi

Ankita Narayan

Edinburgh, Scotland | http://ankita.ink/

I'm a blogger, podcaster, wife and feminist. I record snippets from my life on my blog, tackle social issues on my podcast and work with my team of fellow feminists in this space.