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The Paranoia of Board Exams

Omkar Goswami


For six days in December 1971, I would leave home, walk to Gowalia Tank in what was called Bombay, board a public bus, get off outside St. Mary’s School, go to the classroom and sit for my Senior Cambridge exams. Like other students, I mugged right up to point where I had to leave my books, and enter the dreaded room to face Armageddon. Three hours later, over a keema-pao and a Coke at the school canteen, I, too, would spend half an hour doing ghastly post-mortems. And then, I would retrace the steps back home.


That was the story of my school leaving exams. It was much the same tale for all my peers. Although memory could fail me — for it was a third of a century ago — I don’t have any recollection of hordes of hyper-anxious parents accompanying my class friends to the school. As an aside, I am told that Bengali parents of Calcutta always belonged to a different genus — where mothers not only escort children right up to the school gates but are also there for the return trip with their obligatory flasks of nimbu pani, mishti doi and sandesh for their bachha’s post-exam sustenance.     


Cut to 12 March, 2004. My ex-wife and I accompanied my daughter for her first Class 12 board exams. Although the exam was to begin at 10.30 in the morning, the lane was jammed with cars by 9.45. Every child that we knew was accompanied by at least one parent. Typically, both were in attendance. Consequently, there were many more adults in their late-forties than children in their teens. Some parents and teachers had even done puja, and had come with prasad which was offered to the kids as they entered the exam centre. This, by the way, was the CBSE’s English exam — the silliest paper that the genius of India could have ever devised. So, there wasn’t  much nervousness in the air. But believe me, you will be able cut the tension with a knife on 22 March, when the kids sit for their history exams, or on the 25th, when it is D-day for economics.


While waiting outside, many of us discussed why these exams have become such stressful affairs for children and parents alike. The universal answer was the ridiculously high cut-off levels imposed by the “good” colleges. True enough. We know of kids who secured above 90 per cent overall but couldn’t get into the economics honours course in the so-called star campus college because they didn’t score at least 95 per cent in mathematics. Yet, it is also true that there are many more avenues for vocational training than the traditional honours course that we went through. In our days, there hardly any hotel management courses; and no parents worth their salt  would have dreamt of their kids learning about the hospitality business. Good students went to the IITs, did science, economics or even history and then went on to “better” things like Masters, IIMs and the UPSC exams. The not so good did pass courses in campus colleges and then joined the tea industry.


Thus, while the cut-offs have become astronomical, it is also true that today’s kids can take advantage of many new careers and opportunities. Unfortunately, we parents don’t realise this enough. That’s why newspapers feed on our collective tensions with pieces on how to study, what food to eat and not to eat, when to sleep, and how to keep the pH factor in balance.  


In the 1980s, an academic friend and I used to joke about a colleague who would avoid any evening get-together because he had to teach his child for the board exams. It wouldn’t happen to us, we said. Weren’t we laid-back parents? And didn’t we give far more importance to our children being good human beings engaged in creative extracurricular activities, than on how they did in their board exams?


Guess what? We have also got trapped. I went to pick up my daughter on 12 March. I’ll drop and pick her up on every exam day. And I’m more tense than she is about her economics. That’s paranoia. And I’ve been infected by it like everyone else. 


 Published: Business World, March 2004



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