Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Can An 8-Year Old Be a "Failure"?


My experience in secondary school in India makes me particularly sympathetic to victims of torture and arbitrary detention. I was in Rosary Matriculation School, on Santhome High Road, in Chennai, from UKG to 4th standard and even if someone had launched a national search for the ‘Most Miserable Child’ in the land, they’d have been hard-pressed to find one worse-off than me.

In the post below, I will rant about the humiliation heaped upon my 8 year old self and if such a thing still happens, it’s got to stop.

Like most Indian schools Rosary loved ranks to grade kids at the end of exam results. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and on and on it went reaching the bottom of the class to about 58th. Least fun way to practice numbers. However, there was a category worse than those bottom ranks. If you didn’t get the requisite 40 marks to pass, you were, rather too easily in my opinion, labeled a “Failure”. You have to love the lack of nuance.

I was in 4th standard and my fear of numbers had just set in. In the high-speed rush to go through the syllabus the teachers only kept pace with the sharpest kids in class. If you stumbled you’d be trod on by a fast-moving little regiment of nerds who like the teacher had little patience. Basically, you could get left quite far behind, dazed and confused, which is precisely what happened to me.

So far behind that for the first time in my life, at the wee little age of 8, I failed Maths. FAILED.

And immediately, I was pushed into the category of “Failures” with the speed of Alice going down the rabbit-hole.

But that wasn’t all. As if the semantics weren’t bad enough, this whole business of ‘failing’ was visually represented as well.

Rosary had a tradition where the school Principal, invariably a stern nun, went to every classroom to individually hand over each student’s report card to them. It was always a tense interaction where the class teacher nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other and the Principal smiled a pained smile to the pupil while handing her the report card. To make this affair orderly, we had to sit along the benches according to rank with the highest rank holders starting from the first bench and flowing downward from there.

The last rows were reserved for the “failures”. With feet that weighed a million tones, I dragged my little self to the back and arranged me in the midst of the ‘Failed’. I now recall that many of the girls at the back were invariably from less privileged backgrounds – their blue uniforms having faded and shrunk, streaked with lines of white - a remnant of excess starching because their uniforms were long past their sell-by date. It was a sad, little lot.

Sister Teresita, a goggle-eyed terror, was the Principal that year. It has just occurred to me that she should have spelt her name “Terrorsita”. Hyuk Hyuk. Anyway, she came in and distributed the report cards, while maintaining a stiff smile throughout. I may now be imagining this, but I thought I received the cold stare of a dead cod. Nehru would have cried.

For this humiliation and also simply because I wasn’t as good as the other kids, I went through all my years in school setting the bar very low. I only wanted to pass Maths. I didn’t want to sit at the back again and I didn’t want nosey uncles and aunties asking me how much I had got in “Max”. I just wanted to pass. So I took the focus away from wanting to do well to figuring out how I could pass.

Improving the school system will require an overhaul of gargantuan proportions. But we can begin by getting rid of labels such as "Failure" and other discriminatory practices which sometimes parade as discipline. If this nonsense is still on at Rosary, its got to stop.

17 comments:

Amrutha said...

I guess the labels such as "failures" and "slow Pickups" (??) still exist in almost all schools....so much so children lower the bars themselves.....like their self esteem...

Sathej said...

There's a small thing for you to collect here :-)

http://nadasudha.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/awards/

Sathej

Anjali said...

I cannot tell you Alaphia how the subject math and my marks in it made me such a "dumb" girl in Michael's. Heck, I asked a question in class coz I did not understand something that was being taught and the reply I get was " oh anjali you are not listening"! Yeah right I was not listening that is why I understood that I am not understanding something being put up on that infamous black-board! As time went my grades starting sinking terribly and so did my self-esteem! How I hate all those years,not for math though, but for the way people thought about me doing math...

I love this post of yours and feel so much better tell you about my life in school with regards to math...

Thanks..

Srini said...

*Applause* Alaphia (and it has more to do than the fact that I loathe Math, the grading system and was above or just above average for a better part of my time at higher secondary school).

We are a country so much in love with numbers of all kinds - records, grades, ranks, statistics, averages, the blahs never seem to end. But it is high time we understood that numbers do not determine ANYthing. There was a time when I believed ranks were a cursor to something at all, perhaps; but having seen more of life, of people and of achievers with little formal schooling and state ranks who have dissipated after high school glory, I know enough not to stand by my former opinion.

A telling post! Cheers! :)

Alaphia said...

"Slow Pick-ups"...thats a new one. Thanks for introducing me to it Amrutha.

Thanks Sathej, just checked it out!

Hey Anjali, I totally understand what you're saying. You were made to feel worse if you tried to participate sometimes.

Hi Srini, I'm hoping we don't have to wait so long to understand that those grades aren't everything.

matcher said...

Maths or "Max" was the Achilles heel of many a student "Fear Factor" down the ages. Education is not just grades or a degree.
It is what "digests" in our mind that finally matters rather than all the cramming and learning.

Sorcerer said...

When will the education system know that education is not just about the grades and marks.
I think the students know it better. They know where to buy a certificate with good grades these days.

Irony!

xoxo :) said...

How true...and how truly sad.

My mum who spent close to 10 years teaching in india still finds the idea of labeling kids as it was and is done sad and unfortunate. But also recalls that even if you are the odd teacher who wants to step away from it, the set up makes it very difficult - and you need to find your own work arounds. It is often the parents who would come to her and ask her not how their child was doing, but how their child was doing with respect to everyone else (and particularly the so-called 'rankers')

I remember when we watched the move Taare Zameen Par - while walking out of the theatre, the first thing my mum says is "I hope every parent in India watches this movie and even 1% of them learn something." That being good at maths and science or even being "good at studies" as it is said, is not the be all and end all of everything

Megha

Alaphia said...

Hi Megha,

I really enjoyed watching Taare Zameen Par. I just totally object to the way students are made to feel like absolute horse shit. I wonder if parents think of sensitive schools as being "weak".

ms said...

your post brought back so many terrible memories - of primary school. the age when you are a child and need all the encouragement to grow up productive. my experience of public humiliation is buried deep and in moments of self-pity, i dredge it up. only 11 years old and hauled up during assembly by the principal ( a nun, who is supposed to be humane and kind, it is in their manual-the bible!)for late payment of school fee. my family's financial state was mentioned ad infinitum, and when the birthday child distributed candy, she ordered him to not give me any! even today, i feel the misery and humiliation. being the eldest child of 4, i never had time to complete my homework or prepare for tests, so red lines in the report cards. i was a "back bencher" throughout primary, no friends since failure is contagious. i was lucky that my father left the city and in my new school, i learnt what teaching actually means. but seeing the number of suicides among the school children in recent months, somewhere a sister agnes in many forms is still doing what she does best - breaking the human spirit and destroying a gentle soul.

frissko said...

Been there...Totally relateable post, and nicely done...

About TZP, they finally did have to show the kid win that painting contest, which for me contradicted the theme of the movie at some level...

xoxo :) said...

I didn't see the kid winning the painting contest contradictory to the movie's theme actually.

To me, the theme of the movie is that every child is special in his or her own way (and I truly believe that). Given the opportunity to shine at what they do best, they can shine.

I interpreted the movie as not that it is important not to strive, but that it is important to realize that the cookie cutter model of what a gifted child is in india is not true. Just because someone isn't brilliant in their school work doesn't mean they aren't brilliant in their own way

Megha

xoxo :) said...

I didn't see the kid winning the painting contest contradictory to the movie's theme actually.

To me, the theme of the movie is that every child is special in his or her own way (and I truly believe that). Given the opportunity to shine at what they do best, they can shine.

I interpreted the movie as not that it is important not to strive, but that it is important to realize that the cookie cutter model of what a gifted child is in india is not true. Just because someone isn't brilliant in their school work doesn't mean they aren't brilliant in their own way

Megha

xoxo :) said...

Alaphia,

Well I don't know if sensitive schools even exist in India, but I do believe sensitive teachers are seen as weak.

It's rather unfortunate that parents are so used to the competitive environment in the schools that they believe it is best to help their child excel. And keep pushing. Making schools even more competitive.

It's a chicken-and-egg problem isn't it? Should the parents' attitude change so the school can change, or should the schools change so the parents can gradually change. And though I hate to be a cynic, I don't see either changing

H R Venkatesh said...

the sentiments i nodded to, but what i liked best was how you wrote without sounding sulky or vengeful. the whole piece went down like haagen dasz on a sunny (of which we're having a few in oxford these days) day. awoooooooo!

ChrisCampuzano said...

thank you for you to make me learn more,thank you∩0∩ ........................................

Alaphia said...

MS - "Breaking the human spirit and destroying a gentle soul." Sounds poetic.

Thanks Frissko. I'm surprised to find that so many people related to this.

Thanks Kunds. Exactly, where the fug is the sun?