That year, at 15, I moved to a new school for the academic year (2002-’03).
I lost all my friends I had made until then. I was in a new place that felt like a different city, friendless and in tenth standard.
This was a difficult choice for my parents to make. Life was in motion and they didn’t want to get in its way. It was even more difficult for me.
Tenth standard was also when society legitimised putting labels on people: ‘topper’, ‘scholar’, ‘very intelligent’, ‘disgrace to family’ and such.
A disastrous social experiment that went on for twelve years — Indian schooling — culminated in a grand finale, called the 'Tenth board exam’. Even Macaulay would’ve blushed the way middle class India foamed at the mouth discussing their children’s marks, tuition classes and subsequent college admission. It was almost like a training ground for the young ones to later fight over family property.
The pressure was very real. So was the dog eat dog.
My Sanskrit teacher summed up the mood well: “Diwali vacation in your tenth is the last chance (to study). If that vacation is over, your life is over!”.
She should’ve stuck to conjugating verbs. (Besides, choosing Sanskrit was a time-tested strategy to score better marks… in tenth standard. Sigh.)
I was a quick learner. I learnt quickly that if I didn’t score a minimum of 92%, I wasn’t worthy of being a human. I’ll cut to the chase, I scored 79.85%, one mark less for 80%. That trauma of not being able to belong at least in the 80s could only be matched by the trauma of watching Jitendra dance… in the 80s. (Sorry that was just— here’s a video to make up for that pun.)
The tenth standard frenzy was particularly bad in my state.
The worst part was when relatives turned up to wish you for the exam. Or called you up. Or emerged from the commode, when you tried hiding from them in the toilet— always with a smile.
I remember a relative telling me: “This is the only time we will pressurise you to study… and also in your 12th standard… oh and in your final year of degree.” And then you should get married. And have a baby. And have a second one. And then an affair— because. That, I inferred.
Even the neighbours, who had no business wishing you well, turned up with an “All the best” that felt more like “Get well soon”.
This rot was not going to end with my tenth standard, apparently. I hated every single person who wished me, from the bottom of my heart.
My sister who went through the same system four years prior to me, turned out unscathed. With flying colours, in fact. It was a breeze for her. She scored 87%. And my mother praised her endlessly in front of guests. The guests nodded so vigorously in agreement that I was afraid their heads would fall off.
None of that had any effect on me. Oh no. None at all. I didn’t set out to outperform my sister or something. I didn’t take the weight of the world on my tiny shoulders to score more than her and make my parents prouder-er.
My mother being a teacher herself, made things worse. She insisted that I don’t bother about the marks and focus instead on ‘understanding’ things. That made no sense, who focuses on the process and not the product; on the system and not the goal; on the effort and not the result? And that, too, in 10th standard! She spoke of it as if it were the Geeta.
None of this is to absolve me of my own stress-loving tendencies. For instance, I worried what my neighbour on the 9th floor, a man in his late thirties then, would think of my teenage self if I didn’t score well. He had offered me to take his new scooter for a test ride. So, we were equals now and I had a reputation to keep. It kept me up in the afternoon.
When I expressed the above fear to my dad, he squinted so hard in confusion that I forgot what I asked him.
Also, my dad distributed sweets after my sister’s results were out. My dad thought it was ‘crazy to distribute sweets for exam results’ to neighbours and relatives and everyone we knew, like other dads did. So he restricted it to work. We went sweet shopping and gloated what a wonderful peda we had chosen. Before you let your mind go there, no, this did NOT have any effect on me. God!
I did ok that year and eventually in the exam, but made a habit of becoming stressed. I ended up carrying forward this stress to my 12th standard and eventually becoming a nervous wreck for a while. That’s a story for another time.
Tenth standard was terrible. It probably still is.
I don’t wish it upon anyone.
(Please read part 2 of this article here)