I remember the day clearly. I was in Class 9. The year was 1984. The class teacher handed us all our report cards and my eyes went straight to a little red line under the number '17'. I had scored 17 out of 100! I couldn't believe my eyes. My best friend in class, on the other hand, had scored 97 out of 100. 97! And while he danced around the class with joy, the rest of us contemplated our scores with varying levels of elation, satisfaction or despair, depending on how we had scored.
My class teacher had also helpfully added in beautiful handwriting the words, "Poor performance. Very disappointed. Must make efforts to improve." (I had also failed in Hindi.)
My academic performance had been declining steadily over the last 3 years and I was told that the scores I had brought home that day were the worst anyone in my family of high-performing academics had ever had.
The atmosphere at home that evening was somber. My academic performance had been declining steadily over the last 3 years and I was told that the scores I had brought home that day were the worst anyone in my family of high-performing academics had ever had.
As my dad sat at the dining table and stared in silence at the wretched report, my mind went back to the School Annual Day three years ago. I had actually stood first in Class 6 and was given a medal on a blue ribbon. The prettiest House Captain in school had stopped me that day while I was walking back to class, and said, "Show me that medal". She examined the medal, patted me on the head, smiled at me and moved on. She was 6 years my senior, but that had not stopped me from being madly in love with her. My happiness was complete.
But that was 3 years ago. In Class 7, my fortunes had declined a bit and I had stood 3rd in class. In Class 8, I had stood 7th and in Class 9, I had power-dived to the bottom!
After a long silence, my dad sighed and said, "Ok, tuition it is." And for the next one year, tuition it was. The services of one Mr. Mohanty, a gentleman who worked in the University Grants Commission, were hired, and for three evenings a week for the next one year I received special tuitions in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry. Mr. Mohanty was a good man and a patient teacher and I found a great deal of happiness imitating and eventually perfecting, his glorious Oriya accent. (Behind his back, of course.)
As I look back at that time, I realize that even though I had tanked in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry, I was flourishing in other subjects, English, in particular, and was representing my school in debate, elocution, and declamation.
As I look back at that time, though, I realize that even though I had tanked in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry — the Big Three perched atop the great pyramid of academic respectability — I was flourishing in other subjects, English, in particular, and was representing my school in debate, elocution, declamation and winning trophies and awards in the process.
I managed to clear my Class 10th Boards with a 75 percent aggregate, bade farewell to Mr. Mohanty, and sunk joyfully into the waiting arms of Humanities for the final two years of school. My parents were supportive and knew better than to compel me to pursue Science and Maths. I studied English, Political Science, History and Economics and breezed through my senior secondary years.
I graduated in English Honours from a respectable college and went on to start an NGO that works with prison inmates, street children, and victims of natural disasters.
I graduated in English Honours from a respectable college and went on to start an NGO that works with prison inmates, street children, and victims of natural disasters. I also work with high school students and conduct workshops for them on topics such as bullying, peer pressure, empathy, communication skills and conflict resolution. I enjoy every moment of it. Aristotle said, "Your vocation lies at the intersection of your deep happiness and the world's deep need." I'm happy to say I've found that intersection. And yes, it pays the bills as well.
So, did it matter that I failed Maths in Class 9? In hindsight, not really.
Are your kids excelling in Maths and Science? If yes, great. If not, maybe they are cut out for other things. Einstein is believed to have said, "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." As adults, parents, teachers and caregivers, perhaps we would do well to memorise those lines, so as to never forget them.
Having worked extensively with teenagers for over two decades now, I am more convinced than ever that one of the best things we can do is to put aside our own academic and vocational ambitions for them, and genuinely and sincerely ask them what they want to do with their lives. Their answers might surprise us and the freedom we give them to pursue their own paths might well be the best gift we ever give them.
Try it. You won't regret it.
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