2569. 3251. 3257. 2567. A smiling, suit-clad gentleman pulls out small chits of paper bearing four digit numbers from a cardboard box. He, somehow, happens to be the only one smiling in the room of more than thirty people; the rest sit holding their breath, clutching their chairs, crossing their fingers, and, in some cases, toes as well. The tension is palpable and the silence deafening.
I have imagined myself doing several things -- climbing a mountain, rowing a boat, bungee jumping, even writing books -- I had, however, never imagined myself sitting in a room full of strangers waiting anxiously for my number to be called out -- not even after the toughest job interview. But age -- and parenthood -- does strange things to you. It makes you cold (as I was now, shivering in a comparatively warm room), just as it reduces you to a bundle of nerves for something as trivial as your toddler's nursery admission.
I had not been so edgy the first time around; in fact I had been far too relaxed. Being a rebellious mother of a rebellious daughter I had declared it to everyone -- including the soft, yet prodding voices of our neighbours in Bangalore -- that my child will not go to a big school until she was big enough. And she did not. It was her luck, or destiny, therefore that she found the only vacant seat in a fairly good school when it was finally time for her to graduate to a proper school.
Five years and another child later, things were different. With experience, I had realised that sometimes there is merit in flowing with the tide rather than against it. I was a little more settled with the thought of a three-year-old being sent to a proper school. I suspect there were other covert -- and overt -- elements too: the outgoing, talkative, hyperactive girl whose energy levels I find hard to match, the teacher at play school who constantly talks in incorrect English, and, most of all, the need to get some time to myself after seven long years of incessant mothering.
So, while most people were vacationing -- or nursing a hangover -- on New Year's day, and many days afterwards, I was driving from school to school in blinding fog, jostling my way through long queues, pleading with the snooty security guards, and cursing myself for all those times I had judged, mocked, even sniggered at parents getting worked-up for their toddler's admission (in my experience, one often ends up doing all that he/she laugh at others for).
If getting the forms was a back-breaking, hand-numbing exercise, filling them up was nothing short of a nightmare: some forms were to be filled in black ink, some in blue; some schools needed passport-sized picture of the child, others wanted stamp-sized pictures of the entire family; some required immunisation card, others wanted a wellness certificate from the paediatrician. And yet others demanded us to list our three-year-old child's achievements.
Submissions were another story altogether. The otherwise deserted kiosks at the schools resembled a beehive with parents of all shapes, sizes, and class stinging their way through the crowd to reach the coveted desk only to find out that they had a missed attaching a document or attesting the ones attached. Then there were schools that insisted everything be done online -- only their websites would not work for hours, even days.
But writing the exam is one thing, waiting for the results is quite another. While writing the exam you usually prioritise, think of what all you can complete in the stipulated time and do your best; in the time between the exam and the result, however, you introspect upon what could have been done better -- and how.
In the week between submission of the forms and the draw of seats (so much for lottery being banned in Delhi!), I had been introspecting too.
In the last three years that my elder one had been going to school, we -- my husband and I -- had visited her school several times. We loved the place, trusted the teachers and agreed with their style of functioning (trust me, it is very hard for us to collectively appreciate so many things) and were certain that the younger should go to the same school too. But there was a problem: we had never made out-of-turn polite conversations with the teachers or the principal. When most parents would stay back after the PTM to say their hellos to the Principal, we would quietly leave. We did not send them New Year's greetings or Diwali wishes even. And now I was worried about its repercussions: what if they found us too egotistical?
I had been trying to get myself used to the idea of her going to some other school (if she got a seat, that is), when the call came. It was from the school. They wanted to check if we could attend the draw for the sibling category (siblings have a separate quota, thankfully). It was not mandatory, they added. My first instinct was to not go -- it was far too cold, plus I trusted them to be fair. But the mother within me pushed me: what if our presence -- or absence -- becomes a deciding factor?
So here we were, shivering, yet sweating under the arms on a freezing morning, sitting with other expectant parents (no pun intended), with a hope in our hearts and a prayer on our lips. The seats were seven, the applicants fifteen. Five numbers had already been announced and only two were remaining.
With five seats already gone, I was now thinking of the way ahead -- will she continue to go to the play school, to a teacher who speaks incorrect English? Should we try some other way to get a seat (I had no idea what the other way would be though)? Is her luck so hard that she will not be able to go to a good school? Does all our good karma amount to nothing -- when I saw the husband smiling at me. It must be stress, I thought. "Done!" He whispered. In my nervousness, I had not heard the sixth number being called out -- it was ours.