Sunday, February 20, 2005

How I grew to hate exams

A long long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, there was a kid in kindergarten who was not yet introduced to the concept of the exam. Life was a playground, life was a dream. In that dream, he was a doctor one day, a plumber that evening, then an armyman at night, and an actor the next morning. School was synonymous with a few hours parting from his parents and being forced to stay in a classroom and being fed with ideas a grown-up was spewing out. But it was fun in a way, because the grown-ups would show the kid weird new things and ideas he had never seen at home, and his mom would be delighted when at the end of each weekday, he told her all about what he had learnt in school. And there were other kids to talk to and play with and share food.

Then came class I, and twice a year they made him sit in a room on a desk by himself, forbade him from talking to other kids, made him regurgitate the contents of his mind, and then scribbled numbers on his papers. And his parents looked at the numbers and were unhappy if they were too low and their mood was visibly brightened if the numbers were large. He was confused at first, but learnt soon enough that if he merely imitated the very words his teacher had spoken in class, the results were mostly good - and this was ironically the first real thing he learnt in school by himself. Soon, he was used to this, and devised ways to maximize his potential marks like buying lots of copies and taking down notes. It was a new experience at first and although painful, there was a sense of achievement there. He took his exams with a mix of fear and anticipation and awaited the results with excitement and sometimes even anxiety.

The years flew by and exam after exam passed. By class 5, he was used to the two exam a year notion. However, the sense of achievement and a lot of creativity had died down - exams were plain boring to him now, an unwanted responsibility, a burden on his fledgling brain, a merciless and useless cut on his playtime. But, he was good at it by now, he would mostly finish top of class. That is when in class 6, they introduced the weekly test.

A test every week? With marks to be added into his ? His first reaction was panic, despair. He reciprocated with more sincere effort - spent the first six weekends studying for the following dreaded Monday Test. Sincere effort soon gave way to mere mechanical slogging, and then to laxity and finally apathy.

He was in class 10 now, and the board exams hung heavy in the air. They told him his future depended on this! So all his efforts uptill then had had no meaning? An exam which could affect his life? He thought over it and mulled. The Monday tests continued meanwhile, as regular and going as unnoticed as his heartbeat. The month of the big exams finally came and he sat through them and wrote down pieces of his future with pen on paper. He eagerly awaited the results. They were random enough.

It was class 12 now, and another big exam awaited. His previous experiences had taught him the tricks of the trade. Writing exams was by now a totally emotionless, taken-for-granted act. After he wrote his last board exam, he celebrated with all his friends. He no longer cared for the marks.

His hobbies had taught him more than school, and he now believed that the real world was far removed from his exams. As he went into college, his belief only became stronger and stronger with each passing course, each passing exam (no pun intended). Exams were now about beating the system - about the only enlightenment they provided him anymore.

He was just sitting at his desk one day, thinking about how to go about the department quiz the next morning, when his mind wandered away. He remembered how he had chopped time off his playtime, his story books, his drawings, and the system had swallowed it all away without as much as emitting a burp. He wondered if he would have been different if he had pursued any of those interests further. He wondered if he had actually been the one writing his own destiny all the while. He thought when it was the last time he had done something truly new and unexpected and showed all his friends. He wondered, and he lamented.

He had been a doctor, a writer, a plumber, a sportsman, an engineer, a scientist, an artist, an actor, a dancer, an architect, sometimes all of it at once ... but they had taken it all away from him and given him a sheet of paper which summed up his life.

It had 8.14/10 written on it.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Victory at the beach

I am what you could call "a beach person". I love idling away on the beach. That is, when the sun is not yet out. When the ocean's deep blue and the beach full of people. When it's frothy and sprays you across the face. When it makes you want to throw your clothes away and plunge into the salty water. When it transforms grown-up men into the amoebae they once evolved from, thrashing away at the waves, feeling tranquil and content with this way of life. A thousand voices of laughter all mingling to form a general "happy" background noise. It makes you want to lie down, stare at the horizon and stay there forever.

However, tonight was the first time I went there after dark. At night, the ocean looks sinister and dark. The beach is empty. It looks as if conspiring to take you alone by surprise. Reach out with unseen tentacles, grab you and swallow you deep into its maw. The froth reminds me of a mad dog's mouth, slavering canines and all, ready to bite without warning or reason; the swish-swash of the waves breaking as they reach shore sounds of low growling.

In fact, I am so scared of the ocean at night that the mere sight makes my hair stand and churns my stomach.

So tonight I tried out an experiment. I first decided that I have noctomarephobia (nocto=night, mare=sea, yes, i coined this) - the unnatural fear of the sea at night. Why unnatural? Well, consider the odds of a tsunami suddenly rising out the ocean at the exact time that I happen to be strolling on the beach, and then all my limbs cramping at the same time so I can't even swim back. Or the probability of a deep sea giant squid lashing out its tentacles and finding me for dinner. You get the idea - it's very very very very improbable. So my fear must be unnatural. Given that, the only way now to get rid of the fear is to confront the situation - much like AXN's "Fear Factor" (except not do it on camera and make it all artificial).

Hostel life is a two-sided coin. It's fun to live out freely but tends to get overbearingly boring in routine. In recent time, I had been feeling totally pained and idle. Therefore, ... beach. There were eight of us who'd gone to the beach, and here I can extoll endlessly about the virtues of hostel life - independence, friendship, blah blah blah....

So I nervously (I admit) walked towards the sea, and unable to push it all away, finally succumbed to fear about 10 feet away from where the waves were hitting the beachfront.

This is when four of us just continued on to the edge and waded into the water. It was my cue. I followed, albeit still scared. And reached the edge. I let the waves come and wash my feet. Nothing happened. No sea monster, no sudden wall of water. No dead bodies floating bloated in the water. No crabs gnawing on my toes. No plastics filled with nuclear waste. Actually, that last one, I just made it up. But seriously, the rest were all things I would fear.

I stayed there for a long time. I walked along the edge of the water in one direction for a few minutes, just to be alone. Everyone was quite for a while - something that doesn't happen too often. I just kept staring into the horizon, at the dark ocean merging into the cloudy grey sky so seamlessly.

We stayed at the beach for quite a long time. It was about 11 o'clock when we finally returned. The general chit chat had begun again.

I stole another glance at the beach. It was still dark and gloomy and lonesome. But I wanted to lie down, stare at the horizon and stay here forever. I had conquered my fear of the ocean at night.


Since my D-slot is free and happens to lie between the C and A slots, it made sense to take up French class for fun. So I did just that today. Granted that it's a bit late in the semester to take up any new courses, but with all the experience in school I thought I'd ace it up easily.

Unfortunately, I've been out of touch for quite a long time now. But fortunately, the blokes in class are all in fourth year and too lazy to really learn up pronunciation well enough. So it was immediately obvious to Evangeline Manickam - when I took up a passage to read and pronounced all the R's like the err's they are meant to be - that I had taken French before. "Combien d'ans?" she proceeded to ask. It was then that I realized that although back in class X, I had aced the Alliance Francaise interview for the CFE, the "touch" was all but lost. So I stared right back at her much like a stuffed pig stares back at you if you ask it its name. For a while, she kept repeating the question, then finally gave up and asked "How many years?"

"Four," I answered, and only by reverse-translating the question into French was I able to make sense of what she'd asked. And even the four was a lie. It's actually more like seven, but three years we did nothing but parrot the teacher's sounds without understanding a word of what was taught. So, I guess those three years don't count. In any case, I made a quick judgement about the period of time so that given my failure to understand an ordinary two-word question despite repetitions, she doesn't take my first impression as a pathetic birdbrain. Stupid ego.

Of course, deep down all this was deeply depressing.

We went over the text and some grammar after that. Articles indéfinis, Pronoms possessifs. It's been a month and a half since the course began. Conclusion: These people are primitive :)

So it's decided. A revision of French fundaes is required. I am auditing the course. At worst, I end up being far ahead of the class but get some practice recognizing really basic spoken French. At best, the level of the class increases and all my friends end up scoring high and give me a treat for the coaching.