“How much?” asked one student to another student enthusiastically, just as she set foot into the school premises. The latter muttered a number and shot back the same question, as if programmed. She then hurried in barely noting her friend's four digit response and then proceeded to meet her teachers and friends, each of whom greeted her with the very same two words – how much!

While those clad in colour dress sit in small clusters compare and contrast scores, a sole beaming figure in the distance, clad in a pinafore, was still obligingly beaming and talking into many cameras about how she wants to become an IAS officer. Nobody asks her “How much?” though. By now, everyone knows. Every year thousands of students participate in this ritual which celebrates toppers, tries to camouflage failures and silently acknowledges those who fall in-between.

Pravalika R., who scored 965 out of 1200 in the home science group, looked unfazed by the flutter around her friend as she waited for her friend to step out of the spotlight to congratulate her. In the meantime, she recollects how she used to wake up at 4.30 in the morning, study, do some volunteer work in the hostel, study again, get ready and go to school. “And this is just the first four hours of the morning. In the evening, it was more of the same.” Prayalika is both relieved and satisfied that the exam is over, says the clinical nutrition aspirant.

For others, it was time to celebrate. “We may not be toppers, but considering our efforts, we are happy with the results, exclaimed a cheerful Sanchana Natrajan, who wants to take up visual communication. She and her friends were already discussing how to celebrate the occasion.

Sophia Antony, meanwhile, is dreaming of a job where she can have fun too. “I am going to take up travel and tourism management. I cannot sit and stare at a computer. I have to go out and explore places,” she says.

At a Corporation School some distance away, another school topper recalls how the exam was all about marks.

“Our school opened later than usual, we did not have enough teachers, and our portions were finished in a hurry. Had I studied in a private school, I think it would have been easier to score more marks,” she says.

However, she has not eaten anything since the results were announced - with her marks, she would not be able to fetch a medical seat. She will now have to become a reluctant engineer.

On the same day, the mother of another topper has no time to collect her thoughts amidst a flurry of calls and hugs. While for most students, Tuesday was the end of a phase, for teachers, it is just one instance in what is a never-ending cycle of anxiety.

“We go through this year after year after all,” says Roselin Johnson who teaches Tamil at a private school.

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Asha SridharJune 28, 2012