Is 49 a really bad number? It depends. If it is body weight we are talking about, it may not be bad for an adult over five feet tall. But if it is your child’s high school mathematics score, it could seem rather poor.

When obsession with examination marks is virtually a norm, growing up, for many, is all about numbers. And this numbers game can be fascinating – a 49 in social science always looks far more acceptable than a 49 in mathematics. When schools gave out their quarterly examination scores recently, my teenage friend got quite an earful at home.  

The fuss around math scores is legendary. It was January 1999 if I remember rightly. School had reopened after a vacation and the half-yearly examination scores were due. Our teacher walked in with a bundle of sheets rolled up in rubber band — a sight nothing short of a nightmare.

Those were the initial days of advanced trigonometry, not really the happiest of my high school days. Many of us did badly in that exam, and beaming in red on my answer script was a ‘19’. My classmate – who did not cross the 20s range – walked up to me and said “Happy Deepavali”, a famous joke then indicating we were in for fireworks at home.

My teacher was visibly worried, but things were not too bad at home. I was not shattered, either. The popular premise ‘If you are good at math, you must be smart’ had always annoyed me. In some ways, I thought ‘19’ was my own way of telling my tiny world that I did not care all that much for the subject. Having shed my “good student” image in class VI, it was not even remotely hard to deal with this.

But in less than a year I saw myself become addicted to calculus. I had renewed respect for Sin, Cos and Tan. All of a sudden, passing a math exam seemed rather simple and eminently doable and I even managed some high scores in later examinations. This is no inspiring ‘rags to riches’ or ‘single digit to reasonably decent score’ story. I had a fantastic teacher the next year and she made all the difference.

She was patient and would explain the same concept any number of times, she was particular about us practising problems and would never compromise on that. “Once you get the hang of it, you will enjoy yourself,” she told us. She was right.  

After class VIII, the subject does get complex for many students and the consequent fear is natural. The fear gradually morphs into a disregard for the subject and sometimes, grows into an aversion. The numerous ‘I hate maths’ groups on Facebook are proof enough. But much has to do with the teacher and with the learning support at home and whether the student gets individual attention from the teacher. 

If it is history, you read the chapter a few times and the story begins to sound familiar. In language, you repeat the lines of a poem a few times and you have memorised them. In math, however, the teacher may have to explain the concept a few times. She may have to do it differently, for different students. Students who miss classes may need additional help. And of course, students need to practice. 

With so many factors coming into play, maybe, we are being unfair to students by easily branding them “strong” or “weak” in math. Maybe, all this fuss is avoidable.  So what if the numbers don’t add up?

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