A normally laidback mother finds herself chucking her ‘friend’ face for the ‘experienced elder’ face as her daughter enters class 10.
In less than two weeks, the youngest member of this house – the daughter – will step into class 10. It means that everybody – relatives, neighbours, the vegetable vendor – will fix a keen eye on her progress through the year, and will surely call/visit us next May, right after the state-board announces the results.
Already, a well-meaning friend has delivered her son’s tenth standard textbooks.
“We saved it for your daughter,” she said. “Lucky books, he scored centum in Maths, and 99 in Science and Social”.
Just when we sat, with hands on our heads – the result of flipping through the fat books – the phone started ringing; the 12th board results were out.
“You know Usha’s daughter Divya? She got three centums and two 198s; only English pulled the score down, just 181”.
I smiled my way through half a dozen such phone calls, but soon, it got a bit too much, even for a normally non-competitive parent like me. I chucked my ‘friend’ face, became the ‘experienced elder’; and began to lecture the daughter.
The husband wholeheartedly joined me in the lectures; they all started with “at your age”, included the key words “4a.m, Horlicks, no television” and typically ended with “centum”. In the beginning, it worried the daughter; a week later, she got defensive, and began asking for proof (her “show me your mark-sheets” resulted in a drastic fall in the number of centums I ‘remembered’ scoring in maths); and now, she’s gone on the offensive.
“There’s too much pressure on us, children,” she says, looking all victimised. “This happens only in India; all my friends abroad are having a good time,” she says, showing me Facebook pictures of smiling, happy kids.
But what about their parents, I ask. She has no answers, but I do.
I remember – vividly - the day I realised it isn’t just Indians who’re uber competitive and hyper about academics. I was sitting in a café, with two of my daughter’s classmates’ mums. The women had invited me for a coffee; one was Australian, and the other American; and after the perfunctory air-kiss, they got to the point.
“So, what did Mrs. R (the class teacher) have to say about your daughter yesterday?”
The previous day was the first parents evening we had attended at her school in Amsterdam. And Mrs. R had said some really nice things.
Being completely inexperienced in the ‘sussing-out-how-other-kids-fare’ game, I told them everything, not omitting a single detail. By that evening, every mum in the class knew where the daughter stood; and in a system where no marks were given out, no ranks mentioned in report cards, the mums did a very good job of drawing an informal – and largely accurate - list. And, with the daughter ‘placed’ somewhere near the top of that list, she – and me – were subject to much scrutiny.
“What is your daughter reading now?” I was asked, in the tram. And the very next day, I saw the child of the lady who asked me, clutching that very book.
“How do you get her to practise her spellings?” a native English speaker grilled me. She was very surprised when I confessed I had no idea what words the daughter’s class was learning or when the tests were held.
I also received plenty of ‘friendly’ unsolicited advice.
“Have you enrolled your child in private swimming lessons? Only then she will get her diplomas ahead of the rest of the class,” one sporty mum told me.
“Is your daughter practising sums from the 3rd standard CBSE Maths text book? Bring the book when you go to India this summer, she’ll get full marks,” an Indian mum with an older child suggested.
As the daughter grew up, the pressure increased. For me.
Parents with children in the ‘able, gifted and talented’ programmes (children who had a good head for numbers and/or words, received extra-coaching from the head-master) were informally inducted to a closed group; and they stretched and challenged their children further, exchanged notes on online resources and entered the kids in competitions.
I went for one meeting, but it was agony, for a laid-back parent like me; and I realised that had these mums and dads been in India, they would’ve enrolled their kids in JEE coaching classes before they were out of their diapers.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t just academics; there was fierce competition even when it came to packing lunch boxes. Spanish mums woke up at 5:30 to make Sushi for their children; Japanese mums packed boxes that had more colours than a rainbow; and the ones I sent (curd rice or a cheese-sandwich and muffin) looked, in comparison, very modest.
Mums baked dozens of cup cakes for charity sales; I sent the daughter with a few euros to buy them for the short break. There was talk of after school lessons – ballet, horse riding, theatre – that the other children were ferried to, during the week and in the weekends. I shrugged off all the suggestions saying kids need their weekends to read books and relax.
Until about a few weeks ago, I was still preaching about sacrosanct Sundays and the importance of relaxation. But the shrill phone calls and high achieving children and proud parents’ Facebook status messages, and the ever looming threat of relatives/neighbours/vegetable vendor calling home next May, and I’m slowly, surely, buckling under the pressure.
There are days when I wonder what the really competitive types would’ve done in my place – planned a week-by-week 10th std study timetable years ago? Perhaps. But for now, this mum’s going to do what many others have already done – and that is ring up people and ask if they know of a good maths tuition teacher….
(Aparna Karthikeyan is a mother, traveller, freelance writer and true-blue Chennaiite. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org)