By Uma Sudhir
I didn’t quite know how to react, so I was smiling. The father of the boy who had stood fourth in the IIT-JEE merit list was saying, he and his son were disappointed. All mock exams and other performance-indicators had suggested that he would make it to the top of the heap. But being fourth was not quite the same thing.
“I am happy but I am also disappointed. The exam this time was too simple, that is the problem,” Sai Kiran said with a straight face. The college chairman Mr Narayana endorsed what the 17-year-old was saying. “We have challenged this in the Supreme Court. We have demanded re-evaluation.” Ahem.
Here was a roomful of success stories, of boys and girls, who had made it to what for most is an ultimate dream, the IITs. Most, I noticed, were bespectacled and fit the description of those who would be called “studious”. After all isn’t what they have all proved themselves to be? Having shown capacity for hard work, dedication and a single-minded focus.
Each of these meritorious students have spent the last couple of years waking up everyday before sunrise, ensuring they are inside the classroom by 6 am and staying there till after 10 in the night. That is the routine, official schedule they were following. And no one was asking any questions.
Didn’t you miss the films, cricket and reality shows on TV, usual fun-stuff that teenagers do, I asked.
“No films or cartoons or anything else in the last two years,” grins Shyamak Reddy, who is third on the IIT-JEE list. “When you are in this environment, you don’t miss all that. You are surrounded by toppers. All that you think of is that if someone else studies and you don’t, they will do better and you don’t want to end up with an inferiority complex. So you focus on your studies.”
Healthy competition that pushes you to excel, better yourself? Perhaps. Seeing all those faces and their gleaming parents was certainly a happy sight. But I was not quite fully at ease.
The boy who had made it to the top of the list, Prithvitej from Sri Chaitanya, was smiling as he said, almost as though to reassure me, that he had thoroughly enjoyed preparing for the exam. “We would start by 5:30 am and go on till 10:30 pm but then we did a couple of hours break in the day, for rest, lunch and games.”
I asked parents if they were not too worried about pushing their child that much more.
“Initially I was worried if my son would be able to withstand that kind of a rigor, from 6 am to 10 pm. But he never complained about any inconvenience. He did have backache for a while from long hours of sitting,” says Sai’s dad B. Venkateswarulu, Joint commissioner with the state transport department. “But then they are not pushing everyone to do this.”
Everything hinges on the perceived potential of every child. Though I worry if a wrong judgment on that wouldn’t also have tragic consequences. Of children pushed to the edge in the effort to become super-achievers or those `labeled’ below par never getting a chance to explore and realize their potential?
The man behind this line-up of success stories, Narayana, says they follow scientific methods, with courses designed specifically to crack the IIT. It doesn’t happen in a year or two. The preparation begins ideally when the child is in class VI, about 10 years old. Fundamentals have to be built strong and the discipline of a rigorous schedule inculcated. That includes long hours in the classroom at school, much longer than in regular schools. Till 8 pm in the evening at school is regular and not frowned upon.
That is how from the `ordinary’ children, the more promising ones are taken into `concept’ schools and `Olympiad’ schools. The best among them are once again brought together to constitute a `super class’, the creme de la creme, who will then compete among themselves to be better among the best. The school boasts that there is `micromanagement’ to ensure nothing goes wrong anywhere. In learning the lessons and answering the questions, that is. As the home atmosphere may be `distracting’, they are usually shifted into hostels attached to the schools, so no time is lost in between studying, eating and sleeping.
That kind of a programme schedule perhaps explains why six in the top ten on the IIT entrance test merit list are from Andhra Pradesh. And for the last five years, more than 22 per cent of seats in IIT are taken by students from Andhra Pradesh. This year that number is higher.
So should I plan to put my daughter through what sounds like such a fool-proof plan to taste sweet success at the end of it? Every parent, I am sure would be proud to have the spotlight on their child, being celebrated as an young achiever. The thought is tempting but why do I feel more tense and almost scared rather than excited?
May be because, far too often, we are exposed to the other side. Of children who end up as depressed, disappointed, frustrated youngsters, losing their self-confidence and perspective.
May be it is only when you push yourself that super-achievers are born. May be it is inevitable in a system where sheer numbers in the race, force you to look at every single mark as a matter of life and death, because that sometimes does make a difference between whether “you made it or not”. After all there is no substitute for hard work and you do want your child to understand that.
But then would such a schedule scientifically programmed to produce almost a factory-line of high-mark achievers allow children to grow into sensitive, well-adjusted individuals, with well-rounded personalities, able to cope with the ups and downs in the real world? May be yes, may be no.
I really don’t know what are the right choices to make. To opt out of the race? Or live with the prospect of a burnout in the rat-race? I am sure the same dilemma faces so many parents out there.