The bad school grades conundrum

During school, we used to get new textbooks in early May for the new academic year beginning in June. Being the summer holidays and having loads of free time on my hands, add to that a love of reading, it was a chance I just couldn’t let go. I used to devour those new books, from English literature to History to Science, in about 40 days flat. To this day I vividly remember a few chapters and poems in the literature books and a few ‘why-this-works’ illustrations from the Science books.

Then came the academic year, and the tests followed. On the same topics that were in the books. On the same topics that I had read and understood so passionately. I did secure average (and in some cases, above-average) grades throughout my school life, but nothing to set the world on fire. Why didn’t the passion translate into the much-coveted grades?

I suppose many people reading this blog would have a similar conundrum.

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When I looked back at this question, I realized that I was missing an important perspective. Most of the grades which I lost were for questions which did not test my level of understanding, but tested how much I could remember facts and figures and techniques. I actually did score well on the questions which challenged my understanding of a subject or tested my reasoning. Consequently, I was ready for the tests life was going to throw at me in the years to come regardless of how good or bad my school grades were.

Assessments are important, sure, but there are other ways to carry them out. In an age where information can be readily searched online and analyzed at length, does testing students for their ability to remember the bare facts count for anything? Could the resources be better utilized in discussing and testing a student’s reasoning behind certain events in History or the logic behind certain laws in Science? Sure they can. Can questions on the dates of the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England be replaced by a discussion and debate about its effects? Yes, of course. Instead of factual questions on an Internal Combustion Engine, could students be encouraged to learn about it through mockups, models and in-class seminars? Yes they can. Assessment by experience, if possible in a ‘live’ setting, is probably one of the most effective ways of determining how good you are.

Perhaps I still remember the stories and concepts in my old school books because, experience-wise, I connected to them at that moment or found parallels and examples to the topics discussed in them later in my adult life, wherein those analogies came back to me. Its something that has helped me in things like writing blogs on this site or teaching in front of a class of students or approaching a difficult problem in an unconventional way.

I never read those books to study for a test, but for the pure enjoyment in acquiring and understanding a new piece of knowledge. As Seth Godin puts it succinctly,

“If you read a book to take a test, you’re missing the point.”

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A tale of immorality and a tale of compassion

Two radically different incidences that I witnessed first hand in the last week, both at the very same traffic signal.

Day 1

A conversation between two teenage girls on a bike right to next to mine:

Girl 1 (A reluctant driver of the bike): The signal is red, we should wait.

Girl 2 (An encouraging pillion rider): No need to wait, there’s no traffic policeman around, lets go!

Girl 1 (Hesitating a little): Umm… I don’t know, what if someone catches us?

Girl 2: Why are you so afraid, see that guy there broke the signal too, and no one caught him!

Girl 1 (Convinced by now): Okay, lets go then…..

And they drove off in a hurry. Five seconds later, the signal turned green and everyone drove away, legitimately.

Many times I wish we could use those on-road kicks and punches to throw people off their vehicles, the ones we all had practiced so well in the old computer game ‘Road Rash’.

Day 2

Morning rush hour, around 10:00AM. Our signal went red and everyone stopped. An elderly couple walked across the front of us, the caring grandfather holding the hand of the frail grandmother and guiding her across half of the street. That itself was a sweet picture. Just then the signal at the other end (the oncoming traffic) went green and the cars and bikes launched themselves onto the road. The elderly couple, clearly frightened, retreated and stopped by the side. Just then a Hyundai i10 car stopped in the middle of the road. The driver, probably in his 30s, got out and everyone thought he was about to argue with the auto-rickshaw driver behind him. What happened next took everyone by surprise. This guy walked over to the the elderly couple, caught their hand, and gently walked them over to the other side of the road. The look on the faces of the couple cannot be expressed in words. Presumably, after this the guy got into his car and drove away (I couldn’t see the scene afterwards because our signal had turned green by then).

No relation, no need, yet a sweet gesture. For the sake of that guy’s conscience. It was a sight that I will never, never forget.

Same place, two very different people. Why is the world so strange?

The best person for the job

Quite frankly, its not you. Neither its me.

The best tennis player in the world is somewhere in Somalia, scrounging for food and squandering away his true stamina and talent for want of opportunity. While my country, India, is lamenting about not being able to secure medals in the Olympics, the best archer in the world is living somewhere in its tribal hinterland. These people just haven’t been discovered yet.

The best young talent in the domain of car racing is somewhere in Afghanistan, dodging bombs and the remnants of a bloody civil war, whiling away his childhood playing with toys and excelling in mock car races with his friends.

You are not the best teacher in the world. Your college or your university just hasn’t come across that person yet.

You are not the best software developer or architect in the world. Your boss or your client just hasn’t stumbled upon the best person for your job yet, and the day he will he’ll happily swap you for him.

You’re not even the best spouse for your husband or wife. If he or she had waited longer each one would have found a better, and maybe a more ‘perfect’ partner.

In a world so varied in geography, economy and history, success and fame are a function of ability and being at the right place at the right time. Everything after that is just chance, and how you capitalize on it. This is the best tool I’ve ever encountered to help me keep my feet grounded at all times.

‘Laxman Rekhas’

The celebration of the common man has been, and will always be, an uncommon tale. Fortunately, one person amongst us men has captured this ethos very well over the years. Through his satirical cartoons, legendary artist R.K. Laxman has glorified the bewildering life around a regular working class man, a mere mortal in the vast land that is India. For about five decades, Indians have looked forward to his cartoon strip ‘You Said It‘ in the newspaper every morning only to find a sardonic portrayal of the current affairs, mostly related to the political domain, that can be easily identified with.

Wouldn’t a collection of such portrayals be a prized possession for anyone? Most definitely. However, you tend to value it more when you receive it, quite unexpectedly, as a birthday present!

Yesterday when I opened my mailbox I found a copy the book ‘Laxman Rekhas’ with my name on top. It was a present sent to me by my cellular phone service provider, Idea Cellular. What a wonderful gesture! Now I recognize the fact that I wasn’t and won’t be the only person to receive this as a birthday gift, and it might even be a campaign by The Times of India and the cellular service provider to publicize the book as well as themselves, but who cares! I am loving it 🙂

A celebration of the common man, one of my prized birthday gifts this year

Needless to say, the book has some delectably hilarious sketches. On the last page is another sketch, this time that of a crow with a few words next to it, words which I think capture the character of the legendary cartoonist.

Crow

R.K Laxman’s fascination with the crow is well known. He has no patience with “stupid birds like the parrot”, but the crow, with its intelligence and quicksilver movement, has always captivated him. In his autobiography The Tunnel of Time, he wrote: “As I grew up I realized that crows had a temperament close to that of humans – clever, cunning and cautious!” Because the crow is so ubiquitous, found as it is on tree branches, near the garden tap, on the window sill, on top of statues and TV antennas, we tend, says the cartoonist, to take the bird for granted “like a full stop in a sentence”. One of the best compliments paid to him was when a child mistaking one of his framed core sketches for the real thing, flung a stone at it and cracked the glass.

Interpreting a sunset

This is a picture of a sunset I managed to capture through my camera lens while returning from work last Thursday.

Sunset

Admittedly, its neither the best picture of a sunset you’ll ever come across, nor do I plan to write about how it symbolizes natural beauty or how it gives us the hope to face the dark night and wait for the pleasant dawn. We’ve read all that before, haven’t we? Instead, I want to put into perspective a few thoughts that crossed my mind and certain observations which I made in those 5-10 minutes.

I saw this scene while on a steep incline on the road. Capturing natural scenery is all about the right timing, and by the time I parked my vehicle to the side of the road and managed to click the picture, the Sun had started dropping behind the hills. This drew my mind to the notion of the time we spend between spotting an occasion / opportunity and taking efforts to capitalize on it. I’m not saying that its good to be foolhardy or jump in without thinking or planning, but many a deal, both in our professional and private lives, is lost due to this one fact. The people who we term as ‘successful’ have the uncanny ability to minimize this time interval to as low a value as possible, not hesitate, think logically, take calculated risks and come out on the brighter side.

Somewhat similar was my next observation. I started back after clicking this picture and had traveled just a few meters when I saw that there was a small valley between two adjacent hills. Obviously the Sun was still visible through this space, and the sight of the setting Sun locked between two hills was spectacular to say the least. Then why didn’t I click a picture of this panorama? Some distance in the foreground was a small garbage dump and lots of white smoke billowing from it. The smoke had risen to such a height that it had ruined any chance of a shot being clicked without depicting it. As you’ll see, when I clicked the above picture, the opportunity that was in store for me in the perceived future was a whole lot better, potentially, but I could not have guessed the actual ground conditions beforehand. In the wait of a ‘better opportunity’, I would have forfeited my ‘best chance’!

Isn’t it amazing how such little things coupled with some out-of-the-box thinking tell us so much about the life we lead!

Invictus (Undefeated)

I first came across these lines while watching the movie Invictus (2009). The poem was originally written by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley in 1875, while lying on a hospital bed at the age of 25 and battling the idea of living with an amputated leg for the entire life ahead of him. The impact these powerful lines have had on me is probably second only to the one caused by another of my favorite poems, ‘The Road Not Taken‘ by Robert Frost.

It has helped me make some important choices in life, especially in times when my mind has been shrouded in conflicting thoughts about the past, and veiled by doubts about the consequences of my actions. I hope I can keep drawing inspiration from it in the future, and I think you too will share the same perspective once you take in these lines.

A recitation of the eternal poem by late Sir Alan Bates

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Memories of a Diwali morning 16 years ago: Surprises and smiles

Diwali, in India, is always associated with fun and celebration on a grand scale, but there are some moments of happiness which aren’t probably very dignified yet they stick with you forever because the events felt special when they occurred. This memory relates to one such morning, 16 years ago when I was in the 8th grade.

We (mom, dad and me) decided to spend the 1994 Diwali vacations in the picturesque hamlets and serene beaches of Murudeshwara, near Mangalore in the state of Karnataka. Accompanying us were another family of three, who were old family friends. The entire trip was a wonderful experience. On Diwali day i.e. ‘Lakshmi Pujan‘ day we decided to check out the interiors of the area and especially make a visit to the famous, and extremely scenic ‘Jog Falls‘, the country’s highest untiered waterfalls.

Jog Falls during the monsoon (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

We purchased a map of the area, and realized immediately that it was a heavily forested space with not much human habitation. There were no direct tours to this place. The locals informed us to look for ‘Gersoppa Falls’ because that is how they referred to it. “Sounds good”, we thought, and took a ride in one of the local transports which took us to Gersoppa, only it was a town named Gersoppa and not the waterfalls named Gersoppa. If this bit of embarrassment isn’t enough, let me also note that there is a distance of several kilometers between the town and the waterfalls. Just perfect, isn’t it?

So all six of us were left to do the journey to the waterfalls on foot, through almost uninhabited and pristine forests. This was a time before GPS handsets and satellite tracking, so the map was our only ally. If only the places were accurately marked on it! The (relatively few) passers by told us that the place is just “a few meters ahead” and that we should “start hearing it” when we got close to it. Well, those few meters never seemed to end and we could hear an echo of the water from all four sides, throughout the brief journey!

En route we came across a small hamlet consisting of about 8-10 huts. Soon we realized that there was a makeshift tea-stall at the side of one of the hutments. It was quite apparent that we weren’t the first ones to be lost, others had ‘been there, done that’. Why else would there be a tea-stall smack in the middle of nowhere?

Being Diwali day, it was also a time for them to clean and repaint the house with whatever meagre resources they had, and I must admit that they were doing a sterling job of it. Now, we weren’t just thirsty, we were hungry too. We casually enquired whether we can get something to eat along with the hot tea. The owner wasn’t going to refuse business on a Laxmi Pujan day for sure. He said that he could prepare egg omelets for us all. Well, something is better than nothing, so we all obliged. Little did we know that he did not have a single egg in his stock. He quietly went around the back of the hut to a couple of his neighbors, borrowed six eggs from them, came back to his kitchen, prepared the omelets and served them hot along with bread slices in 10 minutes flat. Talk about business sense and timing! On a day when Indians traditionally worship the goddess of money, it had even more significance. The little children in the house were so thrilled at having so many customers at a time, that we could see them peeping out from behind their mothers’ and fathers’ protection. Its a sight that I will not, and cannot forget. The smile on the faces of all the dwellers in the hut was something really, really special. 🙂

Here comes the shocker: the total bill for all the omelets and the tea was just Rs. 37. Beat that!

We tried making our way through a group of neighbors gathered to witness the ‘spectacle’. The word had got around to the only ‘wealthy’ person in town; wealthy because he had a brick-house and a Maruti 800 car parked outside, which by local standards made him something close to a billionaire. He came to the hut looking for us and invited us to his house. He seemed a good natured person. We later learned that he had a small business of selling packaged bottles of fruit juice made from the abundance of fruit nearby. We purchased a few. After a brief chat bordering on some valuable instructions on finding the right way and information on how far we still had to walk, we took his leave.

That was the last of the human interactions we had until we reached the spot of the waterfalls. The final leg of the journey wasn’t long, about a kilometer, and the sight and sound that greeted us was… breathtaking to say the least. We climbed all the way down to the base, spent some priceless moments there and came back up. After we returned that evening to the hotel at Murudeshwara, the manager told us “aaj aap itne ghoome ho.. ab aap kal subah 12 baje se pehle nahi uthane wale..” (you’ve walked so much today.. I don’t think you’ll wake up before 12pm tomorrow..”). Well, call it exuberance, but we did get up at first light the next morning! The trip was a long way from over and there were many things still to be seen, but the surprises and smiles of the previous morning had made a permanent home in each one of us. 🙂