“A Cuckoo bird lays its eggs in the nest of the others birds. And when its chicks are born, they kick out the eggs of the other bird. Competition over. Life begins with murder… Life is a race.. if you don’t run fast.. you will be like a broken egg.” A lesson, we are teaching our children.
Most of us know where this quote comes from. Boman Irani’s character in a movie that brought a ray of hope for most students: 3 Idiots. Now I’m not one to take lessons from Bollywood and base all my life’s decisions on them. But I believe I wouldn’t be wrong in saying, and a lot of people would agree with me, that this movie was correct in the attention it drew to the pressure on students for academic excellence. And I choose to say ‘academic excellence’. I intentionally avoid ‘academic performance’.
The reason is quite simple, you see. ‘Academic performance’ is a universal term. Every student who sits in an exam fits into this criterion. Whether you score 60% or 90%, you have made an ‘academic performance’. However, it is only those who cross the bar of 90% who reach ‘academic excellence’.
When I sat for my 12th Board exams, 5 years ago, I was terrified. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get over 90% and I wouldn’t get admission into a good college/university and I wouldn’t get a good job and I wouldn’t get a good salary and I wouldn’t be able to afford the kind of lifestyle I had envisioned for myself. Essentially, I was terrified that if I didn’t get over 90% in my Boards result, I would be doomed to a life full of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
I fell short of 90% by just 2%. And while I had spent all of my 17 years of existence being told that less than 90% is nothing, I made a place for myself and in less than a month, I will be a professional degree holder from one of the best colleges in the world. I remember when I panicked during my Boards and worried about my result thereafter, my parents told me that when they sat for their Boards, anything above 60% was First Division and above that was the distinction. Now? I read news of children with between 90%-93% committing suicides because they believe that being at the top is the only thing. That anything less than that is not sufficient.
Yes, Boman Irani’s character was right. There are Cuckoo birds and some of them do push the other eggs out, begin their adult lives in murder. But does that mean that the other eggs weren’t good enough? Just because one child scores 95% or more, does it mean that all those who scored less than them did not work hard enough? Or that they are not worthy enough? Do we condemn these children for falling short in one parameter, and tag them as ‘not good enough’?
And quite frankly, what is ‘good enough’? Is academic excellence the only parameter of judging a child’s excellence? What about the million other skills that children possess and have the ability to hone. Art, music, sports, creativity, dramatics and so many other things where a person may be excellent. Let’s take some time to acknowledge the students who excel there because that is excellence too.
At this juncture, I’d like to bring up Vandana Sufia Katoch. A mother of a son writes in a Facebook post: “Super proud of my boy who scored a 60% in Class 10 board exams. Yes, it is not a 90, but that doesn’t change how I feel. Simply because I have seen him struggle with certain subjects almost to the point of giving up, and then deciding to give his all in the last month-and-a-half to finally make it through! Here’s to you, Aamer. And others like you – fishes asked to climb trees. Chart your own course in the big, wide ocean, my love. And keep your innate goodness, curiosity, and wisdom alive. And of course, your wicked sense of humor.”
What you see here, is a mother who understands the importance of differentiating between ‘performance’ and ‘excellence’ and why it is crucial to keep them separate. Why you can’t measure them against each other.
Times have changed such that now, it isn’t just science and commerce students who score 100%. Even humanities students get full marks in a lot of subjects. I first congratulate them on their hard work and their top notch performance. But I also urge them to remain humble and understand this distinction between ‘performance’ and ‘excellence’.
Which brings me to the next point. Every year tens of thousands of students show ‘academic excellence’ and score above 90%. Students spend hour poring over text books, exam preparatory books, subject guides, question banks, tuitions, mobile apps and what not. Answer sheets of top performing students are shown to be used as guidelines. Perfect answers are framed and handed over to the students, containing the “keywords and phrases that an examiner will look for in the answers”. This is what I was told by numerous teachers before I appeared for my Boards. And I know it hasn’t changed as I see my younger brother gearing up for 12th class and receiving the same words from different teachers in a different school in a different city.