A month to D-Day!

Board exam prep is in full steam and gosh, there is just no time to breathe! Perhaps the fact that I write this atop a side upper berth of the Indian Railways stands testament to just how maddening the last few weeks have been.

One (academic) year after I began teaching (yes, a one year post shall come up soon enough), I stand at the brink of board exams. Come May 15, seventeen students will begin writing the Edexcel IGCSE papers for English, Tamil, and Computer Science. Without exaggeration, I am more nervous than they are. Correction, without exaggeration, the teachers are more nervous than they are.

The average day goes like this. I start class at 7:30 in the morning and we plough through the specificities of the board till about 10:30 AM with a fifteen minute break for breakfast. From 10:45 to 1:15, the Tamil teacher takes over, and then it is the Computer Science teacher’s turn from 2:00 to 4:00. Post 4 PM, they get a couple of hours to themselves and then they are back to me from 6:00 to 8:30 PM when we break for dinner. Often times, doubt clearance, paper correction, marks totalling, what have you, spills over to after dinner and it is closer to 9:30 before I enter my room again, a full fourteen hours after I left. See, the catch is this. Everyone’s first reaction to this timetable is – oh my god, your poor kids! But. Hold that thought.

Picture me this.

On Monday, I decided I would do a visioning exercise to start us off, telling them to break down every day from Tuesday to the mocks and tell me what they would want to be revising. I told them I would take this into account for when I make my lesson plans and revision material, so that their queries and doubts are answered to the best of my ability. When they were in the middle of their timetabling, I asked them an innocent question. How many model papers would you like to do for practice before the mocks? (Yes, the mocks are practice in themselves, so essentially we are practising for the practice.) The answers left me speechless for a second.

There he was in the far right corner of the room, next to the window, a well-groomed, polite boy. His handwriting was second to calligraphy and his attendance was impeccable. I could not grouse him a single thing in class. When he raised his hand, I thought he’d tell me we didn’t need it. Mocks start in two weeks anyway, he would say, and I would take it from there. If only I knew what was coming.

Akka, we need twenty-five.

I gasped. Literally. In terms of background, Edexcel started offering English as a Second Language only since 2011 and therefore, the number of past papers available are pitiful. This means that every mock that they want to write, I need to create a question paper. One minor detail. Every two hour question paper that they write takes me five hours to set. Just set, forget correct. And this boy coolly throws a number at me.

I reminded him English was one of his three subjects, that he had classes for the others as well, and that it was impossible to write twenty five exams in eight working days. He said they would do take-home exams, that they were staying on campus anyway so working hours weren’t an issue, that they needed practice.

I told him twenty-five question papers meant a hundred and twenty five hours of work for me. That is five full days and then some without sleep or food or water, I told him. Or correction or any other material or pretty much anything else. That is okay, Akka, he replied in an instant. I was too astounded to ask him for who.

It was another student who came to my rescue. Akka, let us do four. Maybe five? After 125 hours of work, 25 doesn’t seem like too much. I agreed.

Now, you there. Now you tell me who is the poor soul here. Huh? Huh?

Thus began our board exam prep. Every session we tackle one part of the six-part question paper. We figure out ways to write informal letters and emails, the difference between articles and reports, how to summarise, and then we skim and scan till words are dancing in front of our eyes. What they write in the morning session needs to be corrected by the same evening so we don’t waste time making the same mistakes, and simultaneously, material for the next few days need to be dispatched for printing and stapling and such. It is a cycle, a machine that grinds away constantly.

Board exam prep is terrifying business. It is a concoction of stress and fear and pride all rolled into one. I oscillate dangerously between overwhelming pride at how far these kids have come even in the last year that I have seen them and crushing fear at systemic competition and the outside world. I think back to my own board exams and the nervousness I felt in the run up, and I think about today. Today I see in front of me children who are not caught up in the fear of the system or intimidated by the world outside. They are fearless dreamers, raring to go. Truly acham illai.

Every time I think of my kids, for in so many ways they really are, there is an image that stands out in my head, an anecdote from my classroom.

One day, a ninth standard boy asked me to explain the difference in usage between ‘in’ and ‘on’. Prepositions are confusing, he told me. I promised him I would double-check the rules and get back to him. A few days later, I took a class and taught them the differences. In the process of preparing for that class, I thought of a question. The question stumped me for quite a few minutes and as I proceeded to ask my circle of friends, everyone drew a blank. I even texted my Grade 12 English teacher whose response to me was ‘enne ma, room pottu yosikkareya?’ We all eventually got around to the answer, a good half hour after we set out.

Take these two sentences. Why is there a difference in preposition when it is referring to the same action?
I drank coffee in the morning. VS I drank coffee on the morning of July 29th.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I walked into my ninth standard class the next morning and set them on the task. I wrote the two sentences on the board and asked them why it was different. I was waiting for whining about how English is an inexplicable language and such. Instead, the class greeted me with complete silence as they all contemplated the sentences on the board. A couple of weeks later, I posed the question to two tenth standard girls as we stood around making small talk between classes. They took all of two minutes to answer me.

Akka, the tense is the same and the subject and object are the same. But in the second sentence, the preposition is actually for the date, so it takes ‘on’. In the first sentence, it is for the time of day and so it takes ‘in’. That is why, Akka. We shouldn’t get confused seeing both the ‘morning’s.

Every time I think of my kids, every time I fear for them, every time I have nightmares about the boards, I remember the faces looking up at me with bewilderment, as if asking why I was posing such an obvious question. Those who have mastered prepositions should be ready to face the world. In/on are greater devils than most. Fingers crossed.

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