Another Day, Another Exam
This blog post was written by Varshini Srinivasan, staff member at Teach For India.
The school bus pulled into the driveway like it did every morning. Other students were milling about the courtyards and the dining hall, talking about this and that. I stepped out of the bus, my hands clasped around my school bag, and walked surreptitiously into the Secondary Block, the building where grades 9 through 12 were housed. Teachers were walking in twos and threes, holding their morning cups of tea and coffee. My friends were congregated around the lockers, depositing their bags, telling jokes and exchanging gossip to cut the tension. Everything was the same, but everything was very different.
Why was I so nervous? I had always been a pretty intelligent kid. Never at the top of the pack, but I did well for myself. What’s more, I had spent the past three months preparing for this day. Without realising, I had steered myself in autopilot onto my seat in the almost empty classroom where my 10th grade Physics Board Exam was scheduled to take place. The test was still fifteen minutes from beginning so I hastily pulled my heavily annotated textbook and volumes of notes out my bag for one last feverish revision. Density… Forces… Thermal Processes… Magnetism. My mind involuntarily jumped back to the Magnetism lesson we’d had several months ago. Our teacher had sprinkled some blackish dust on a piece of paper and held a magnet under it. The second the magnet neared, those clumpy particles of black dust arranged themselves into a pattern of symmetrical bows and arches. It was one of most beautiful things I had seen. It reminded me of the meticulous formations my Bharatnatyam teacher would arrange us in during dance class. Once again, my thoughts travelled against my will to the night I performed on stage for the first time.
The size of the audience was magnificent. My teacher and the band of musicians were poised at the ready for the show to begin. The lights were dimmed so I was able to concentrate on nothing but my craft. The stage was sprawling, calling out to me to conquer it. And I did. All evening, I danced, spreading myself across the stage, sometimes smooth like water, other times rough and unforgiving. I knew exactly what I was doing and I did not want to stop. But I had never felt this way about my studies. They were not something I could conquer. They had defeated me with the ease that I had danced on that stage.
I yanked myself out of my daydream, put away my books and notes into my bag and steeled myself. In a few moments, the examination began. As a rule, I read through the entire question paper once to prepare myself but something was wrong. As I read, all of my preparations wiped themselves clean from my memory one by one. Density, gone. Forces, gone. Thermal Processes, gone. Magnetism, gone. Why? I loved Physics. It made so much sense. But this didn’t. Nothing about this situation made any sense to me. All I was left with were memories of me and my stage. In abject horror, I realised there were copious tears flowing down my cheeks. My breathing was getting faster and heavier and there was a tightness in my chest that was tearing me open. People were looking. Oh, god, please stop looking at me when I am at my most pathetic.
“Varshini, are you okay?” said a voice next to me.
I looked up to see the kind, concerned face of Ms. Preethi Menon, my English teacher, and the invigilator of this test. Immediately, she escorted me out of the room, and sat me down outside, handing me a glass of cold water, encouraging me to sip slowly.
“You can do this. You have been preparing and you have everything you need. It’s okay mole. It’s just a test”, she said softly. Her use of the endearing Malayalam term for “girl” soothed me. There was a certain familiarity in it.
Nodding mutely, I sipped my water and slowed my breathing. She was right, I told myself. Somehow, I will scrape through. And if I didn’t, at least I had the memory of that night, of the audience, the music, the dim lights, the stage, and me.
I walked back into the classroom, and took my Physics board exam. The funny thing is that today, at twenty-four years old, I have no idea how well or how poorly I performed on that exam. But back then, at fifteen, it meant everything. To me, it was the thing that separated me from an accelerated track in Physics as opposed to a core track, from smart and dumb, from success and failure. When I went back home that day, and my mother asked me how it went, I dutifully said, “Fine, ma.” Then I woke up the next morning, and boarded the school bus. I was on my way to take the next exam.