I got 56 of 100 in English for my tenth board exams. This was back in 1986. I remember Miss Shirley, our English teacher, look at my mark sheet and shake her head disapprovingly. “I told you to write simple English and stick to the format answers. I’m sure you wrote in your own words.” I had. I had no guide books for the format answers. My mother had refused to buy them for me. “Don’t mug up,” she would say, “Understand what you’re writing.” It is advice that has stood me in good stead over the years, but then, as a 15 year old with her mark sheet in hand, I was in the depths of despair.

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It was a reality check for me, I was the one who would get her essays passed around in class for the other students to read. I was the one who was the English expert in school, my language skills were much lauded. To get 56 was a right shock. My aggregate percentage was a respectable above distinction level, but I was far, far from the school toppers. It surprised no one. I was never one of the brainy ones in school. In fact, I was what they politely called a back bencher. I struggled with Math and Science, in fact, I still get nightmares about appearing for my tenth board Physics paper. When I was in the fifth or the sixth, I remember a PTM where I was rather upset that a classmate had been given full marks on a question that I had answered the same as she had. The only difference being that I had answered it in my own words, and she had answered word to word from the textbook. It was not a definition. I told my mother when she came for the PTM to talk with the teacher about it. She refused. I saw the other moms haggling with the subject teachers over one mark. My mother came in, chatted peaceably with the class teacher about how I was behaving in class, signed the sheet and went home. That evening when I reached home after school, I was fuming.

It was a reality check for me, I was the one who would get her essays passed around in class for the other students to read. I was the one who was the English expert in school, my language skills were much lauded. To get 56 was a right shock.

“Why didn’t you tell teacher about that answer, I should have got full marks for that answer.”

I still remember my mother’s reply, it has stayed with me down the years and has come to define much of my parenting. “Your marks are not your intelligence. Your intelligence is your ability to grasp the concept and explain it in your own words.”

My mother was a teacher before she got married. She had, for those times, and now as well to be honest, rather radical concepts about studying and marks. Her idea of someone doing well was getting through from grade to grade without being nose deep in textbooks through the day. I played, I read, I studied when I felt like it. Much to the horror of the mothers of my classmates who woke their kids up at the crack of dawn to cram before exams, my mother would say, “What’s the point of last minute studying, it will just make you panic. Whatever you had to learn, you should have done by now.”

I still remember my mother’s reply, it has stayed with me down the years and has come to define much of my parenting. “Your marks are not your intelligence. Your intelligence is your ability to grasp the concept and explain it in your own words.”

The 56 in English is, in retrospect, rather ironic when I make my living through writing today. My language skills are what define me, as does my writing. Marks don’t matter, I tell myself.

Why are all these memories coming back to me? The offspring had his board exam results yesterday. Through his school days he has always been the boy who didn’t study at all, was hauled up from grade to grade by his bootstraps. Every PTM was fraught with days of panic in the lead up, for the laundry list of complaints I was sure to get, and the dismal performance that the marks would unfailingly reflect. “Doesn’t pay attention.” “Always up to mischief.” “Talking in class.” “Fighting in class.” His books incomplete, his attitude towards studying cavalier, to put it mildly. A call from school would have my heart stop beating. He marched to a different drummer, he heard music we couldn’t hear. While other parents tossed around their offsprings’ marks with great pride, I held my silence. Marks don’t matter, as a dictum, was not something I could adhere to anymore. Marks did matter, I told myself. I panicked. Marks mattered. College admissions were dependent upon it, and with that his entire career. There was too much at stake here. And after all, what is a mom if not to trip herself over with guilt and smash her nose in.

In a world where children are committing suicide in despair over their marks, how do you reassure those who don’t score well enough, that indeed marks don’t matter when they know that getting into college is going to be tough, if not next to impossible.

I will be honest, I worried. The marks rat race is a trifle insane, the 90s are the new norm, anything below that is beyond the pale. There are kids who struggle, who score in the 60s and 70s, which is a first class and a distinction but those seem to have no value these days where children are hitting 100/100. This year we even had 100% toppers. How do you top 100%? In a world where children are committing suicide in despair over their marks, how do you reassure those who don’t score well enough, that indeed marks don’t matter when they know that getting into college is going to be tough, if not next to impossible? How do you tell children who miss off on cut-offs by a point percentage that it is okay, life is more than the marks you score in your board exams?

Ten years down the line, those who get 60 or 90 per cent will be shaken out into the world. The ones who have scored well, will get into the good colleges, they get a head start. The ones who didn’t will have to struggle a fair bit. But I’m a great believer that talent and determination finds its path, much like water does. We have enough and more examples of those who have dropped out of the rat race and have made it, despite it all. Marks are important, yes, but marks aren’t intelligence, marks aren’t personality, marks aren’t resilience, marks aren’t boxes into which we should be categorising our children. Unfortunately, our education system had reduced our children to digits, these digits defining their self perception. The offspring did too, for the longest of time.

Marks are important, yes, but marks aren’t intelligence, marks aren’t personality, marks aren’t resilience, marks aren’t boxes into which we should be categorising our children.

The first prelims, the second prelims, he was chill to the point of being glacial. It was only post second prelims that the fear of the Board exams set into him and he got down to some serious studying. “Mamma, let me do it my way,” he said one day, in all seriousness. I stayed hands off. His results were yesterday, he’s done far, far better than I would have imagined in my wildest of expectations. He’s outclassed my board exam results by far.

“Are you happy, Mama?” he asked me. “Yes, I am, of course I am,” I replied, my eyes tearing up. “I am proud of you. If only you’d gotten serious about studying a little earlier you could have….” I heard myself saying. Then I stopped. “I’m proud of you. You’ve done very well.” That’s all he needs to know. And that is all that is important. Like water, he will find his path.

 What is your ‘Marks Don’t Matter’ story? Do share it with us.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV
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