“Who was Giuseppe Garibaldi? Explain his role in the reunification of Italy?”
Fifteen-year-old Kyra looks up at the clock staring down at her from the wall. 1:00 am.
Oh, well. Just one more hour and she’ll be done with her syllabus. It’s not that late anyway; she’s stayed up way past this time watching a TV show or reading a 30 chapter long fanfiction on nights before school and made it through the next day just fine.
“Giuseppe Garibaldi is perhaps one of the most renowned Italian freedom fighters.” She read out loud, her shaking voice as though willing the line into her overwhelmed memory. There was no other way she could learn so much information in such a short duration, especially not to the level of accuracy their teacher expected of them. Down to the exact turn of phrase, she must regurgitate these answers onto her answer sheet tomorrow– and then do the same for the next paper– rinse, repeat.
She looked towards the clock once more: 1:10.
No, no, no. She couldn’t spend ten minutes on a single question! Her careful calculation (20 questions*3 minutes = 60 minutes= 1 hour= done!) would be ruined. Okay, maybe 3 was too ambitious. Five, max, she told her brain firmly.
Later, as she lay down on her bed at 3.30 am, she realised she should’ve specified to her brain that ‘five’ meant five minutes and not having to repeat the same answer five times before she could recall it.
The question paper next day had decided to be especially notorious; it asked the very question she’d decided to skip (“What difference would not learning one answer make, anyway?” Damn you, Kyra-of-yesterday) for a grand total of five marks. Perfect.
She could barely remember the dates she’d ‘by-hearted’ on the first day out of the two preparatory leaves, and so she carefully manipulated her answers in order to get away without stating them. She waffled through the questions asking for her ‘opinion’ (as if she had any real say in forming this opinion) and desperately tried to catch a classmate’s eye for help with the MCQs, but to no avail.
As she handed over the answer sheet, she consoled herself, ‘However many marks I score, at least they’d all be because of my own efforts’.
“Oye Kyra! What did you write for the fifth question?”
“Oh god, yes, what did you write for that one? I couldn’t remember any examples.”
“Oh that one was simple, the map work was hard. Did you know the second one, Kyra?”
“Umm…I don’t really remember?” She couldn’t find it in herself to discuss the paper with the rest of her friends–what was done, was done. She couldn’t go back and change any of the answers, and discussing them would only reveal her mistakes and make her feel regretful.
Kyra wished she could go back home and sleep away the rest of the day, but she knew she couldn’t because the science exam was just two days later.
She wished these exams didn’t matter so much to everyone, but she knew that couldn’t be true because there was no other way for schools to judge students.
She wished these exams actually mattered, but she knew that they didn’t really, in the long run, because she knew that in two days, when she’d be writing answers in her paper about the functions of the kidney, she’d barely remember anything she wrote today.
Imagine what would happen in two years, let alone ten.
Kyra furiously scrubbed clean the last rusted medal, one among several hung above her study table. Once, they had gleamed proudly in her family’s drawing room, but ten years and more than ten layers of grime deposits later, things changed.
Even though she rarely visited this flat anymore, what with her busy schedule as an investigative journalist, her parents had left her bedroom intact. Posters of her favourite bands, TV shows, and YouTubers seemed to look down at her from the walls as though beckoning her back into her teenage years. It was only later that she noticed it. There it was, the highlight of the room, the prized shelf: ten trophies were affixed seemingly permanently on top of it and five medals dangled from its hooks.
Her mother came up behind her and gazed along with her at the shelf. “You were such a brilliant student, weren’t you Kyra?” You could practically hear the pride dripping from her voice.
“Funny”, said Kyra, “I don’t think you ever felt I was good enough when I still in school.” On second thoughts, she probably shouldn’t have said that out loud.
“I never wanted you to get complacent, my dear. It was my duty as a mother to continuously push you to improve your marks.”
‘But for what, don’t you wonder? To get the best percentage? To win another award? Do you think those things made a difference in my life in the long run?’
This time, Kyra didn’t voice her thoughts. She smiled at her mother and nodded her head. “I’ll clean them up.”
As she wiped their surfaces clean, Kyra remembered how she’d felt so honoured when she received them, but also how she’d felt uncomfortably undeserving later. Did they speak of her intelligence or of her skills in that particular subject? Or did they simply convey that she was better than most at memorising facts, writing answers, and taking tests? To be honest, if presented the eleventh-grade Maths paper for which she’d received an award right now, she’d barely pass.
Yet, years of separation had softened her animosity towards these relics of an examination gone well and made them feel endearing. Now, as the medals visibly spelled out her name once more, she could also remember the hours of (late night) hard work she’d put into preparing for a single exam, the grit school had forced her to build over the years, and the variety of responses it had triggered–helplessness at the vastness of the syllabus and awe at the vastness of human knowledge; resentment at the mindless drivel they had to memorise and disbelief at the mindless actions of humans throughout history; defiance at the extensive rules they had to obey and doubt at the extensive norms of human society.
What had been the point, then? Maybe, she felt, conventional schooling and its tokens were, indeed, useless. Or maybe it wasn’t about the knowledge she’d gained, and not always retained, but about the capabilities and opinions she’d developed along the way– because or in spite of the schooling system.
Most people believed that school currently functions as a place that kills natural curiosity and drills kids to prepare them for life. However, Kyra disagreed. School had failed to prepare her for life– she didn’t even know how to calculate her taxes, for God’s sake! Still, it had succeeded in making her think and question things– the school system, the world around her and often, life itself.
And maybe, that was enough.
Image Credits: Pranav M. SharmaI like this!