A few days ago, a seven-year-old American college student wrote an adorable letter to a clothing company expressing her disapproval of girls’ jeans with fake pockets. “I want front pockets because I want to put my hands in them. I would also like to put things in it. The company immediately accepted his suggestion and even sent him a few pairs of jeans and shorts with pockets. She wrote the letter as part of her school assignment to write persuasive letters. The homework was very thoughtful and the exercise would be very useful for the students in the years to come.
The incident reminded me of our education in English at school. We were introduced to the language at a fairly high level. The graduation exam set the tone for the grades immediately below. One of the most successful exercises was writing a letter or an essay.
Every now and then a student, with the help of elders at home, would prepare a document which was then copied by close friends. More often than not, however, the supply came from help books. It is not known who wrote these books. A letter to a classmate about his mother’s death said nothing personal or heartfelt, but taught the whole message of the Gita to the poor grieving boy.
The Diwali essay was not about the joy of lighting lamps, the excitement and competitive spirit associated with fireworks, or the solemnity at home. Rather, the help book informed the students about the significance of the five-day celebration, starting with Dhanteras and ending with Bhai Dooj.
The secondary exam was organized by the University of Punjab which covered a vast territory comprising different geographies, ecologies and cultures. When the newspaper asked for an essay on a train journey, students in remote areas of Himachal Pradesh were distraught; they had never seen a train, let’s put the journey aside. One of the favorites of the paper makers was a house on fire, as if schoolchildren regularly set houses on fire and take notes.
The main goal was not to learn English, but to pass the exam. There were a few popular essays likely to be on the presenter’s shortlist. Quite often a student chooses to put all of their eggs in one basket. He would just memorize an essay and hope it “came” in the question paper.
Humor was born out of a feeling of nervousness. A student had prepared an essay on a cricket match for the final exam. But the newspaper demanded a train trip. The resourceful boy wrote: We all sat on the train. The train was delayed. So we got to the platform and started playing cricket.
In another case, the candidate had bet on “My favorite leader”, but the examiner chose “My best friend”. Gallantly, the boy rose to the occasion. He started: Jawaharlal Nehru is my best friend. (Postscript: The boy shouldn’t be punished, because it happened 60 years ago).