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What a September!

of Taxes and Tiger moms 

When I started to blog in July, I thought I was going to be fairly regular. But remember that quote, wrongly attributed to John Lennon- “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”? It was apparently writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders who actually came up with that a lot earlier than Lennon. Well, that’s what seems to happen to me, ever so often. So, after being fairly regular through July and somewhat regular through August, (mostly on account of discovering, that blogging is a poor substitute for a ‘real’ day job!), I have posted nothing through September!! That makes it my ‘lost’ month. So, where did my September go? As usual, doing all those supposedly mundane things that people, especially mothers do. The stuff nobody really talks about, even less write about. Why? Well, it’s just the stuff that needs to be done…that’s why. Two major events stand out for me. First, paying my taxes, and second, holding my son’s hand through the first written school exams of his life, by the end of which both of us have come away learning a few important lessons of our own.

About the taxes: Yes, I dutifully filed my returns to the government of India. I fought the temptation to resist but finally did the deed. I joined the bandwagon after the original due date had expired, but benefitted from an unexpected week-long extension of the deadline. Even though I haven’t had a ‘real job’ or a ‘salary’ to speak of, over the past financial year, it needed to be done. So, I went through with it, using the services of an online team of professionals at Quicko.com for the first time. They were polite, efficient and helped me right through the process as I did the paperwork from home. I’m sure many others are reluctant taxpayers too, each for their own reasons. My resistance stems from the realisation that as an Indian citizen, there are actually no ‘returns’ to be had from the process. I’m not talking about refunds here. I mean, where does the money go? What becomes of it? What’s the ‘larger good’ that I am contributing to, when I suffer multiple power cuts daily at home, pay for tankers full of water for basic domestic use, and drive on pot-hole ridden roads fearing for my life, jammed with traffic? Where’s the government that collects these taxes through all of this? What’s the point of this exercise??  Well, so I’m proud of myself for having been decent and keeping my end of the bargain (if only it buys me the right to complain), but I’m not particularly happy about it. More about that later.

Now, to the other milestone of the month. A big, personal one. My six-year old, going on seven actually appeared for the first ever written exams of his little-big life, this month. Up until mid-September, he had no clue what ‘marks’ and scoring meant. He had no idea about studying to pass an exam, exam-hall decorum, roll numbers, the concept of ‘copying’, not letting neighbours peek into your answer-sheets, answering questions on demand, checking and revising, etc. Now, at September-end, he’s that much wiser about the ways of the world and how it’s likely to be for him for several years, going forward. What these exams also did for us as a family, is flag areas of concern about parenting and teaching styles vis-à-vis academic performance and skill sets for the real world.

While prepping him for the ‘test’, I was rather hands on. I sat with him, getting him to read his text books and class notes, explained when he got stuck and sometimes went into the details he isn’t quite ready for, just yet. The idea was to go beyond the swallow-vomit style of ‘performance’ expected in typical exams, and focus instead on ‘learning’ through understanding concepts that would outlive the examinations. Where I left off, my mother would pick up, creating structured ‘model’ question papers for him, to see how he’d fare. When both of us were satisfied, we let him earn his reward- TV and gadget time, though on a leash.     

I guess the thing about having a single child and time to lavish on him has its unique advantages and pitfalls. My mother with her years of plentiful teaching experience and I with my academic approach were able to identify areas of weakness and strength in the child and work on those. But it was only when the results were out that we each discovered something else- the phenomena of ‘Tiger moms’ lurking beneath.

My ‘lost’ month was, as it turns out rather eventful, after all. My son’s exams were done and dusted, and the results declared within days. Interestingly, we were in for a big surprise when the little fellow who got to see and review his grades a day ahead of the PTM at school, kept the results from us. A chance discovery through a WhatsApp conversation with a fellow-parent revealed that all children had been shown their answer sheets for them to go over. But my son, who otherwise talks endlessly, had chosen not to utter a word about it. This after displaying many other kinds of curious behaviours. He had already checked with me, what I planned to “wear to the PTM” and made it known that a salwar kurta would be “funny” and a saree, “odd”! He had been really looking forward to me meeting his teachers and finding out how he’d done. But when it was actually time to talk, there was only silence. 

So, what had happened? Did he flunk? A little prodding brought on an unprecedented meltdown, I wasn’t quite prepared for! Through his desperate sobbing, I caught a few words that went something like “I didn’t get full marks…in all subjects”… That’s when I figured, where he thought the bar was set. 100% in all his subjects, no less! He was crying because he thought he had actually failed us!! Gradually it came out that he had scored 19.5 out of 20 in two subjects and 19.75 in another. Of course, he forgot to mention that he scored a 100% in two other subjects and got an A+ in art. The crying got worse because he couldn’t bear to tell me, that of all things he had misspelt the word ‘mother’ in English, which cost him 0.25 marks. He had actually spelt it as ‘mothor’ and couldn’t believe it himself. He was sobbing because he was sure I would be livid about it. Guess, who was livid? Not me, but my mother.

So, as it turned out, the satisfaction of actual ‘achievement’ had eluded him altogether, in his pursuit of apparently living up to what he thought were our expectations- cent percent marks!

My reaction came as a huge relief to him. I was a lot calmer than he expected, not breathing fire at all, reassuring him, that he’d done perfectly well and that nobody expected as much from him as he seemed to think. Not in the exams at least. To be honest, my mother said she did expect more from him and there was some amount of fire-fighting I was engaged in with her, at that point. At the end of the day, we seem to be turning into the Asian family of lore that pushes its children to their limits, just so they can realize their potential, whatever it may be. Now, there are no Amy Chua’s in our family but I still seem to be becoming someone I didn’t know I might. I wonder where this leaves a little boy about to turn all of seven. As for me, I’ve decided to go easier on him. What’s the point if learning turns into a chore for the little boy, just to please his family? Time to look for ways to make it a happier experience, for everyone concerned. Any insights?      

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