Trading skills

When I was in the 1st standard, my Dad was transferred to Delhi. It was the middle of the school year, and we had to scramble to get me admitted into a school. That was my first brush with the ‘entrance test’. I applied to two schools. One of them asked me to write the numbers from 1 to 400. I recall coming home and expressing a degree of surprise – if you knew how to count till 100, surely, that was sufficient? The other school asked me to spell the word ‘hundred’. I did not get accepted into that school. I still remember coming home, and spelling out h-u-n-d-r-e-d to my Mom, proud of the new word I’d learned that day. The kind teacher at the second school had taken the trouble to teach me the correct answer.

Writing out numbers from 1 to 400 was the last time I did well at a ‘quant’ test. As a banker’s family, we’ve moved to new towns, new homes, new schools every once in a while. I’ve taken more than a fair share of ‘entrance’ tests and interviews. When applying to Union Christian (from where I eventually completed my 12th std.), I was asked to solve a bunch of problems, that I promptly bungled, and asked to write an essay (on a ‘rainy day’), in which I raved and ranted on for three pages or perhaps even more (Mrs. Ranjini Mathew, the lady who graded my paper, and my soon to be English teacher, told me that vital to the art of writing an essay, was knowing when to stop).

So here I was – alarmingly lacking in quantitative skills, but apparently not as big a dunce at language… My Dad convinced the Principal, that yes, I was weak in Math, but with their excellent training, he was confident I would improve. Mr. Vergheese took a chance. That should have taught him a few lessons in the futility of gambling.

For the next two years, I went through abject misery, writing not one but two papers in Math every year. (My school fell under the ‘Matriculation Board’ unique to Tamil Nadu. This possibly the ONLY board in the world that insists on putting its students through a seemingly endless list of core subjects – English I, English II, Math I, Math II, Hindi I, Hindi II (or Tamil I, Tamil II – as the case may be), Biology, Physical Sciences, History, Geography – that’s 10 exams, each taken thrice a year!)

The only thing that kept me going was the light at the end of the 10th Std. tunnel – the ‘Pure Science’ group that my school fortunately offered. When choosing subjects for 11th & 12th, my father (an optimist, if ever there was one), actually attempted to talk me into taking Math. He still nurtured hopes of his child becoming an ‘Engineer’. It did not take me too long to disabuse him of his illusions about my ability to add two and two and consistently arrive at the answer of four.

Suddenly, I felt liberated, surrounded by 11 others (there were only 12 of us whose fear of Math proved greater than our fear of Mrs. Benzie, the dragon lady who taught Biology), all of whom didn’t even notice the irony of Math being left out of a group that was supposedly ‘Pure Science’. For those uninitiated in the arcane nomenclature in use in Madras High Schools of that time – subjects that fell under ‘Pure Science’ were Zoology, Botany, Physics and Chemistry.

I was happy. At 17, even stop-gap solutions have a way of appearing to be permanent fixes. Well, to cut a long story short – Math has persistently dogged my steps, despite multiple attempts to run away. Every time I get tested for one more thing, there’s that quant section again – masters degrees, jobs, life…

What got me started on this trip down memory lane? Yesterday, I took a test, and big surprise, bungled the Math section. I’ve done a lot of soul searching in the weeks running up to the test. From detached curiosity to abject martyrdom, I’ve been through every mood. I have asked myself a vast number of piercing questions – ranging from the spiritual to the petty:

– Does God NOT mean to give some people the gift of numbers?

– Was I reading a novel in some corner when God did in fact hand out math skills?

– Is there a God? If not, who can I blame for my stupidity? Will the party responsible please stand up?

– What degenerative disease of the brain makes my neurons turn to mush whenever there’s the slightest talk of cylinders being filled or emptied at a certain constant rate? How then, do these very same cells spring right back to life when the Booker Long List is released?

This morning, I think I finally came up with a solution. Skills should be made into securities that can be freely traded, preferably on a barter basis. How awesome would it be to exchange some of my reading speed for a little ‘adding’ speed? This way, it wouldn’t always be the folks with money who, well, have it all, or could have it all. If not trade your skills, then at least, you should have the ability to shore up your skills for a rainy day. I am sure that over 27 years, I could have, a tiny bit at a time, saved up enough to save my life yesterday.

While we’re at it, why not give emotions the same status too? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put away some self-esteem from your cocky days for days when you want nothing more than to believe that you’re worth something? Or store away some of the feeling from days when everything seems to make sense for those when nothing does? It would simply be a more efficient use of resources. Why isn’t a killer business model like this already out there?

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3 comments so far

  1. Karthik on

    Funny, so you Matriculated too, eh? Guess the one good thing about it was that no matter how poorly you did, you’d always get more marks than the others who didn’t go to Matriculation schools.

    And, yes, as usual a thoughtful, interesting post.

  2. Swami on

    Came here from Karthik’s page. Nice post.

    I Matriculated too and I commiserate with the pain. I have always found it odd that the Matriculation exam was for 1100 marks – not 500 like the state or central boards and not even 1000, but 1100. 10 full papers + practicals for Chemistry, Physics and Biology.

    By the time I finished all my language papers, I was thoroughly disgusted at all those “second” papers.

  3. DoZ on

    I’d forgotten all about the practicals! You’re right – no wonder it felt as if exams would never get over…–>


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