Our first batch of students will reach class ten next year and will sit for the board exams. Before summer vacation, we call a meeting of their parents.

‘We will have a preparatory exam right after the summer vacation,’ I announce.

Everyone perks up. I know nothing stirs the attention of parents than a talk about exams.

‘The reason we will have it after summer vacation is to ensure that they utilise the long vacation. I see a lot of them waste time chatting on the internet during vacations — that must not happen.’

Trrng…a WhatsApp notification sound rings from the phone of Dos’ father. All the adults in the room look embarrassed. Only Dos’ father is unperturbed. Children in the room looks jubilant — their expression seems to say, it’s not only us who do it.

Vulture’s father raises his hands. ‘Sir, will you mind if I ask a question?’

‘I cannot say whether I will mind or not unless I hear the question,’ I say.

He plods on, fearlessly. ‘I saw the marks in the weekly tests of Chemistry. Can you tell me why is there such a large difference between the top students and the bottom students?’

Existential question. Why is there such a large difference in wealth between Bill Gates and me? Such questions are beyond the syllabus, as far as parent-teacher meetings go.

I rephrase him, ‘I think you are really asking why Vulture is there at the bottom of the list, and not towards the top, right?’

He seems unhappy. He did not want his son’s performance to be brought into focus.

Aranya’s dad rescues him by asking a different question.

‘Sir, will you give them some coaching for the KVPY exam?’

‘Is it something to do with Kishan Vikas?’ I ask.

I am stunned that Aranya wants to do something with farming. I always taught them that Agricultural revolution has been the undoing of humankind.

‘No, no, it’s not Kishan Vikas. It’s Kishore Vaigyanik.’

I quickly check it on my phone. It’s a test that acts as an entrance exam to institutes like IISc, Indian Institute of Science.

I hate these entrance tests and the coaching culture they spawned. I suddenly wish it was really Kishan Vikas, instead of Kishore Vaigyanik.

‘No,’ I flatly declare.

Aranya’s father looks quite disappointed. I give him some reassurance. ‘We will teach them well in the school. They will not need any special coaching for anything.’

He seems happy again.

But that was a lie. I have no intention to inflict ‘science’ on our children in 12th standard. They will study it if they are genuinely interested — but not to fulfil the unfulfilled ambition of their parents who could not become the engineers or doctors that they themselves wanted to become.

Board exams are approaching, but the class has never entered the labs. We had many theoretical discussions about the lab though — mainly about how to enter it, and who will guide us after we do enter.

‘Under Motu’s able guidance we should be able to do the experiments,’ I suggest.

‘What makes you think Motu will be an expert?’ Nonny counters.

‘Because he is good at pouring things. He really poured tea very well from the pot to the teacup yesterday. Chemistry lab is all about pouring.’

Everyone concurs. Pouring is all that counts. It’s all Motu’s responsibility now.

‘What happens if we pour wrongly?’ Aranya asks.

‘Anything might happen. Explosions, earthquakes, who knows? We cannot trust anyone other than Motu.’

‘Is physics lab also about pouring?’ Bhau asks with mock innocence.

‘No, it’s all about making circuits. But there too, explosions are the final result.’

I think I manage to sufficiently reassure them here. It cannot be so very difficult when there is only one result, right?

‘How do you know so much about explosions?’ everyone asks.

My mind races back to my IIT days, in the Electrical Machines lab. We had to make some real wirings based on circuit diagrams. I did not mind making those circuits. What I really disliked was pulling down the main switch after the circuit was made. All hell would break loose. The resistors would start burning with lots of scary sounds. On top of the scary sounds of burning and explosions, the professors would bark loudly too, blaming me for this mayhem.

Since then I never liked to enter labs. But now, for the sake of my students, I have to do it again.

‘How did you manage to pass the course when you were always wiring circuits wrong?’ they ask.

‘Oh, we mostly had group projects. And I had partners who could do circuits.’

‘But why would they choose you?’

‘Because I provided interesting companionship. Take them out for tea, bread-omelette, amuse them with stories.’

The class understands the value of conversation and interesting companionship. At least, our discussion about labs resulted in some valuable life lesson.

In our school, students always loved history. History meant movies like ‘Downfall’ or ‘The Pianist’. History meant literature like ‘A fine balance’ or ‘Animal Farm’. History meant endless discussions about why Dara Sikoh lost in the succession battle against Aurangzeb. History is fascinating.

But suddenly, after reaching class 9, the students started disliking history.

The reason is the history textbooks. Though our school is affiliated to the CIE board, and textbooks are supposed to be more interesting, but in the end, all textbooks are tools for passing exams. They are the enemy of learning.

Anyway, I manage to persuade the students to open the history textbook. Today we will discuss Russian revolution.

For a while, it is interesting, till the time we get into the nitty-gritties of the civil war. I see most of the students’ eyes glazing over while I am discussing the attempted coup by Russian general Kornilov to overthrow the provision government.

I think now is the time to ask some questions to wake them up.

‘Bhau, tell me about the reasons behind why the Kornilov affair failed.’

‘Uh, Kornilov? Who did he have the affair with?’

The whole class erupts into laughter. Though nobody else has any clue about the real Kornilov affair either.

But at least the question woke them up. Or was it the answer?

We continue to study Russia under the communist rule. The actual history is quite interesting, but the blur of dates and names in the textbook takes all the fun away. Students yawn. Some asks what’s the meaning of it all. I see that they get very philosophical when they study boring subjects.

A few days later, we successfully survive Stalin’s bloody purges and Khrushchev’s skirmishes with the West and reach the era of Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev’s time in Soviet Russia is called the era of stagnation — because no economic growth took place during that time.

I ask, ‘What did Brezhnev mainly do during his tenure?’

Pope replies, ‘He stagnated.’

‘Oh, he did not stagnate, his country stagnated. Normally when a country stagnates, the leader prospers!’

This provides some comic relief. The class comes alive. Someone points out, other than stagnating, he also gave a doctrine, called the Brezhnev Doctrine. This sounds interesting. A summary of one’s policy insights, articulated in the form of a clear one-line statement. Must be earth-shatteringly wise.

‘When enemies of socialism threaten one socialist country, all socialist countries must collectively defend that country.’

Oh oh. Such insightful doctrine. The class is disappointed. Brezhnev was a certified bore, clearly. But maybe other Presidents and Prime Ministers did better than this. Everyone starts checking Wikipedia in search of insightful doctrines.

Someone finds out that almost every American president gave a doctrine too. Nixon doctrine, which seemed equally insightful as Brezhnev, argued for the ‘pursuit of peace through partnership with allies.’

Kennedy doctrine called for ‘Containment of communism.’

Bhau says, ‘Let’s check out Bill Clinton’s doctrine. He was an interesting man. Maybe he gave a doctrine about the Monica Lewinsky thing.’

We are in for a bitter disappointment there as well. Clinton doctrine also turns out to be equally boring.

‘Let’s make our own doctrines,’ Nonny suggests, ‘We will fill the doctrine-gap in the world.’

‘Yeah, my doctrine is that I will always remain smarter than my smartphone,’ Bhau says.

‘I will always work harder,’ Motu says.

‘Harder compared to what or who or when?’ everyone asks.

Motu is nonplussed. It seems he needs to refine his doctrine more so that it can withstand rigorous scrutiny.

‘Yes, let’s do it as a homework,’ I say. ‘You all will write your own doctrines. Maybe it will not be published in Wikipedia, but it will surely be better doctrines than those presidents.’

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.