Preparing for the big test

A. Mariyam Alavi
Sanchit Khanna, Saumya Khandelwal

In April 2017, HT began following the Class of 2018. Today, as the board exams begin, we circle back to check on them as they prepare for the big test.

My heart tells that I will do well

"See, to study you need money, and to earn money, you need to study," said Kshetrapal, summing up the conundrum of his final year in school. "I want to do go to college, and study until I get my PhD. But I need to be able to work and earn to afford my education."

When school began in April, Kshetrapal thought he had found a precarious balance between attending classes in the afternoon and working odd jobs most nights. But as assignments, projects and tests piled up, he found himself slipping behind. He did poorly in two of his five humanities subjects in his pre-board exams in January, but he remains upbeat about his prospects in the Board exams.

"I feel like I am crazy. But I am not tense about the exams at all. My heart tells me that I will do well in the boards," he said. "I hadn't studied for the pre-boards, but I have understood everything taught in class. I just need to figure out how to answer the questions."

Three years ago, most of Kshetrapal's friends dropped out of school – reasoning that they were better off working on construction sites across the North India. He stayed on in the hope that finishing school would open a path to more stable employment.

Today, on the cusp of his final exams, he seems to have learnt more at the work site than in the classroom.

"I know what I want," he said. "I want to be my own boss. Not do another boss's bidding."

Of those might pass and those who could soar

Naziya Naz has not attended school since her pre-board exams ended; not because she is unwell, but because she needs to study.

"Teachers are paying more attention to those who have failed their pre-boards," she said. "They are giving them easy questions to practice so that they can at least pass."

Naziya is satisfied with her pre-board marks, and is now camped out at home planning her final round of revisions. "There is just a lot to revise. The syllabus is too vast," she said.

Naziya represents one of the predicaments of Delhi's stretched public education system: Overworked teachers must find a way to balance the demands of students like Naziya who do well and could do even better with a little more supervision, and her peers who require dedicated attention just to pass their examinations.

"Who do you help?" one teacher asked in an interview at the beginning of the year. "The girl who just might become an IAS officer, or the one who definitely will not?"

At the beginning of term, Naziya had a different set of problems: She did not have a full set of textbooks, or the expensive reference books necessary to crack the famously competitive final exams.

"Textbooks are very expensive," Naziya had explained on her first day of school. "I can't buy my Class 12 books until I sell my old Class 11 books."

Since then, she has cobbled together a set of new and used books that she hopes will help get her into a Bachelors of Commerce programme at Jamia Millia Islamia University.

"The thought of college is both exciting me and making a little sad. It will be sad to leave the school, teachers, and friends I grew up with behind. But I am also excited about starting a new chapter in my life, with new people in a new place," she said.

I want to be free

Nikki Sharma has revised her syllabus three times over; and is going through her books a fourth time.

"I want to study economics honours from Lady Shri Ram College," she said one afternoon between her lessons. "If I don't score well enough, it is ok. I will just go for a BA Programme with economics, and then do my masters later."

Most children in Sangam Vihar understandably see their life after school through the prism of degrees and employment. After all, Nikki and most of her classmates will be the first members of their families to finish school, apply to university and consider a life of salaried employment in the formal economy.

Nikki, who has just turned 18, hopes that doing well in her boards will allow her to live her life on her own terms. All through her final year of school, Nikki had often expressed her frustration at the many societal strictures that force young women like herself to spend most of their time indoors.

"I just want to be free," said Nikki. "College, I think I will be able to handle. What I am excited about is the three-month break before the admission season."

"First thing, I want to do is go to my village in the Gaya district. I to go to Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, see the Nalanda University," she continued, "I did not get time to learn to ride a bike; I will do that now. I want to read something other than my text books."

The highlight of her year was that she and her cousin went shopping to Connaught Place by metro, without parental supervision.

"I don't remember what we bought, but I remember feeling free! We came back by a bus, and were a little late, and of course we were yelled at by our parents. But it was worth it," she recalls.

College to her is her ticket out of Sangam Vihar, and a way for her to spread her wings.

"I like doing things on my own," she said, "As women, we need to do things on our own, to be truly independent."

When you lose a friend

On December 12 last year, Simran's best friend killed himself because he couldn't cope with the stress of his board exams. The two had studied together from Class 6 to Class 10, Simran said, and stayed in touched after she shifted schools.

"I was in shock," said Simran, who studies science with mathematics and biology at the Ludlow Castle school in North Delhi. "He had spoken about how it was all too difficult for him, but I never thought he would do something like this."

The effect of exam stress on India's children is well documented.

In their 2015 paper titled "Academic Stress, Parental Pressure, Anxiety and Mental Health among Indian High School Students", Sibnath Deb, Esben Strodl, and Jiandong Sun found that 63% of students reported anxiety due to academic pressure.

Another study by Nimal Verma, Meeta Jain and Pritam Roy, titled "Assessment of Magnitude and Grades of Depression among Adolescents in Raipur City, India," found 40.49% students were mildly depressed, and 19% had major depression. In 2015 alone, 2,646 people in India had committed suicide because they failed their exams, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

The peer-group effects of this stress are less well documented.

Simran said she had spent most of her school life preparing for her exams. She chose to study science to "get into the habit of working hard."

Success in the boards was to be a stepping stone to an eventual career in the civil service. She switched schools after Class 10 because Ludlow Castle had a reputation of being one of Delhi's best run government schools. Her family even shifted homes so they could be closer to the metro-line that ferried Simran to school and back.

But her friend's suicide threatens to unsettle these carefully laid plans.

"I haven't been able to study since he died," she said. As consequence, she did poorly in her pre-boards, triggering off a fresh cycle of stress, self-doubt and parental recrimination.

"Papa hasn't spoken to me since my results. I know he is disappointed, and that makes me sad," Simran said.

She is on a mission to get her studies back on track. She wakes up at 10:30 am and studies till 4 am, and only stops for meals. She has been pouring over exam papers of previous years in an attempt to spot common patterns.

"The only thing I can do now is to ensure that I do well in boards, and crack the IAS exams. That is the dream that we both share."