WHEN I was in school, tuition was a bad word. Only the really dumb and brainless resorted to extra classes not set up by the school. And we made sure they knew it.
My own time came when I was in class nine. Hitherto, I had spent most of my Physics classes writing poems about the giant mango trees that grew just outside our lab windows. Somehow, velocity and magnetic fields seemed inconsequential on a hot summer afternoon when you could gaze out at the trees and imagine their shade engulfing you.
The teacher too seemed in sympathy, or so I thought. He would ask questions row by row, but when my turn came, just skip me. Till, like I said, I reached class nine, and he warned my parents that unless I achieved a dramatic makeover in Physics, I might well spend the next several summers writing poems to the mango trees outside.
And so an extra coaching class in Physics was arranged for me. It was a great horror, those classes. I remember slinking past my classmates’ houses on my way to the tuition teacher’s house, transmogrified by the fear that one of them would catch me out in my dreadful secret.
However, even in those days, Maths tuition was perfectly acceptable. In class ten, the entire lot of us, even those who were good in the subject, would troop off for extra maths. The teacher was, well, a designer teacher. He was what I learnt later from my husband to be IAS – invisible after sunset. And he wore startlingly white clothes, no doubt so that the chalk dust would not show, for all Mr Innocent did from morning till night was teach maths. That really was his name and he had been teaching batches of class ten children for most of his life. Nobody would dream of taking Maths tuition from anyone else.
I survived both sets of tuition without becoming much wiser in the process. But the dread that everyone knew about my Physics classes continued to lurk in my mind. The other day, when I was speaking with an old school-friend, the matter came up. She exclaimed, ‘You used to go for Physics classes? But when was this? I never knew!’ I heaved a sigh of relief, and adroitly changed the subject. That was one ghost laid to rest.
Or so I thought, till I fast-forwarded to the twenty-first century and the day the son came home from school with a glum face. ‘Please, Mum, can I go for tuition in Hindi?’
The old panic engulfed me, but I looped my yarn over my knitting needle and surveyed him carefully. ‘Whatever for, beta?’ I asked. ‘You’re doing fine – you got 92 per cent in the last exam.’
‘You don’t understand, Mum,’ he replied, woefully. ‘Everybody in my class goes for tuition. They tell me their parents can afford to send them for tuition. Is it because you can’t afford tuition that you don’t send me?’
I abandoned my knitting. This was serious enough to require full concentration. ‘Babe,’ I said, ‘you’re only in class seven. Nobody, but nobody, goes for tuition in class seven. Besides, look at your last year’s report card. You’ve topped your section, and also your class in at least three subjects.’
‘That isn’t the point, Mum,’ he replied, dumping his bag in a corner of the room. ‘Every day in the Break, all of us sit around and chat. All my friends brag about what their tuition teacher said and did. I just eat my tiffin. Mohit told me today his parents spend five thousand rupees a month on his tuition teacher. Atul’s teacher charges Rs 2,500, but she helps him only with Maths and Hindi. Mohit goes for all the subjects. Rahul said his teacher charges Rs 250 per session. Then Mohit asked me how much we paid my tuition teacher, and I had to say I don’t have a tuition teacher at all. It was very humiliating, Mum. Can’t I go for tuition? Please?’
Then as an afterthought, ‘It would give me something to do in the evenings, after I’ve finished my homework.’
I tore myself out of my stupor at this to interject, ‘But they go there to do their homework, beta, because they can’t do it themselves. What would you do with a tuition teacher after you’ve finished your homework?’
‘You don’t understand, do you?’ he exclaimed bitterly, rushing up to his room and locking his door.
Well, really, I didn’t. All I did understand was that the wheel had turned quite a bit since my time. Meanwhile, the tuition battle rages. The son hasn’t won yet, but I’m not too sure how long I can hold out.
First published in The Financial Express in November 2000: http://www.financialexpress.com/old/fe/daily/20001115/fec15071.html