What is merit?

A Teachers’ Day thought

For a few months in 2000, I lived in Hampton, Virginia, the original hometown of the great space missions of NASA in the 1960s. But apart from this, the Hampton area is famous for one other thing. In 1634, the first free public school in what would go on to become the United States of America was established here.

After I discovered this, I spent some time trying to understand different approaches to universal education since then, especially the education of children without parents. It seemed obvious that such children would face particularly severe difficulties and be entirely dependent on public attitudes to universal education.

In the course of my exploration, I learned about the Big Brothers of America — an organisation that matches fatherless children in schools with adults who can be role models. Thinking I could make myself useful, I applied to be a Big Brother, and after some weeks of background checks, etc., I was accepted.

I was matched with a young boy around six or seven years of age. Let’s call him Neil. He had no father, and his teacher told me to keep that in mind in my interactions with him. I didn't quite understand how to keep something like that in mind, but at least I knew the fact.

He was a cheerful boy and loved to play various games in the schoolyard. I struggled trying to imagine how to be a role model to him, and to tell the truth, I eventually decided I should just ask him if there was anything I could do to help him.

After some amount of mumbling, he managed to mutter that he was not doing particularly well in class and that his teacher had told him to “learn something from Dr Mahesh” and get up to speed with the rest of the children.

I thought about that and decided that since I didn't know much about role-modelling, I would keep it simple. He was upset that he didn't know anything, so I would try to teach him something and hope that that would make him feel better about himself.

To start with, I felt it was important to get him thinking about the value of learning, so each time we met, we agreed that we would not greet each other with a mere "Good Morning". Instead, I would begin by asking him, "what is the secret password?" and he would say, "what I know will make me special".

It seemed silly at first — probably because it was! But it caught on somehow. He understood that I was trying to connect his learning to his self-esteem. And after a few days, he blurted out something like, "I wish I knew things like my friends in class do."

Finally, here was a problem I could solve! I taught him speed math — mainly, how to do multiplications of 2-digit numbers without needing any pencil or paper in just a few seconds. We practised — I would say any two 2-digit numbers, and he would have five seconds to multiply them correctly.

I could do exponentials in my head in high school and college, which impressed some people. So, I figured in some nerdy way that must be cool in second grade, too. It wasn't quite Shakuntala Devi, but at seven years, it would do. Besides, it was practice for me, too, after all those years!

And a remarkable thing happened. The next week, his teacher asked me, "What did you tell Neil?" Thrice during her class that week, she had asked the children to do multiplications of numbers and, for the first time, Neil was jumping up and down to give out the answer before anyone else.

The boy was beaming from ear to ear each time, she said. I was quite happy for him, and with myself — maybe there was some hope for me as a role model! He started to do better in other classes, too, and began to feel like he was with his peers, and not lagging behind them. I hoped for the best.

However, I was only in the town for a few months before my work there came to an end. I would miss Neil, but other things in life called.

A few weeks later, visiting some of my friends in the area, I thought I would drop in on the school and see how he was doing. But he wasn't there. His mother had some problem with the police, and he couldn't continue in the school. The folks from Child Services had placed him in a foster home closer to some other school. With that, it was back-to-scratch for Neil. I would meet other kids like that later in Washington, as I continued my exploration.

Since that spring, I've carried this thought with me — what you and I call 'merit' is often just the accumulation of opportunity. It wasn't Neil's fault he didn't have a father, or that his mother had problems he could never understand. It wasn't his fault he ended up in foster care, either. It was just his bad luck.

In each of us, there is potential to be special. A great society is one that tries to make this come true in all its citizens' lives, regardless of their birth. If we try, a few more children will escape the misfortune of their circumstances and emerge into the full bloom of their potential.

May we keep all children in our thoughts, as Teachers’ Day passes by.

(The writer is a public intellectual and activist)

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