We were the last batch to appear the High School Leaving Certificate examinations under the Assam Board of Secondary Education. The matriculation examination or Matric exam as we used to refer to it for short, was the dreaded dragon any high school student had to inevitably engage with in order to make anything of his or her life. It was the valley of the shadow of death. It was mini-Armageddon, and you didn’t get to choose your weapons of warfare.
Preparations were always frenetic beginning from the year preceding it and encompassing the whole year. There were intensive tuitions in Mathematics for the boys, and schools conducted prep classes for all students. We lived through an era when female students could opt for a paper called Domestic Science which was offered in Class IX and Class X in lieu of Mathematics. The poor boys had to study and appear Maths at the Matric exams, and that was one reason why girl students could clear the exam in one go while a number of boys would have to appear supplementary examinations in Mathematics after the results were out.
No one liked to admit how hard they were studying. That would be socially unacceptable. But matric candidates, as they were called, were usually distinguishable from normal students. As a result of excessive studying, the matric candidates always had a gaunt look about them, and many nights of burning the midnight oil gave them sunken eyes. It is impressive how much pressure a human can go through and survive with very little traces of trauma residue. I strongly maintain that sitting for the HSLC is a feat that cannot be performed without family support and participation. In our case it was older cousins acting as tutors, time keepers and disciplinarians. Woken at four thirty or five, served tea and biscuits, and made to study for two hours straight before breakfast and school. After school, the evening hours were strictly regimented. Every hour had to be accounted for, and the time before dinner and after were beneficially utilised in cramming. I cannot remember a more painful time, and I cannot decide whether we suffered more trying to fight sleep and stay up till midnight memorising historical events, or being woken two hours before normal waking time to finish some more chapters in Science, before the day actually started.
Older siblings helped, but in a tortuous manner. They liked to remind us how many hours of study they had put into a day, and the amount usually exceeded what we had managed. It pushed up our stress levels and we always felt we were not doing enough. Yet for all that, all the information stuffed into our heads for the one month of examination has long been forgotten. Not that I am questioning the merits of the HSLC. Perish the thought! But I do find it remarkable that all the data we ingested for our Matric exam, is no longer around in my memory bank. I suspect it is much the same for generations that came after. Every student should experience Matric exams this way so that they have something to reflect upon and tell their juniors.
There were no examination centres in town. The government high school was the main centre and since it was far from town, and there were no shops in the vicinity of the school, we could not afford to forget any item that we would need for the exam. Admit card, extra pens, ruler and pencil, eraser, all these were mandatory equipment for the candidate. Some candidates carried inkpots and blotting paper. In case of an accident while filling a fountain pen, blotting paper was irreplaceable for its ability to absorb superfluous ink. Even as I write that, it strikes me that some young ones of today may not ever have seen a fountain pen, and may have no idea how to refill it with ink when it goes dry. For that matter, are there any users of inkpots in today’s world? My nephew goes to school with an assortment of pens and pencils, but no inkpot. The times they are a-changing as Dylan would sing. And they have certainly a-changed.
In those days, we didn’t get first division under the Assam Board. It was unheard of for students from Nagaland to get a first division. At the most, we and our seniors got second division, and we were told that what mattered most was the aggregate. After we got our results, the parting instructions from our headmistress was to never lose our admit card, which would now serve as our birth certificate. None of us owned a birth certificate, since, as my mother explained, there was no use for it back then. I kept my admit card safe for years and years, producing it when needed, as proof of being born. My mark sheet was xeroxed several times so I could make attested copies for different purposes, such as registration into colleges and universities, job seeking, etc.
One thing to be said for the Assam Board of Secondary Education was its generosity, not marks wise but on quite another matter. One candidate was allowed to appear the exam for many years in a row. The said candidate became somewhat of a legend because of his inability to clear the exam. The last I remember was that he had been allowed to appear matric for the sixteenth time. I have no more information about whether he finally cleared it. But truly, something positive must be said about the magnanimity of the Assam Board as well as the moral courage of the legendary candidate who continued year after year, undaunted by failure, and unswerved by public opinion, until he finally made it. Big lesson for life.
Back in the day, the Matric Exam was such a great step of initiation in a student’s life that the whole of society actively watched on the sidelines with bated breath. Grown-ups eagerly pored over their children’s question papers and they exchanged opinions on the way the questions had been set that year. The exam month was untouchable and weddings scrupulously avoided it. As for State Elections, candidates in any party would agree that they could not allow elections to disturb the most important event of student life. Somewhere, somehow our priorities seem to have got upended, and more’s the pity.