Sarthak Batra

The Art of Getting By / Barely Breathing

December 10, 2016 - 13 min read

“People should be less risk averse when there’s nothing much at risk.” - Elon Musk

White Tulips in a field

Image Credits: Paper4pc

I: Introduction

I’ve always been a rote learner. There is no denying that. Based on my academic performance, I’m certainly a successful one.

There are ways to do your minimum at school and still be in the Top 10. Hustling to get the right set of notes is the chief method. Pestering your elder sister till she makes the science diagrams for you is another. If you think about it, your entire school life revolves around the creation or acquisition of notes. A teacher’s worth is measured as a direct function of the quality of her notes. There are entire classes where all you do is quietly copy answers from the board.

I think copying notes was the most recurring physical activity I performed in school. You’d imagine it would be something like running around or playing sports. But no: I’m sure it was being an organic Xerox machine.

In case there’s a new teacher with non-conventional teaching methods, i.e., anything that requires us to think and discuss in class, we are not going to stand for it. Who is this teacher to change the rules of the game! There’s an agreement we’ve had with the other teachers. Can’t you see the way this school works? Notes or GTFO.

Our obsession comes from our fears of segregation. Worship the notes you get because that’s how everyone’s classified in school. An 80 percent-er has less privileges than a 90 percent-er. Everyone knows that. A 90 percent-er gets the distinguished title of “intelligent” and she also gets to blush every time she’s called one.

To be honest, it has always felt shameful to be called intelligent in school - especially when people, who don’t inspire you, say it. I feel like I would have been fine in the “lower class” of an 80 percent-er. But such is my privilege. The only sign of intelligence I believe to have truly shown, in my eighteen years of formal education, is learning how to game the system.

II: Strategy

On Listening in Class

Cramming by itself isn’t efficient. You need to tweak it to your brain’s learning style and your motivations to optimize the results. I would sit in class and listen to the teacher. Then I’d imagine it all as a story to not get bored. There wasn’t much to do apart from that. (This did, in fact, help build in me a deep desire to look out for analogies everywhere.)

It sounds like cheating, doesn’t it? – actually trying to “understand” the concepts. There are a lot of benefits of doing this.

For example, when it comes to internal marks, it’s all about appearances. The usefulness of your teacher thinking you’re a “bright kid” works beyond the classroom. If you are listening vaguely, you can stop the teacher and ask basic questions in class. This makes her feel like you’re following what she’s saying. An adequately trained teacher would pick out your non-questions from the real ones, but the chances of coming across such a teacher is quite low.

You can also try to remember the general idea of what the class is about. Temporarily store the buzzwords of the chapter you are on for the duration of the lesson. Repeat it if you’re asked to stand up and answer something. This way you’ll never be caught off-guard. It also helps in reading the material a day before exam, since the buzzwords do not seem alien anymore. The text is full of terms you vaguely recall having heard before.

Listening also helps get a basic skeleton of the exam. Make a note whenever something is mentioned in the same breath as “…this will be in the exam”. This again helps you not be caught off guard on exam day. Since a teacher’s performance is overwhelmingly based on the class score on tests, she’ll give you the “type” of questions you’re going to get. She’ll give you hints and tips to beat the game. You’ve just got to be listening.

On Preparing Notes

Homework isn’t a big deal. There are always two students who care enough to open the textbooks. They will almost always figure out the answers a few days before submission. The rest of us just need to plead with them to get a peek at their holy notebooks.

Taking home the notebook of a topper is an honor. It requires enough networking talent for a sixteen-year-old that one can intern in a company. Since you’re carrying the holy text, you must be extra careful with the notes. If the notebook bends or gets wet, that’s the end of your access.

Those who couldn’t get their hands on the treasure or just didn’t care, ended up spending zero period on submission day in a race against time. But not me. I always got access a couple of days before. I guess that drama has subsided. Students now click pictures of notes and post them on WhatsApp Groups. If they don’t, that’s what they should do.

There was this one sensible teacher who gave us photocopies of notes. Finally, someone who didn’t care for power struggles between teachers/students! Probably my favorite teacher in school.

In coaching and college, I did make my own notes. Here’s something I learned: make notes in the language you’re most comfortable with. My notes were in Hinglish. A superb math teacher introduced me to this concept in class 11th.

Now I make the best notes. No one knows how to make notes like me. I’m telling you…I’m the best. If you think you can make notes, you’re wrong. Wrong. There’s just me. (paraphrasing an orange buffoon)

On Flying Under the Radar

Always avoid getting in a power struggle.

With students, there’ll always be someone who says, “Maine kabhi nahi rata. Main toh samajhkar likhti hoon” (I never rote learn. I have a habit of understanding the concept before writing). Everyone knows that they are lying, but don’t point that out. You don’t need to bother with showing yourself as a better person. If you’re doing well with your marks, stay humble. If you aren’t, figure out what you’re missing.

Never let your performance get to your head. You’ll be remembered as an ash-hole and none of this matters outside: in the real world. As adults, it is our duty to tell you that nothing matters but all of it does. The class system doesn’t leave you after you’re done with school. 90 percent-ers still get special treatment in placements. 60 percenter-ers are often not even allowed to sit. But that’s a story for another day.

Teachers are powerful beings in a classroom setting. Stay away from them but always act respectful. Don’t talk back. They cannot handle criticism. Once you’re labelled as a class disruptor, it’s going to follow you till Class 12. If you look closely, you’ll realize how tortured teachers are too. So, it just doesn’t feel ethical to bother them.

You’ve also got to work on your image. To get good grades and still not be viewed as a topper is a challenging task. It’s much more convenient to fit yourself in the guy-who-never-studies-but-scores-well stereotype. In Class 9-12, I could always be seen online on Facebook. That was when there weren’t a billion-people using it and when Zynga was a common name. I would play Be a Tycoon and Mafia Wars to pass my time since school was obviously soul-killing; not that these games countered the damage by enriching my soul. Playing games on Facebook helped get me close to the stereotype in some of my friend’s eyes. That was six years ago, I don’t know what’ll work now.

On Studying for Exams

A day before exams, I’d just read the notes multiple times. I wouldn’t try too hard to remember each line. I’d just read it enough times that the concepts would get logged in my short-term memory. It’s too strenuous to recall the exact phrases. I’d just make up the lines and strategically place buzz-words in the text.

If I couldn’t “understand” a section while reading, I’d give it sixty seconds and then simply move on to the next thing. A stressed mind doesn’t cram well.

All of this isn’t a secret. Many students know this. Some even follow better strategies that I haven’t tried. CBSE schools are different from ICSE ones. Some of my friends from ICSE claim to have a tougher curriculum with required in-depth study. I wouldn’t know anything about that.

There’s a lot of chance involved in trying all this (obviously). But if you realize that you’re in a system where all the authority figures are barely doing the minimum, your luck won’t run out.

III: Regrets About my Schooling

There is no fun in learning this way. You must know that. In fact, I don’t like to call it learning anymore. Do this long enough and you’ll feel like never wanting to study again.

Perhaps you’ve already given up on learning. You may see studying as a forceful activity, not something that you can get joy out of. You’ve been socially shamed for trying to learn and you shame others too.

The art of getting by is not to bother anyone in school. Just quietly walk behind someone else on the concrete path your school has set for you. This will result in periods of your childhood being a blur. You might occasionally wonder if this is all there is to getting an education. Sometimes, you’ll feel like you’re barely breathing - barely living. Your parents would be fine though. They’ll motivate you to stay on the path (and be a 90 percent-er).

At least, you’re living a risk-free life.

Looking at my schooling is painful. All I see when I look back: so many wasted opportunities to think and dream about the world. Have you ever died a little inside knowing all the potential you had at birth? That’s how I feel when I look back.

I used to confuse rote learning with memorization. Most people in school do. Memorization is a natural part of learning a new concept. If you have no way of storing that concept, how are you going to use it in future? That’s what memorization is about. You try techniques like spaced repetition to cement the concept’s chunk in your mind. It’s essential for storage in Long Term Memory.

Rote learning on the other hand is all about being bulimic with your learning. Eat as much as you want a day before exam and throw it all out in the morning. As you may know, it’s not very nourishing for your body. Unlike bulimia, it is not seen as an illness though. I think it should be.

I took a course recently. It’s called Learning How to Learn. It’s no wonder that I needed this course after doing my schooling all wrong. It taught me many things. One of them was this: “The focus of formal education is on the product of learning, not the process”. In six months, I’ll have a college degree to show as the product. I hope I never need to show it to anyone. It’s just a reminder of time not well spent.

IV: Going Off-Script

You might be living a content life, stuck in the note acquisition-cramming cycle in school. For most of my schooling, I was too.

The trouble began when I saw a white tulip grow at the edge of the concrete path. As I glanced over it, I saw there was a whole field of tulips beyond. And in the middle of that field, was a man examining the petals. I pretended that I never saw it, but that was when the floodgates opened. The next day I stopped and picked a dried leaf. I felt its texture on my fingertips. Later, I kicked pebbles around - sometimes even whistled a tune. I examined my pockets to see what I was carrying. The focus on the path blurred. Eventually I stopped. “Now where am I going?”, I wondered. I did not have an answer.

The trouble really began when I heard stories of people walking backwards. They called themselves “un-learners”. They were students who were trying to figure out where they came from and who put them on this concrete path.

I read stories about them. I read Summerhill, Gatto, Holt. I read about other Educators. All of them pointed to the same thing: what a useless activity rote learning through school is.

It took two years to recover from my formal education. I’ve been trying to understand the real purpose of education. They say there is joy in learning and creating things. It’s true. I’ve felt it.

You feel pride when you learn a skill and build something with your own hands. It’s a pride you will never feel in the toxic environment of school.

You realize there’s mental and physical health to be taken care of. Cramming is indeed a disease of the mind. There are vast fields of unexplored land on either side of your path. Some of them might have a few set of footprints. And almost always, it wouldn’t feel safe. Not at first. Your desire to have new experiences will help you take your first step off-script. If you’re scared, remember: you’ve lived such a risk-averse life that there’s nothing much at risk.

V: Future

This has been a journey of the missteps I took. I know I’ve painted the past in an overwhelmingly negative picture. I don’t mean to say that it was all bad. Thinking about school just makes me feel shame. Writing about it is an act of recovery.

I followed the same methodology throughout my schooling as it was advantageous for me. Now that there is only a little time left for college to end, I’m trying to change ways. I don’t know where I would be if a friend hadn’t disrupted my flow in the second year – if I hadn’t watched him examine white tulips out there in the fields.

I’m glad to announce that I haven’t been scarred for life. I haven’t given up on learning. These days I’m working on a project that helps you discover the way the world learns. It’s certainly not a place for students to exchange notes - and it never will be.

I work my tulip-examining friend on it and we call it Project Forrest. It will take a few months before we release it. After years of running around in tiny loops around your home and school, I do hope using it feels a bit like wandering off in the woods.

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