A Special Kind of Learning

Pawan Singh

Photo : CFL, Bangalore
Photo : CFL, Bangalore

Remember that mathematical theorem that you couldn’t understand for the longest time? Or English grammar exercises that gave you a hard time with prepositions or active and passive voice? I, for one, never understood the need to convert because it was always so confusing. Anyway, the classroom is a good place to begin our confusions but we all tend to resolve them outside it, with help from others. The idea of supplementary tuition is some sort of an expected routine where an older cousin (it is presumed that older means without confusions) comes to the rescue with his or her academic reputation firmly established in the family.

I remember my older cousins, who were not necessarily brighter but just a few standards ahead of me in school. Their grades had sort of granted them role-model status and so I was made to look up to them and seek their help whenever the need arose. And it did arise with a frequency whose statistical manifestation would be… well, pardon my lack of expertise for that’s precisely why I depended on my cousins.

There were two of them, my paternal uncle’s son Rajiv and my maternal aunt’s niece Veena. While Rajiv was battling his second board examination, Veena was all set to write her first. That was 1994, the year I learnt that reading books carefully and paying attention in class could be a simple and elegant solution to being subjected to the boasting and bullying of older cousins.

Now set theory in mathematics and the active-passive see-saw in English were concepts I thought were invented by someone really sadistic, not necessarily the same person though. And where my performance in one needed more ‘active’ attention, the other threw me into a state of perpetual passivity, opening the door to a zone of greater confusion. On my mother’s suggestion, I turned to Rajiv for set theory and Veena for grammar lessons. After my first session with them, I wanted to switch subjects between them to see if they would do any better. But the idea was shot down without further scope for a resuggestion.

In only a few sessions with Rajiv, I had mixed up subsets and supersets even more inextricably than before. And though the Venn diagram circles intersected at brighter points in my brain, the regions within them blanked out completely. Veena on the other hand, went from active to passive and back just fine but I figured her (mis)understanding of tense lent her facial expression a pedagogic uncertainty that made my active-passive journey less hyphenated than before. In all honesty, they did try very hard to make me understand but I guess I have always been a special child.

So, there are several morals to this story. While active-passive has been of some use to me, I have discarded all memories of set theory from my nostalgia. Also, older cousins don’t necessarily know more than you because for all you know, they sought help from a set of equally (in)competent older cousins and the chain probably stretches back in time to when there was no set theory or English grammar.

Leave a Reply