I was never a brilliant student, going by the academic standards set by our system. Though I did fare a little above the average usually, it was never good enough, neither for my parents nor the teachers. I still have a few of my report cards and the remarks have been consistently similar through the years - Neha is a bright child but needs to focus more and can do much better.
Though there were things I happened to be naturally good at, like sports, public speaking and even a bit of dramatics etc. Yet, it was never good enough. If I participated in a competition (and I participated in most of them!), it was expected of me to win. A second position or (God forbid!) a third meant failure. It had to be No. 1 or nothing at all.
And it was this incessant pressure to excel and win that broke me on those several occasions when I didn't get the top spot. Most of the times, the sheer fun and enthusiasm involved in participating was crushed with that pressure. And often, I had cold feet, numb fingers and a dry throat just before my turn at the mike or before aiming a basketball during a high intensity match. And I'd fail! It wasn't nervousness as much as it was the fear of failure and the consequent rejection I knew I'd face. Like every child, I wanted to feel loved and make my family and teachers proud of me. Yet, more often than not, I felt helpless and gave in to mindless self blaming and even guilt.
Today, as I look back at those times as a mother myself, I understand better as to why I was expected to excel in all. And that my parents did just what most parents do - make me fall in line and adhere to the standards set up by our education system and society. For it is, sadly, only the academic brilliance that is still noted and encouraged. Creativity and professions related to it weren't and still aren't given their due. Children are still measured by the digits they are able to rake up in the report cards through rote learning, which make or break a child's career as well as confidence.
My professors in college wanted me to prepare and sit for civil examinations. They'd tell me about the greener pastures in the IAS part of the world. When I defied them and took up a course in mass communication instead, most thought I'd lost my mind. That was over a decade ago. And even after so many years of work experience, I still am in the process of finding a profession or work I can give my heart and soul to.
Would that mean I've lost out because I didn't follow the norms or the herd? No. Instead, I've learned and grown. I've tested more waters than many others would have. I've failed and succeeded and learned a lot in that process. I've known hard work and most importantly, I've followed my heart. And that makes me happy.
As a mother, I pray that I don't get influenced by social and academic pressures as my parents did. While I'd want my son to excel, it shouldn't be at the cost of his confidence or never should he feel the need to excel to rise in my eyes. I want him to know that coming second, or even third, isn't a failure. There's just one top spot out there and it goes to the one who performs the best on a given day. And that doesn't mean that others weren't good. It's what he learns in the process which is important. Success doesn't necessarily imply self worth, for a child is much more than the medals and trophies (s)he brings home. I want him to know that his mother will stand by him through his failures and achievements and that she'll have his back always.
For that's all I needed as a child and I know that's all my son would ask of his mother, in words or in deeds. And for that, I'm prepared.