Putting Kids to the Test

by Elizabeth Bowden-David

This past week, my father-in-law called up my husband to give him an earnest admonition. Referring to Cicero, he said: "Understand that is it your duty to give your children a better education than you had." I'm not sure what prompted him to remind us of this truth right then, but perhaps he had caught a whiff of the Exam Fever that sweeps through south India around this time each year.

Call it February Frenzy or March Madness, this is the season when students in my adopted hometown of Bangalore hunker down more than ever with their books. (April and May are the region's hottest months, so most schools conclude the academic term before then.) The amazing thing is, the whole community seems to hunker down too. Consider these examples:

•  At my sons' cricket academy, coaches have put away their bats and balls until April, so as not to interfere with exam season.

•  At our neighborhood talent show a week ago, a ponytailed teen dazzled the crowd with a vibrant Bollywood dance number-but before she could collect her        first-prize certificate, her parents and other audience members shooed her back home to study.

•  At the restaurant my husband and I own, a patron who lives within walking distance came in at dinnertime but didn't want his son to squander time with the ordering process. The father waited for their burritos to reach the table, and then telephoned the boy to walk over, all because that 15 minutes was too precious to waste.

To be sure, such an exam-heavy approach to learning has both drawbacks and merits, which I'll refrain from delving into a discussion of here. What I do, however, find extraordinary is the environment of support and high expectations I see around me. Many parents will stop at almost nothing to help their children excel academically. This truism of aspiration cuts across economic strata, even when the costs-literally and figuratively-are questionable. Just today, I interacted with a low-income father who commits 60 percent of his annual income to elementary school fees, stretching his monthly budget to the brink in hopes of giving his children a leg up in life. In an even more desperate example, a single mother I know left her children in the care of church members and a boarding school so she could find work as a maid in Bangalore; once a year she visits them in their rural village, and every month she wires off nearly 80 percent of her salary to support their schooling. It's not always clear whether the sacrifices, particularly the extreme ones, are worth it-but the point is that for many groups in India, virtually nothing rivals education in importance.

Of special interest to me, as an American, is the phenomenon of Indians heading to my home country for undergraduate and graduate studies. By some estimates, nearly 100,000 Indian-born students enrolled at universities in the US last year; only China sends more. While there are various factors at play, one is certainly the attraction of the American Dream. Local newspapers regularly celebrate the likes of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra, and countless other Indian-born individuals who have achieved tremendous success in the States. Going west to study is a tantalizing proposition-bittersweet as it may be for parents to send a daughter or son 9,000 miles away, knowing that the move may be permanent.

I live in a tiny, tight-knit neighborhood where three teenagers, all of whom have attended different private high schools, have recently reached college age. Among the three of them, they have collected letters of admission from an astonishing range of some of America's top universities: MIT, Duke, Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Cal Tech, and the University of Chicago. It's fair to say that the intense work by these youngsters, supported by parents and community members, has positioned them to excel in academic life in the US. Should they choose to stay, it's easy to imagine them creating their own interpretations of the American Dream and, in doing so, making meaningful contributions.

It is a source of constant wonder to me that the country I'm living in now creates such leaders and influencers in the country I come from. As for the students down the street who will spend the coming years on some of America's most sought-after campuses, I'll continue to watch with keen interest, as well as with the highest hopes.

Elizabeth Bowden-David, a native of Alabama, is a graduate of Thunderbird and co-owner of Habanero, Bangalore's first Tex-Mex restaurant chain (http://www.habanero.in).

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