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The portal to heaven

July 25, 2012

ANYONE who wishes to reduce his life by 10 years should become involved in the admissions process for any reputable school in Pakistan.

The pressure to obtain admission becomes so intense that one empathises with those equally harassed angels deputed by God to control the gates of heaven. Whatever divine order has been laid down to regulate the streams of souls struggling to get into heaven, it goes without saying that dead Pakistanis up there will want to jump the queue just as they are wont to do when alive down here on earth.

For Pakistani parents, the admission of a child into a good school has become a matter of life and death. No decision is as important as picking the right school for one’s child. Even the selection of a future spouse is given secondary importance. After all, he or she can always marry again if the parents’ choice is not up to the mark.

Someone once asked for a definition of the word ‘establishment’. The response was that if you needed to ask, you were clearly not a part of it. Similarly, the school-admissions process is designed to define social stratification, to sift the wheat from the chaff and then to throw away some of the deserving wheat too. It is akin to the practice of the Elizabethan English who, when first introduced to tea, brewed it and then threw away the water to chew the tea leaves.

Admissions today are a reflection of the gradations of prevalent power; they are regarded as perquisites of position. Everyone at the level of a prime minister as well as those at par or above or below him regards a school admission as a right undefined by the constitution.

Ministers may come and go but they want their children to be admitted into good schools so that they go on for at least 13 years until university. Feudals whose forefathers, like them, spent their youth at boarding school and went back to their lands to relapse into feudalism want their sons to repeat the same sterile experience. The bureaucracy wants its sons accommodated and the rules bent in its favour. After all, if it can bend the rules of business, what strength can there be in a school regulation?

Old boys expect a quota to be reserved for their sons on the unarguable principle that if the school could endure him for 13 years, it deserved the punishment of having to suffer his son for another round. Board members exert themselves to secure admissions just to prove their social potency. Parents crave admission because they are parents and therefore vulnerable.

For parents, applications for the admissions process can never open early enough. One determined mother called from a hospital to ask for an admission. She was advised to wait until she had recovered from whatever her illness was and then collect the forms. Between gasps, she explained that her husband had promised that if she gave birth to a son, he would get him admitted to a particular school. “I have just come out of the delivery room,” she said, “and I’ve had a son. I want him admitted.”

Some obsessive parents see the failure to secure admission as a humiliating rejection, as a personal failure, one that can only be assuaged by further attempts. They make their sons reappear each year, for class after class, oblivious to the impact repeated disappointments may have on their child. Occasionally, it is more than a child’s brave little heart can bear.

During one admission test, a 10-year-old stood across the aisle, his thin arms akimbo, as the principal walked past on his rounds. “What is wrong with me?” the boy asked. “I have been trying for the past three years and have not been given admission. What is wrong with me?” The principal explained to him and because of his courage, to the other examinees, that there was nothing wrong with any of them or with the schools. It was just a matter of capacity, of the places available in each class every year.

For a principal, admissions time is akin to the silly season. A sort of mass madness prevails. Privacy is no longer sacrosanct, no time too early in the day or too late at night, no mobile number secret enough. Even St. Sebastian was given a few moments of respite while his tormentors loaded their bows with fresh arrows.

There are moments in every principal’s tenure when he is forced to put his principles in the balance, to endure the agonies of martyrdom without its salvation. He will have to absorb the arrowheads of unfair criticism, of being told by a very senior bureaucrat that whenever he made a recommendation to the principal’s predecessor, it was always acted upon. Now, not one of the people he had recommended had been admitted. It was clear, the bureaucrat said, that since the new principal’s arrival, standards at the school had dropped.

Every principal hopes to retire in due time with his dignity intact and his life still ahead of him. One principal, after spending a lifetime at a school in the hills, retired and drove out of its gates to the sounds of a sentimental farewell — and died on the way down in a traffic accident.

One prays for him and for other principals, dead or alive, that when they do reach the portals of heaven, a special lane will be reserved for them. God alone knows they deserve preferential admission.

The writer is a former principal of Aitchison College, Lahore.