In Kerala, Malabar is considered the cradle of football. The school I studied in was the State football champion. The only other school in the town was the runner-up and, like the celebrated ‘We try harder’ slogan of Avis Car Rental which was No 2 in the business, they tried harder.
Sethu, the captain, was the toast of our school. He was excellent in the football field. A half-back, he would receive the ball from a full-back, and send it to the centre-forward through his classic long pass to net a goal. He was good at dribbling too: it was sheer joy to see watch him dribble the ball past opponents.
The trouble was: Sethu was good at little else. Academics held no interest for him. He failed in several classes and was, at the age of eighteen, still in Class VIII. This was a cause of worry for his father, a tailor, as Sethu was the only hope of the family. He looked forward to the day his son would start working.
A well-wisher, a middle level officer in a reputed industrial venture, had assured Sethu’s father that he would ensure that Sethu gets a job in the company he worked for. Sethu would be an asset to the football team of the company. It was prominent among the National B League teams and with Sethu in the bag, it was hoped, the team might make it to the A League.
There was a snag, however. Sethu HAD to pass Class X. Sethu’s father was worried. With good reason: Sethu was still Class VIII and going by the past records, it would take at least half a dozen years for him to reach Class X. As for passing the Board Examination, well, that was anybody’s guess. The day his son would start supplementing the income to run the family looked distant.
It was because the eighteen-year old footballer had spent a couple of years in a few classes that he came to be my classmate. It was his third year in the class. Sethu had, as expected, fared poorly in the final examination. With his one-digit score in chemistry, it was clear that unless the school was generous, he would not make it to class IX.
He met the headmaster and told him: either you promote him or I pull him out of the school. The headmaster of the rival high school in the town had agreed to admit him in Class IX. The headmaster was in a quandary. Should he give in to the threat and relax the academic standards to the lowest levels? At stake if he did not do that was the reputation of the school in sports and games. The choice was difficult and the trade-off unethical.
He consulted the senior teachers. The physical instructor Mr Sadanandan was keen to retain him in the school at any cost, but the vocal Mr Thomas who taught Chemistry was particularly against such a dilution of standards. The other teachers adopted a middle-of-the-road policy – it would be good if Sethu can be retained, but their value-system did not allow them watering down the levels. (This was much was before the advent of grace marks.)
Finally, they came to an understanding: a small committee would be formed to re-assess Sethu’s ‘prowess’ in Chemistry. The headmaster would chair the committee and the members would be the physical instructor and the Chemistry teacher. There would be an interview. Three questions would be asked. If Sethu answered none correctly, he would have to be sent out. If he answered at least one correctly, the Headmaster would use his discretion and give a couple of marks to make it 35% and Sethu would pass.
In the final event, to everybody’s surrise, Sethu was promoted. One of those evenings, on our way home from school, Sethu told me want happed on that fateful day.
On the appointed day, Sethu was summoned before the committee. Mr Thomas fired the first salvo: What is H2SO4 commonly known as?
Sethu was at a loss.
Mr Thomas asked: The Cl in Na Cl stands for chlorine. What does Na stand for?
Sethu had no reply.
The headmaster tried to be helpful: Na Cl is common salt whose chemical name is sodium chloride.
Still, Sethu had no clue. He remained silent.
Mr Sadanandan’s face fell. It was sure Sethu did not have a fighting chance. He requested the other two members: Let me ask the next question. They agreed.
The physical instructor asked: If blue litmus paper is dipped in an acid, what colour does it turn to?
Sethu had no reply. Mr Sadanandan encouraged him: Sethu, it’s a simple question. Tell us the answer.
Sethu said: I don’t know, Sir.
Mr Sadanandan said: Yes, that is the right answer. He does not know.
The headmaster, eager not to lose him to the rival schools, agreed, exercised his discretion, and thus out came Sethu with flying colours!