The pressure to perform

Sir Lawrence Olivier as Henry V

During my carefree days in boarding school, and here I hark back to the swinging sixties, I did not really feel all that carefree. There were all kinds of pressures that beset us students, pressures that our school masters and teachers, dormitory matrons as well as our parents unwittingly placed on our young, impressionable minds. Not all the problems we had to deal with were necessarily of earth-shattering importance. At least, not in in the generally accepted sense, but for us kids it was the be-all and end-all of human existence. For instance, we could have been part of an inter-house elocution competition. Having qualified for the finals, I had to rehearse Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. Will I remember all the lines or am I going to fluff? That alone was cause enough to find me tossing and turning restlessly through the night. Try this on for size. If we are mark’d to die, we are enow / To do our country loss; and if to live / The fewer men, the greater share of honour / God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. And that’s only for starters. Tongue-twisting lines upon lines that only Shakespeare could have gleefully wrought for a 14-year-old, pimply, adolescent school boy to struggle through. By the time I got to We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, I could see the finishing line, tongue hanging out, puffing and panting. The same held true if we were acting in a play or were part of the soprano section in the school choir.

Other pressures that confronted us could have been an inter-school cricket final with the trophy on the line. Everybody from the games master to the pantry sergeant fell over each other, offering gratuitous advice. ‘Keep your eye on the ball and your head still,’ ‘Do not bowl outside the leg-stump,’ ‘Anything outside the off-stump, shoulder arms and leave severely alone,’ ‘If the umpire says you’re out, you’re out, don’t stand statuesquely at the crease looking sorry for yourself,’ ‘Keep your knees bent while fielding, else the ball will slip through your legs.’ It was like the Ten Commandments, barring that bit about committing adultery. Don’t ask me how we confidently stepped on to the field of play and actually strutted our stuff. Similar words of encouragement were always provided to us in a kindly spirit whether we were representing the school in hockey, football or athletics. Boxing was a particular favourite. ‘Always lead with your left hand, unless you’re a southpaw, and mind you don’t hit below the belt.’ What about stopping a vicious left hook and getting my maxillary bone dislocated? Pressure, pressure, pressure.

Then there were the end-of-term exams that set our nerves on extreme edge, or in the memorable expression employed by our English master, gave us ‘the collywobbles.’ I speak for myself but there are many of my colleagues who will echo my sentiments. There were three term exams during the academic year, the final term deciding on our promotion to the next, higher class. Failing which, we were faced with the dark ignominy of being retained for another year in the same class, a fate worse than death. In schoolboy patois, ‘He plugged in his 6th standard and in every other year so that he became everybody’s classmate!’ In my case, my report card after each term turned up a ‘just above average’ performance. ‘Scraped through’ would have been the mot juste. The master who would sign off on our reports loved the phrase ‘Could do better.’ My report card was littered with ‘Could do better’ at the end of almost every term. I had a horrid time explaining this to my parents. What exactly did it mean? That I did not try hard enough, or that I was actually pretty good but was meant for higher attainments? Who knows? It was a mystery that stayed with me forever. Another perennial favourite on my report would read, ‘His marks do not adequately reflect his true ability.’ Again, that could either be an encouraging comment, or conversely, to indicate that I should not get carried away simply because I did well that particular term. I could have been less than met the eye! Given that some of our teachers were on secondment from the United Kingdom, we applied the old Hollywood Apache lingo, ‘White man, he speak with forked tongue.’ These were mysteries beyond our ken. Our report cards were notoriously opaque. In that famous Churchillian phrase, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’

Another engaging trait amongst us during exams was to find unique ways to impress the other boys, all swotting away, furiously erasing and rewriting. Craning your neck to take a quick peek at your colleague’s paper will be quickly put down by the master with a stentorian, ‘Do not copy your neighbour’s mistakes.’  It goes without saying that all of us had ink stains smudging our hands, shirt fronts and even at the end of our noses. They were not really stains, they were symbols of great courage and honour. Remember we used fountain pens those days, with a handy bottle of Parker or Quink Royal Blue by our side for refills. One sure fire way to make others envious was to keep putting your hand up and asking the supervising master on duty for an extra sheet of writing paper every ten minutes or so. The rest of the class would glance at you with awe, wondering how this guy can write reams when they themselves are still struggling to fill up their first sheet. You, naturally, will look smug and scribble away furiously. That you are filling your sheets with absolute nonsense, putting up a brave front, will not be plain to the rest of the class. That is, until the results are announced later, by which time you are home alone for your summer holidays, safe from prying eyes.

As the time runs out for the allotted two hours and the master gravely intones, ‘Five minutes more boys, then I will come round and collect your papers.’ At this, all of us are turbo-charged with a second wind of furious energy. Scribble, scribble. Scratch, scratch. Rub, rub. By now, most of the boys have submitted their papers. You keep writing rubbish till the master snatches the answer paper away. As you drag yourself unwillingly from the class, some of your classmates gather round with eager questions. ‘What were you writing endlessly for so long, I say? My god, you will probably max your paper.’ You respond mock modestly, ‘Listen chaps, you can’t max a paper on English Language. I wanted to finish with a long quote from T.S. Eliot’s poem, The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but master grabbed my paper crying “Time.” I still had eleven lines to go, but I think the examiner will be impressed.’ That would have effectively ruined the rest of the day for my classmates. As to their valid query that Eliot was not even on our syllabus, I merely wipe the ink stain off my nose in a marked manner and walk away and in my wake, leave my mates non-plussed. The truth of the matter is that I was struggling to remember a few lines from S.T. Coleridge’s Christabel, which was part of our syllabus but T.S. Eliot sounded far more impressive; more snob value. In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. We were quite insufferable as kids.

Bearing in mind all the mental agony we boys had to go through, particularly in our senior years, the Warden of our school, an ordained priest and a wise, thoughtful Welshman, would invite us to his cottage over the weekend for an evening of lemonade, cookies and some popular records of the day on the turntable. Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, Cliff Richard and later on The Beatles, being particular favourites. He was broad-minded enough to say, ‘I am sure you’ve all had your fill of hymns and psalms during chapel service.’ Some parlour games which included boys being picked out at random to sing a song or recite something of their choice was always on the cards. Antakshari was unknown, thank heavens! Some of us would try and hide behind the settee and play with the two Siamese cats that were the Warden’s popular house pets. However, nemesis would invariably catch up, leaving none of us unscathed. ‘Next your turn, Suresh, don’t hide behind the rubber plant. You are not the Invisible Man.’ So, you sidle in awkwardly from behind the rubber plant, drawing awkward patterns on the carpet with the toe-end of your left shoe, clear your throat, and start warbling Andy Williams’ hit song, Number 54, the House with the Bamboo Door. Some of the boys join in, the others hold their stomachs. The Warden is pleased as punch, the Siamese feline twins purr contentedly. It was meant to be an evening of relaxation. For some of us boys, however, it was more crushing pressure to perform.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. Hey Suresh, certainly brought back a few memories. We had 4 report cards: Blue (passed with flying colours), Green (good but not great), White (scraped through) and yellow (plugged). I had quite a collection of white cards with a sprinkling of green. Things got better after Junior Cambridge or JC in my time. Enjoyed reading your blog. Keep going…Sachi


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