Akshay pressed his palms to his mouth but a few chuckles still flew out. His stomach stung with laughter as he slammed the bench. “I can’t believe you all failed. You guys are so stupid.”
His neighbours, each holding their answer sheet, turned to him. A few shook their heads and two boys pressed their heads on the desk and sobbed.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Akshay. “It’s not my fault if you guys can’t pass one simple exam. It was so easy. I barely studied for an hour the night before and still, I’m sure that my exam went well.”
Standing at the podium, the teacher stopped handing out the answer sheets and put her hand to her hip, a precursor to her rebukes.
Akshay shrugged in response. “I’m sorry, Ms. Greta. I know I shouldn’t laugh but can you believe this guy failed?” He pointed an extended thumb toward the boy to his right.
“He was so arrogant in the previous exam when he scored more marks than me, and now he’s fallen flat.” Akshay narrowed his eyes at Dhaval. “It’s karma, my friend. Karma.”
Dhaval narrowed his eyes and his lips quivered. The sight fuelled Akshay’s joy. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ms. Greta walk up to him with his answer sheet in her hands. He didn’t need to know how many marks he had received. Right after the moment, he wrote the exam, he knew he’d score good marks. He raised his collar and ran a hand over his head. “Thank you, Ms. Greta. Please give me my paper and, by the way, I’m really sorry for laughing at Dhaval’s failure. It won’t be repeated. Although I can’t guarantee that his failure won’t be repeated.” Another chuckle left his mouth.
“Stop feeling sorry for others.” Ms. Greta’s one-sided smile put brakes on Akshay’s joy. “You will feel sorry very soon. Here you go.” She handed the paper to Akshay and patted his head.
Akshay glanced through the marks. Ninety out of hundred at the top right. He turned to Ms. Greta. “See. I’ve got good marks.”
“Look down, kiddo.”
“Okie dokie, Misso. What—” The word ‘copied’ was written in big red letters at the bottom of the page. ‘INVALID marks’ lay below ‘copied’.
“But what, Akshay?” asked Ms. Greta. “There are cameras in the classroom and they recorded you when you copied during the exam. By the way, putting answer chits in the socks is so lame.”
Her words turned to blabber as Akshay turned the pages of his answer sheet. Two red lines marked a crossover every answer. “It’s not fair.”
“Show me the paper.” Dhaval snatched Akshay’s answer sheet. “Oh boy.”
Three more students huddled behind Dhaval, everyone gawking at Akshay’s answer sheet and their eyes turned to Akshay and then to one another.
“Please get back to your seats,” said Ms. Greta and lightly slapped Dhaval’s shoulder. She handed Akshay his paper. “What you did was wrong, Akshay. Copying is not a way to pass an examination. There is no substitute for hard work and dedication.”
“Exactly,” said Dhaval. “It’s better to get poor marks with honesty than good marks through copying.”
Ms. Greta rolled her eyes. “Look who’s talking. It’s not like you’ve never copied in any exam.”
“Not after today, Ms. Greta. I vow to never copy in any exam from now—”
“Save the speech for some other day.” She looked at her wristwatch then walked to the podium. “I know this exam was a difficult one, but I am giving you students another opportunity. There will be another exam two weeks from now. I want every one of you to study very hard and get good marks. Understood?”
“Yes Ma’am,” a chorus rose from all the students except Akshay. “Akshay, you too. This opportunity is for you as well. I hope you won’t copy this time.”
His vision was blurry.
“It’s okay,” said Dhaval, placing a hand on Akshay’s shoulder. “Cheer up, pal. It’s just one exam. No big deal.”
“Never asked fo—” Choking sensation constricted Akshay’s throat and he got up and ran out of the class.
Ms. Greta stretched a hand to Akshay. “You can’t just walk out…” Her words fizzled as Akshay ran to the bathroom adding more distance between himself and the class.
He locked the bathroom door and sat on the commode. Hatred for Dhaval made him press his palms together and wish for an earthquake. One that would bring this school down. But everyone would survive. The fantasy brought a smile on his face. The school building would collapse and Akshay would rescue everyone out. Then Ms. Greta and the rest of the class would applaud Akshay and he’d be the hero. He’d be saved from the embarrassment.
He looked at the ceiling again. “Please, God, just give me one small earthquake. Please.”
Three knocks on the door made him pray for an earthquake again.
“Akshay, I know you’re in there,” said Ms. Greta. “Get out right now. We’re all worried about you.”
Akshay shrugged. More knocks followed and the door threatened to break open.
“Fine,” said Akshay, and slid open the latch then pulled the door. Ms. Greta and three of his classmates stood before him. “Can’t a guy have some privacy,” said Akshay.
Ms. Greta pulled Akshay into a hug. “What is the matter with you? We were so worried about you.” She caressed his arms. “Copying is wrong, child, and so is locking yourself away in the bathroom. The right approach would be to study very hard and get full marks in the next exam.”
“Yeah.” Akshay wrapped his hands around Ms. Greta’s legs. He pressed his head to her stomach and guided her hand over his head.
Rubbing an eraser against the answer sheet couldn’t remove the red remarks. It instead added to more sweat over Akshay’s forehead. He ran to the open side table beside his bed and scourged through it. Some comic books. Some greeting cars. A few sketch pens. He picked out the red sketch pen and thought of cancelling the red remarks on his answer sheet. “That won’t work.” He shook his head.
The hands of the wall clock were ticking and, in thirty minutes, his dad would be home. He opened his school bag and removed his notebook, then copied the answers from the answer sheet in the notebook, tore out the pages, and with the red sketch pen marked a tick over all the answers.
“Done.” He looked at the pages. They didn’t have the school logo at the top right but that was okay. He’d lie to his father about that. He then copied Ms. Greta’s signature on his notebook. Only the G and r were legible while the other letters and the surname were a curved line with small hills and valleys. “And she tells us to write neat. What a liar.” After ten attempts he succeeded in copying the signature and slowly repeated the act on the top right of his new answer sheet. He stapled the pages together and began whistling as he put the sketch pen back in the side table.
“Just about done,” he told himself and gave himself grade B.
The doorbell’s ringing made Akshay wipe the sweat off his forehead.
“Nothing to worry about now.” He walked to the mirror and pressed an index finger to the surface. “You are so smart. Pure genius.” He rolled the stapled pages and ambled to the door.
Mohit stood ahead in a black suit over his dark blue shirt and black trousers with a briefcase in his hands and a pair of glasses of a rectangular frame over his eyes. His hair thinned at the front and Akshay looked at Mohit’s briefcase because the sight of the balding head always gave Akshay an urge to tap on his father’s forehead.
“Oh I will, my son.” Mohit dropped the briefcase and picked up Akshay in his arms.
Akshay snuggled to his father. The scent of moss made Akshay turn his head away from Mohit’s neck. Akshay didn’t like Mohit’s perfume, but there was a comfort in resting his head on his father’s shoulder.
Mohit walked to the couch and made Akshay sit on his laps before they glanced through Akshay’s answer sheet. Mohit grabbed Akshay’s hand and his grip tightened. “I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, dad.” Akshay rested his head against his father’s chest.
“You know why I’m proud of you.”
“Cause I scored good marks,” said Akshay, in a soft voice and yawned.
Mohit patted Akshay’s head. “You sure are my son.” He then waved his hand over Akshay’s head then kissed him on the forehead. “In my life, I’ve faced many tough situations where I didn’t know how to react but through my gut instinct, I always made the right decision. Not once did I doubt myself, but now I don’t know how to react. Whether should I be happy that my son learnt to lie or should I punish my son for betraying me.”
Akshay gulped. Suddenly the moss smell didn’t bother him anymore and he wanted to bury himself in his father’s shirt or hide in the coat pocket, anything that would save him from making eye contact with his dad.
Mohit tousled Akshay’s hair. “I’ve had more birthdays than you, my son. I’m in direct contact with all your school teachers, and Ms. Greta sent me a snapshot of your answer sheet this evening.”
The room temperature dropped for Akshay as he began shivering. Mohit’s other palm was tight around Akshay’s hand. It felt like an iron fist. Akshay tried to squeeze his hand out but feared further upsetting his father.
Akshay bowed and his vision fell on his dad’s boots. In the next moment, Mohit placed a finger under Akshay’s chin and lifted his face so their eyes met. The rectangular frame glasses didn’t save Akshay from the stare from Mohit’s big brown eyes.
“Look me in the eye, son. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I wish you had told me the truth. I wouldn’t have beaten you. Have I ever beaten you in life?”
Akshay shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He managed to let those words out.
“Don’t cry.” Mohit’s voice boomed through the living room and Akshay shuddered. “Stop crying like a baby. Be a man. Real men don’t cry, they make others cry. You’re reminding me of my employees who start shivering the moment I enter the office, and you don’t have to be my employee. You have to boss my employees one day.” Mohit leaned back on the couch. “Although, that sight pleases me. Watching them shiver. Well, this is how you make people work, but I certainly don’t want you to be in that position. You have to make others cry and not be a wimp.”
“Yes, dad.” Akshay wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Good. Now come on. Let’s go to Saumil’s place. He has invited us to a party. By the way, how many marks did his son, Dhaval, score?”
“I asked you a question.” Mohit’s loud voice made Akshay cringe. “How many marks did Dhaval score?”
“He failed,” said Akshay.
“Great. Then why are you crying? Even your friend is a failure. Come on, stop being a baby, and don’t tell about your marks to anyone at Saumil’s party. Your other classmates will be there, and those losers just need a reason to laugh at us.”
“But they already know,” said Akshay. “I’m sorry but, Ms. Greta told everyone about everyone’s marks. She distributed the papers in front of the entire class.”
Mohit removed his spectacles and placed them in his shirt pocket. “And you couldn’t stop your teacher from doing this? Man, I’ll have to enroll you into some toughness class.” He removed his mobile from his trouser pocket and dialled a number. “Don’t worry, I got this.”
“Hey Saumil, how are you… No, we won’t be able to come for dinner. My son’s not well… He kinda had an accident. Yeah, he was playing with the dog and the dog bit him. No no don’t worry he’s a man and he can look after himself. Not one tear did my son shed while the doctor gave him the injection. Akshay is very strong, I must say. He surprises me at times… In fact, the dog was crying.” A crude laughter exploded from Mohit’s mouth, and Akshay got off his lap and walked to his bedroom. “No, I’ll come to the party next week… Sure. No problem… Yeah yeah, I’m fine.”
Akshay closed the door and felt comfort as solitude hugged him. He laid on the bed and joined his palms. Again he prayed for an earthquake, but this time he wanted God to bring his house down and kill Akshay in the process.
The next morning Mohit drove Akshay to school and they went to meet the principal. The principal called for Ms. Greta.
Within five minutes Akshay bowed as Mohit’s loud voice felt like shoves from a bully.
“How could you reveal my son’s marks before the entire class?” asked Mohit to Ms. Greta. Akshay was sitting between both of them.
“If someone fails then you don’t make fun of him in front of others,” said Mohit. “You should’ve shown him the marks privately to save him from embarrassment.”
“Mr. Agarwal,” said Ms. Greta, in a soft voice. She was sitting to Akshay’s left. “Getting less marks is not a reason to be embarrassed.”
Akshay looked at her hands. He wanted to snuggle to them, but to his right, was his father and his moss perfume felt like a leash that held Akshay tight.
“Failure is not fatal, and nor is success final,” said Ms. Greta. “I tell this to my students after every exam. Don’t be embarrassed, Akshay. You’re still seven years old. You’ll get many more chances to succeed in life. And besides,” she turned to Mohit, “your son is very good in football. I’ve seen him play, and I surely think he can be the next Christian Ronaldo. Come on, Akshay, cheer up.”
Akshay pressed his fingernails to his palms, and grit his teeth, but a one-sided smile flooded out his lips. “It’s Cristiano Ronaldo, not Christian Ronaldo.”
“Well what do I know,” said Ms. Greta, and laughed before tousling Akshay’s hair. “But at least you smiled. Children look beautiful when they smile.”
“They look ugly when they fail,” said Mohit.
“Look Ms. Greta.” Mohit raised an arm toward her. “I know that my son is a duffer, but I don’t want you to prove it in front of the entire class.” He turned to the principal who was seated behind the desk. “And it’s not my son who has failed. Getting less marks means it’s the teacher who has failed. Clearly, she hasn’t taught the students well enough for them to pass an exam. Each year I pay a heavy donation to this school and I certainly don’t pay so my son gets zero marks in an exam.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Agarwal,” said the principal. “I’ll look into the matter and make sure your son gets better attention from now on.”
“I hope so. Come on, Akshay. Let’s get you home.”
Akshay followed his father as Mohit walked out of the principal’s office. Akshay didn’t have the courage to turn around and look at Ms. Greta. He scratched the back of his neck and got the chance for a slight peek. He saw her brown sandals, and then Mohit tugged Akshay out of the office and the sandals went out of sight.
That night Akshay tore a page from his notebook and wrote sorry on it. He’d give it to Ms. Greta the next morning.
The door opened and Akshay hid the pen and page under the pillow.
“Why are you still awake?” asked Mohit.
“I was about to sleep,” said Akshay without turning to his father. He studied the aeroplane design on the pillow cover.
“Lies and more lies.” Mohit sat next to Akshay and placed a something next to Akshay. After a few moments, Akshay turned around and saw a new school bag. “Now cheer up. I got a gift for you.”
“Thanks,” said Akshay.
“And don’t worry. I’ve spoken with the principal. He’ll arrange for a tutor who’ll make sure you don’t fail in any more exams. Don’t worry I got this situation under control.”
“You don’t have to thank me.” Mohit tousled Akshay’s hair then walked out of the room. At the door, he turned off the lights before closing the door.
Akshay kicked the bag off the bed. He removed the pen and paper from under the pillow and thought of writing some more in it. Darkness prevented him and so he went to the window and opened the curtains, letting street light reveal the contents of the letter.
He drew an up arrow between ‘Dear’ and ‘Ms. Greta’ and above the arrow he wrote ‘my favourite teacher’.