In Andhra Pradesh, the seventh grade board exams are the first milestone in a student’s life. In my case, they turned out to be a particularly memorable event, teeming with high drama. A few days before the exams, much to my horror, the Principal of the school notified my family that if they did not pay the arrears of school fees for the entire year, I would not be allowed to sit for the board exam. It was a nightmare! While the rest of the class was putting in long hours of study I was anxiously pacing the floor, waiting to hear if my parents, through some miracle, had been able to raise or borrow the money to pay the fees.

All too soon it was the first day of the exams … and the fees had still not been paid. While I was getting ready to go to school I wondered what I would do if the authorities barred me from entering the classroom. My future looked bleak and uncertain, but I tagged along with my parents while they made a last-ditch attempt to rustle up the money. We knocked on the doors of some relatives and friends, but in vain. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t give us the money; and my desperate pleas for help went unanswered. I started crying, and curious onlookers looked askance at me. They were probably wondering why a big boy was walking along with his parents, sobbing uncontrollably, when there were no other schoolchildren anywhere in sight.

It was unthinkable that I would not be able to write the exams. It meant that I’d have to repeat the seventh grade with my juniors, or drop out of school altogether. I had always been among the top five students in class, and was all set to write the exams. Why was I being punished for something that was no fault of mine? Eventually, my parents decided to take a chance, plead our case in school, and beg the Sisters for a reprieve.

Unknown to me, a different drama was unfolding in school. That year, ours was the first school on the list of roll numbers. So there was a distinct likelihood of officials from the Education Department coming to inspect the arrangements that had been made there. Also, there was the possibility of the Education Inspectors quizzing the school authorities about the conspicuous absence of a student in the very first row of the very first class in the very first school that they visited. (My roll no, 5E, was somewhere at the top of the list, which meant that my seat would have been in the first row.)

Anticipating all those complications, the school authorities backtracked from the hard line they had taken regarding my fees. They sent two of the teachers to fetch me. But by then, all of us had left the house to borrow money for the school fees, so the teachers found the door locked. And no one could tell them where we were. They panicked-we were already panicking elsewhere! -and everyone was so frantic by the time I reached the school gates that a hero’s welcome awaited me. (I think I would have killed myself that day, or maybe, beaten up someone in school, had I been prevented from writing the exams.)

All my classmates were already at their desks. I was completely drained and traumatized because of the goings-on, and was probably red in the face from all the crying. A few teachers converged quickly, offered me a glass of water, and then ushered me into the exam hall. Through the window, I could see my anxious parents waiting for me to start writing. It took a few minutes to still my nerves and pick up the pen. And then, my fingers flew across the answer sheet without pause, for I knew the answers.

So after all the drama, I managed to write the exams, after all. Of course, when the results came in, the mark sheet was given to me only after the last rupee due had been paid. By God’s grace, 5E had scored well. On my way out of the school building, I compared my Telugu marks with my bete noire, Rajani, who was my most bitter competitor in Telugu and a vigorous boy hater. I had the last laugh for my marks were way better than hers. But those were small joys.

I’d got decent marks in the seventh class exam, and was encouraged to apply for admission in a better school although my parents had no idea how they would find the money for the higher monthly fees, books and other expenses. Eventually, I joined the popular St Mary’s High School, which was a long way from home. And that meant I had to take the bus to school. Or walk, when there wasn’t any money for the fare. Now, a five-kilometer walk on an empty stomach is not exactly a perfect beginning to a long day, especially if you need to exercise your grey cells. I certainly would not recommend it. But then, I did not have the luxury of any other options. Yet I loved school for it provided me with an escape from the perennial conflicts that were tearing our home apart-a home that once had been full of laughter, hope and happiness.