Hackschool Project #25: The rise and fall of the tuition rebellion

By Iqra Asad
Fri, 12, 19

“I want you to explain to us exactly why you keep making us write essays but then keep giving us low marks. I don’t get it,”


Last time, we saw the Moin sisters, Inaya and Leena, celebrate the end of their final exams with a datesheet tearing ceremony. Their brother Jasir doesn’t have exams. He has, instead, home tuition that seems like it would never end. Now the time has come for Jasir and his fellow tuition sufferer, Awais, to face their home tutor and tell them what’s on their minds.

“I have something to say before we start today,” Awais said. Jasir held his breath, waiting for what he would say next. Awais continued, “I think we need a better learning environment.”

Jasir was so shocked that he forgot to breathe. When he finally reached his limit and gasped for air, Awais looked at him warningly, as if he was interrupting something important. Jasir glared back, angry that Awais was doing the opposite of what he was supposed to be doing.

“That’s fair.” Aqeel, their tutor, considered Awais seriously. “What do you have in mind?”

“I want you to explain to us exactly why you keep making us write essays but then keep giving us low marks. I don’t get it,” Awais said. Jasir was already mentally lost at sea, far away from whatever storm Awais was stirring up that made no sense.

“I’m glad you asked,” Aqeel said. “Do you have one of the essays you’ve written before?”

“I, uh, don’t have one with me right now,” Awais said.

“It will be easier for me to show you when you have your written work in front of you,” Aqeel said. “Let me set you an essay writing topic and after half an hour I will tell you what you’ve done right or wrong.”

Awais looked confused, as if what was happening wasn’t matching with his expectations of how things would go. Jasir mechanically took out a sheet of paper and scribbled an essay across it, pausing every now and then to glare at Awais for getting them stuck with more work. Awais himself seemed preoccupied. His hand was writing the essay but his thoughts seemed somewhere else.

When the two boys handed their essays over to Aqeel, they resumed their usual checking of the clock as frequently as they could. If it were up to them, they would spend the whole session with their eyes fixed on the ticking hand of the clock as it counted out the seconds. As it was, they needed to take breaks from staring at the clock to look down at whatever they were assigned to write during their sessions. Sometimes they looked at Aqeel as he spoke to them, but it was more out of checking to see why he was still sitting there instead of actually listening to what he was teaching. When Aqeel finished reading their essays, he looked up and said, “Who wants to go first?”

Jasir and Awais pointed at each other at the same time. Jasir slapped Awais’s hand down and said, “You wanted to improve your learning. You go first.”

“OK, I’ll go first,” Awais said. “What do I get for this essay?”

“To be honest, not much.” Aqeel flipped the sheet of paper over. “To start with, it’s not long enough.”

“How much do you expect us to write in thirty minutes?” Awais asked.

“It’s not about the time, it’s about the marks for the question. I told you this essay was worth ten marks. You’ve written two pages,” Aqeel said.

“How much do you expect me to write about trees?” Awais said.

“As much as you can think of, by using as many words as you can, and then when you run out of ideas, attach a related idea and start writing on that,” Aqeel said.

“The essay is about trees.” Jasir finally spoke up. Even though it wasn’t his essay being discussed, he was listening against his own will to the exchange between Aqeel and Awais and wanted to point this out. “How are we supposed to know that we can write about other things to make it longer?”

Aqeel smiled. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “To tell you how to attempt your school board exams to score as high as possible.”

“Then why didn’t you just tell us how to write the essay you wanted instead of giving us low marks without saying anything?” Awais said this in a rush.

“You didn’t ask,” Aqeel said. “Now that you’re showing an interest in how to improve your scores, I will tell you how.”

It took a few sessions for Jasir to pick up the finer points of drawing margins on both sides of the paper and taking up two lines to write a main heading in thick blue marker. By this time, Awais was already ahead and making subheadings in marker and laying out his essay on the carefully formatted sheet of paper in such a way that it looked like a textbook in Jasir’s opinion.

“Why are we doing this?” Jasir stretched after a particularly long session of filling out a “reference to the context” for a poem. He had used up all his energy to write about the significance of a cherry tree. He never wanted to think about nature ever again.

Awais, who had filled several pages writing about the history of the cherry tree in the “reference to the context” section before writing an even longer explanation of the verse itself, simply waggled his aching fingers and said, “It’s because I tried to get him to start talking on and on explaining things to us so we could ignore him and spend tuition time mentally sleeping. I didn’t know he would actually stop lecturing us and start making us do things.”

“He makes us do real work,” Jasir said. “The disgusting part is that we actually do the work! I actually made a picture perfect description of spring that Aqeel said would score better than what I had been doing before. I’m ashamed of myself. I’m losing my touch. What will happen if I actually write like this at school? I’ll be the weird guy who actually studies.”

“Nobody must ever know,” Awais agreed. “Anyway, your handwriting is so bad that you’d never score high enough. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not going to change my handwriting,” Jasir said. “It’s just school. Preparing for Matric board exams shouldn’t mean that I turn into a human copying machine. If we keep this up any longer, they won’t need the printing press and we can just copy out books so neatly that nobody will notice that it’s not machine printed.” He sighed. “I am so tired of thinking up things to write. There’s a point where my brain hits a wall, the world becomes dark and I just hand in my essay even while knowing that it’s not long enough. I am done at that point. If it was up to me I wouldn’t even be there. The fact that I even write anything down while I’m stuck sitting there is a great act of generosity on my part.”

Awais chuckled. “You’re too innocent. Do you really think people come up with twelve pages long explanations of a ray of sunshine coming in the window all by themselves?”

Jasir shook his head. “No, Awais. I imagine that’s what the teacher spends the lesson on poetry doing, telling us what the poem means. I don’t know because I haven’t listened to one of those in a few years. You know that’s the class I sit in the back, playing paper hockey.”

“Jasir, nobody ever uses what they hear from the teacher when they have to answer an essay question,” Awais said. “Now that we have broken the friend code of never talking about studies, stuck together in this home tutoring as we are, I will tell you what everyone does.”

“There’s no need to be so dramatic,” Jasir said, rolling his eyes.

“You’ll understand when you see,” Awais said.

What is Awais’s secret? We will see in the next episode of Hackschool Project.