x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'When I was your age' just doesn't cut it any more

It's a common complaint among adults that standards just aren't what they used to be. Don't you believe it.

I frequently have prolonged and voluble arguments with my parents about the littlest things. The most recent offensive launched against me concerned my handwriting. "It's a page of wiggly lines," Mum declared the other day, holding a page of my science homework at arm's length like it was a particularly smelly sock.

Mum never looks at my schoolwork. Never. I usually don't let the volatile worlds of parents and schoolwork mix, but sometimes it's inevitable for Mum or Dad to glance over my shoulder at what I'm doing. And then the fireworks begin.

"Wiggly lines with a dot here or there. Your 'phosphorus' looks like 'parrot'."

And then there's my dad, who is given to quoting great minds of yore at unsuitable occasions. He was more than happy to add his input, which consisted of informing me that Mahatma Gandhi once said: "Bad handwriting should be regarded as a sign of an imperfect education."

There are three things inherently wrong with this. One, it's two against one, which is against the rules of warfare, or equivalent situations. Two, if Mum could clearly tell that the word was "phosphorus", despite its close resemblance to "parrot", it was legible and therefore perfectly acceptable. And anyway, why do you need pretty handwriting if your computer can do it perfectly well for you in Times New Roman or whatever font you please, and throw in a spell check while it's at it? Three, who takes the trouble to memorise Gandhi's opinions on handwriting?

Which takes us, slightly tenuously, to another point that is the cause of much disagreement within our house. It is my firm belief that we only need to learn what's actually going to be asked in the exams. It is my parents' and teachers' firm belief that I must do as much extra reading around the subject as I can, and know all sorts of trivia related to the topics as is possible to cram within the none-too-large space between my ears. This was demonstrated when Mum appeared on the scene while I was engaging in some quiet revision, eyeing me like a malevolent hawk.

"You're just sitting there."

"I'm doing chemistry."

"You're playing with your iPod."

"I'm changing the song so I have good mood music to enhance my brain speed!"

"I'll test you."

I wish she wouldn't pick moments to test me when I had actually been playing with my iPod. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and it turned out, as always, that my reluctance was perfectly justified. Mum asked me what the atomic weight of nitrogen was. I had no idea, but put in a rough estimate. Mum was deeply shocked, and subjected me to an hour-long lecture about how it is absolutely essential I know at least the first 20 elements in the periodic table if I am to pass chemistry this year.

"Mum, we don't need to," I tried explaining to her very patiently. But reason is futile in the face of an excited matriarch. She simply didn't believe me when I spelt it out to her clearly that they give you the whole periodic table in the exam for reference. Apparently, even if they did give you the periodic table in the exam, it didn't matter because, "when I was your age I learnt the whole thing and it did me no harm". She then proceeded to tell me exactly what the atomic number and weight of nitrogen was. It did her no harm? She's a chartered accountant! All it did was make her waste a whole week of her adolescent life on something that did not benefit her career in any way, when she could have been, I don't know, Facebooking. Oh wait, that was the Stone Age; they had to walk to each other's caves back then to communicate.

Learning the periodic table at this age isn't much different from when we were made to learn our times tables back when we were irksome seven-year olds. Mum actually winces every time I jab the buttons on my calculator to do sums. In her opinion, calculators dull your brain and reverse human evolution. She still finds it difficult to digest that I am allowed to take a calculator with me into maths exams. "But it's a calculator paper today," I clarify. "As opposed to a non-calculator paper."

"When I was your age they tested us on how much maths we could do, not how quickly we could ask a plastic box to do it for us."

I suppose we teenagers will never see eye to eye with the older generation, but if nothing else, it provides interest to what would otherwise be monotonous evenings spent on revision. They mostly come round to your point of view at the end, though life would be made infinitely easier if we could just write all our exams on laptops so the handwriting conundrum, at least, could be solved. Oh, and in case you were wondering - the atomic weight of nitrogen is 14.

The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.