"Only the test of the fire makes fine steel." - Abraham Lincoln
Some days back, at the end of one of my lectures, Maanvi, one of my students, asked me: “Sir, our exams will start tomorrow. Can you please tell us how to go about studying?”
Maanvi was a very intelligent and hard-working girl. Honestly, she stood miles ahead of where I stood at her age. I was a very average student and, at that age, was never inspired to Succeed in life. I dreaded exams, looked around for ‘important questions’, easy guides and any short-cut methods of ‘getting through’ my exams. Excelling in them was a far away dream. That was not for a kid like me!
Now, I stand on a Teacher’s pedestal. Often, when I go on my sermons-trip, I, suddenly, become aware of my own good-old days. So, when Maanvi expected me to give some ‘tips’, some ‘important questions’ or some ‘short-cuts’ or whatever that helped her face her exam the next day, I remembered my own plight when I was like her. Still, I found myself telling her and the class something completely different. “Maanvi, you don’t need that,” I told her. “Don’t go to the exam hall with ready-made answers or borrowed ideas. Go with an open mind, with faith in your abilities. Go and face the unknown… It is through such trust and risks alone, you become confident human being.”
Maanvi and her friends seemed to like, even feel inspired, with what they were hearing. Still, I could sense that all-familiar apprehension – “That’s all sweet sir; but, our parents want us to score well in tomorrow’s exam… Tell us, how to score well, and fast.”
“No. Score two marks less; it is okay. But, score through your own merit, through your own exploration and risks. Tell your parents I said that,” I announced. “It’s okay, even if they stop sending you to me from tomorrow.”
The kids laughed. They knew it was the most ‘honorable’ way of going about life… In fact, the satisfying way as well. Still, the rat race would not allow them to toe this line. The Society’s expectations had made them lose faith in themselves and in the abundant Universe. They still wanted me to give them a magic wand, a crutch… even though that would make just mediocre.
“There is difference between teaching and spoon-feeding,” I reminded them. “Your need to remain curious, and you need to take risks trusting your hearts.” I continued, “What will happen if you score two marks less, even after giving your best? I would still call you ‘achievers’ even if the whole world wouldn't.
They definitely felt good. But, yes, but… “What about our parents?” This was writ large on those innocent faces. So I thought, I would tell them about what Abraham Lincoln, my Hero, in a letter wrote to his son’s teacher. Well, now, I was a father of a teenager son and a teacher both. I wanted to tell these kids why, in life, it was ‘honorable’ to tread the long way. How important it was for a kid to understand: it was only the test of the fire that made fine steel, as Lincoln wrote in his famous letter. I thought I would share that ageless letter, all over again:
Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher
My son will have to learn I know that all men are not just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for ever scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.
It will take time, I know; but teach him, if you can, that a dollar earned is far more valuable than five found.
Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning.
Steer him away from envy, if you can.
Teach him the secret of quite laughter. Let him learn early that the bullies are the easiest to tick.
Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books.. but also give him quiet time to ponder over the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hill – side.
In school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.
Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if every one tells him they are wrong.
Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with the tough.
Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when every one is getting on the bandwagon.
Teach him to listen to all men but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes through.
Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness.
Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders; but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul.
Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob… and to stand and fight if he thinks he’s right.
Treat him gently; but do not cuddle him because only the test of fire makes fine steel.
Let him have the courage to be impatient, let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind.
This is a big order; but see what you can do. He is such a fine little fellow, my son.
My students did not receive any ‘tips’ or ‘short-cuts’ for their next-day exam. I hope, they received something better… May be some tips how not to put a price-tag on one’s heart and soul. Yes, all my students, such fine little fellows!