Bird Beak, Crocodile Mouth

Comparison is the death of joy. ~ Mark Twain

“ Does anyone know what this sign means?” the teacher tapped the blackboard with the duster, next to the symbol she had drawn.

Being a precocious child I could see that the question was a rhetorical one and that our teacher was using it as a pretext to pour herself a cup of tea. Of course, I couldn’t say that aloud so I kept the thoughts of my prodigious mind to myself and pretended to be pondering the question deeply. I was mimicking a statue to great effect, with my hand resting below my chin to lend credence to my being lost in thought, when a voice spoke up from the back of the room.

“ It means multiplication ma’am.”

The teacher swung around searching for the voice, her sari swirling on the floor and creating a little chalk-dust cloud.

“ Who said that?”

“ Me,” a small hand waved above the sea of heads. I felt a pang of pity for my comrade, I could sense from the teacher’s tone that censure rather than approbation was to be the reward.

“ Arjun, didn’t you learn anything last week?”

Arjun nodded his head ambiguously.

“ We spent hours last week multiplying numbers and you don’t know what the sign for multiplication is? What does the multiplication symbol look like? Can anyone in this class tell me?”

I once again activated the statue protocol: straight and stiff, staring at the peeling white wall in front of me with rapt (in)attention.

“ It looks like this,” the girl-with-the-ponytail from the corner table answered, drawing a cross in the air with her fingers.

“ Yes. Absolutely correct Meghna. So Arjun can you tell me now what the multiplication symbol looks like?”

Arjun adjusted his glasses and after a moment’s pause shook his head.

If this had been Roald Dahl’s Matilda, our bespectacled friend would have been carving a sharp trajectory through the air, straight out of the second floor window. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at these things) our teacher didn’t have anywhere near the muscle power of Ms. Trunchbull, and Arjun escaped unscathed with just a stern look.

The teacher marched back to the front of the room and picked up the chalk.

“ This is the comparison operator. The number on the left side is smaller than the number on the right side. This,” she gestured towards the pointed triangular end of the ‘<‘ sign, “ is the bird beak. The smaller number is always next to the bird beak. And the other part that is opening up, that is the crocodile mouth. The bigger number is on the side of the crocodile mouth.”

She tapped the board with the chalk again, “ Bird beak, crocodile mouth an easy way to remember. Now, did everyone get that?”

“ No ma’am,” Arjun’s voice rang out loud and clear from the last table.

* * *

I was so busy navigating the choppy seas of homeworks and exams in school that I never stopped to examine what I was studying. Looking back I can’t help but wonder why I bothered to clutter my mind with facts and figures that don’t matter a damn.

Take for instance my 6th grade biology class. Instead of conducting experiments and learning the basics of scientific inquiry we spent time drawing, in excruciating detail, the reproductive organs of flowers. Why the school board deemed to pass on this arcane knowledge to impressionable young minds remains a mystery. I can however, with some difficulty, conjecture the meeting that must have taken place among the board of educators:

“ Ms. Puri, I think it is time they know what those flowers are actually up to.”

“ Yes Mr. Kapoor, their innocence must end.” (Nodding of greying heads all around the table.)

Now while the current model of schooling leaves you with an odd box of tools and facts, occasionally you discover something useful from the potpourri. Something that exists outside of the four walls of the classroom. The comparison operator seemed to be one such oddity.

When I first learned about the innocuous triangle ( < ) I found it fascinating. I’d throw in the sign to establish a miniature hierarchy among the faceless numbers: turning unknown three-digit numerals into kings while relegating the plebeian two-digit numbers to their rightful place. For a while I felt powerful, and scattered the sign all over my notebook pages, thinking that I was determining the fate of the mathematical world (later I realized this, like much of my childhood, was a fallacy). Of course I eventually grew bored, and completely forgot about the strange triangle.

However, the next time the symbol showed up it was put to use for sinister purposes. Now in 6th grade, all of our work was graded. And us young scholars, being so familiar with fractions and having compared pairs of them ad nauseum, couldn’t help but notice the rather staggering difference between a 2/10 and a 9/10 on a quiz of 10 points. Soon our academic worth began to be measured out in fractions. Numbers an imperfect tool to begin with were truncated further to finely distinguish the gap between two students, to underscore the distance between two digits.

Comparisons grew rife. Instead of talking about Pokémon (yes, that’s what I watched in 6th grade) or the latest cricket match, we would walk around in circles asking each other our marks. Looking back I can’t help but shudder, how was I ever so obnoxious?

And of course the triangle operator did what it was best at — it established a hierarchy. There were the kings: the 9/10 and 10/10s. Their works were littered with smiley faces and stickers. Then there were those who the grades deemed average, they had to be content with simple checkmarks. And finally, at the very bottom of the totem pole, were the academic louts (most just disinterested rather than unintelligent) whose papers were decimated with angry red cross marks, and whose parents were always being summoned to meet with the teachers.

Unfortunately this was not a passing fad. No, the hierarchy once established was there to stay. What’s worse it started to spread to other fields too. People kept a tally of the goals they’d scored, or the medals won and comparisons grew like the ugly heads of a hydra, numerous and vociferous. Somehow the pursuits themselves became irrelevant, and the silverware and certificates took over.

The world we were growing into also seemed to enjoy comparisons. Parents, who had long forgotten everything they had learned in school (“ Oh how interesting you’re studying flowers.”), were particularly adept at drawing parallels.

“ Tushar look at Rahul*,” my father once said to me.

“ I would prefer not to,” I replied honestly for Rahul’s countenance while frank and open was certainly not one to gaze upon.

“ There’s a newspaper article about him.”

“ What did he steal?”

“ No, no, not that sort of article. He’s founded a company. And the article says he’s making a lot of money,” he waved the newspaper again.

“ Ah a cover for theft.”

“ I’m being serious here Tushar. This is the sort of stuff that will make you stand out among the crowd. This is the initiative college admission officers are looking for. You should also do…something.”

Like grand larceny, I thought, but nodded brightly.

While my cynicism could be dismissed as a thin insulation from other people’s success (which I admit is a possibility) I think it hints at something deeper, and, unfortunately for the comparators, something more complex.

Progressing from school to college has in many ways exacerbated the problem. Comparison of marks in high school while never fun at least could be avoided; in college however, your very grade is determined on a curve — nothing but a more sophisticated comparison operator. The letter grade informs you whether you are above, below or exactly average. Thankfully Brown doesn’t have GPAs, but the imagination boggles at the minuscule the decimal point distances charted between students in other schools.

Further it is not just academic success that involves comparison, your success in other endeavours too gets mercilessly quantified and analysed.

Recently a friend showed me her phone, “ Look I got 300 likes on my new profile photo.”

I took a large bite of my quesadilla, making sure that the cheese strands avoided my chin.

“ Yes, Tushar?” she asked.

“ What?” I said, dipping my quesadilla in sour cream.

“ Aren’t you supposed to say something?”

“ Ummm…congratulations? I don’t know, what am I supposed to say? Is 300 an important number or something; does it unlock some achievement on Facebook?”

“ Well no…but it means 300 people think I’m pretty.”

I pulled out some paper napkins and wiped the tortilla crumbs off the table.

“ That doesn’t necessarily follow. Liking a photo is such a passive act, I mean if you’d put up a photo of a puppy you would probably have gotten more likes.”

“ You…You’re just jealous. How many likes have you ever gotten?”

I pretended to think (another remnant from the school days).

“ 30-40 maybe?” I lied, thinking that was a respectable number.

“ 30?” she made the sound of someone choking on a fishbone. “ A status of mine gets more likes than that,” she pulled out her iPhone to show me the proof of her popularity.

I got up, feeling strangely repelled by the glowing pixels, “ I have to go.”

“ See,” she thrust the phone at my face and I caught a glimpse of blue and white as I walked away.

Who had ever thought they’d put a number to friendship? Or that your self-esteem would be determined by clickers who you barely knew?

Sometimes it seems as if the entire world simplified itself just so that we could stick in a ‘<’ wherever we wanted. Now, I realize that comparisons are nothing new, however, with the advent of the Internet the comparison trap has proliferated far more than ever before.

With all the achievements of your friends just a lazy scroll away I feel due caution must be exerted. To be clear I am not advocating complete indifference. I am just saying that perhaps you should treat your peers’ accomplishments like kryptonite. Something to be admired, but from a distance. From a healthy distance: of both perspective and self-worth.

The more fractious might argue that building this mental defence is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. Aren’t we just ostriching (I’ve been trying to make that a verb forever) out? Actually, I emphatically believe the opposite. All these comparisons, these juxtapositions don’t matter one jot. They are a virulent side-effects of our connected time, of our 0 and 1 Cyberia — the real world is far more complex, and far more forgiving. We are not rats scurrying for the last morsel of cheese. The lives and legacies of the great (even the legendary rivals like Edison and Tesla or Da Vinci and Michelangelo) stand alone like towers, often even resting on one another, and almost certainly far taller than those who wasted their time chucking bricks at one another.

And perhaps now is the time to let go of the comparison sign. To close the bird beaks, and gingerly shut the gaping crocodile mouths, and amidst this noisy animal menagerie, let your own voice be heard, unaccompanied, for the first time.

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