Winning Chaplin’s Autobiography

The record for the longest tenure as a book on my shelves belongs to Charles Chaplin: My AutobiographyBut that’s not the  only distinction for the little tramp’s tale. It also represents the only academic award I have ever received in my life: its jacket bears a stickered certificate stating that I have been awarded the ‘Progress and Application Prize’. My grade–the tenth–is noted, as is the date, 3 October 1981.  (At my boarding school, once the annual academic prizes had been announced mid-year or so, the awardees were allowed to select a book from a local bookstore; the name of the book was reported to the folks in charge of academic honors, and a few weeks later, at the school’s award ceremony, that book, duly wrapped, was handed over to us. I still think it was a pretty good system as far as those sorts of things go.)

The official description for the prize went something like this: ‘Awarded to the student who makes the most academic improvement in a year’. That meant, in practice, a student that had enhanced his grades the most compared to the ones earned the previous year. The nominations were made by teachers; word had it that they looked not just for better grades but also visible proof of nose-to-the-wheel effort.

‘Progress’ and ‘application’ are not two terms I normally associate with myself, so I still look back at this prize with some mystification. My grades for that academic year had not been outstanding; in a class of twenty-one, I had come in sixth or seventh. I was in the top third of the class. But it was also the case that the previous year, I had ranked nineteenth in the same class.

In my ninth grade, I had switched schools. After a disastrous eighth-grade, my mother decided it was time for an intervention. Perhaps a change of scenery would help; I hadn’t been happy with my teachers and my classmates in my old school; the boarding school I would be sent to promised many changes besides its hillside locale. But because my school was located in the hills, it followed a different academic calendar. Going there would mean starting school mid-year; I’d have to either go back to the eighth grade or rush into the ninth. I picked the latter option, and interestingly enough, the school agreed.

I floundered and spent the rest of the year desperately trying to catch up with my classes; I spent most of my evening study hours faithfully copying out notes from other students’ notebooks. But to little avail; when finals time rolled around, I was still unprepared. Things were always going to be better in the tenth grade, especially as I did some more catching up over the break.

But I think what really clinched the prize was my decision, in the tenth grade, to become the only student in my class who took notes during history lectures. While my classmates, in a gesture of protest at the sonorous litanies sent our way by our teacher, refused to open their notebooks, I kept my head down and scribbled away. Truth be told, it was my favored strategy of choice for  neutering the almost inevitable boredom that would result if I didn’t occupy myself somehow. Staring out of the window would result in a quick reprimand, so I sought relief elsewhere.

It worked: my efforts were noticed; my first and only academic honor was bestowed on me. And it made perfect sense that I’d pick an actor’s autobiography to instantiate it.

Note: Hopefully, this post will kick off a ‘Tale of the Tome’ series of posts here.

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