NRI memories: Final exams and a change of seasons – life as a student in 1980s Dubai



On a pleasant day back in March of 1988, I sat on the steps of The Indian High School canteen, musing on the just-concluded annual exams while sipping a cool ‘Areej’.

As many former IHS students will recall, the canteen back then was a unique circular structure reminiscent of something from a science fiction story. Or maybe this was just the result of my overactive imagination, being an avid follower of television series like ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Star Trek’.

The canteen was abuzz with activity that afternoon; exam papers and post-exam plans were being hotly discussed, gossip traded and snacks bought before the bus journeys home.

A multitude of colourful school buses, starkly different from the uniform yellow ones seen all across the UAE today, were beginning to fill up the paved area around what was popularly known as the ‘IHS oval’ – a huge, sandy playground with a goal post at each corner.

As we waited to board our buses amidst lively talk of moving to a new grade – and classroom, my friends and I had not failed to notice the subtle change of seasons in Dubai that always heralded a fresh start.

Some students still carried their navy-coloured sweaters, as cool winds seemed to promise a few days of relief from the impending sultry weather. But soon, thousands of such sweaters would go into storage, packed away neatly by industrious parents in mothball-lined suitcases or lofts, as a new academic year – and season – kicked off.

Having spent my entire childhood in the desert climes of Dubai, I loved it when winter rolled around, with its woollens, early morning mists and dew, and soft blankets to snuggle into. I was thrilled when a hail storm struck Dubai one cold morning, rattling our balcony with bucketfuls of ice.

School days in Dubai’s winter season were particularly eventful back in the 1980s, thanks to consistently cold and often rainy weather. During a torrential spell one morning, access to our ‘porta cabin’ classroom was cut off by a deluge. To the delight of the more daring, a makeshift walkway of tables and benches had been made to walk, extremely gingerly, upon. As far as I know, no mishap occurred that day, but paper boats were floated, and rain-themed songs sung in break-time.

Winter also signaled the beginning of prepping for final exams, especially in senior classes – and so, even the more lenient parents began to snap their kids to attention.

Television and radio time was cut short. Playing outside with friends was sadly curtailed. One evening before an exam, a request to tape my favourite television show – ‘Chart Attack’ – broadcast weekly on Dubai’s Channel 33, was met with some spectacular eye-rolling.

“You’ll have all the time later to listen to music and watch videos,” lectured my mother, also a teacher at IHS at the time. “But if you don’t do well on this exam…”

So basically, Rick Astley and Madonna could wait but Science couldn’t.

Despite the seemingly endless cramming and toiling that our exams demanded, we always found a way to distract ourselves.

Relief came in the form of laughs and chatter over a quick phone conversation with a friend; music being a lifeline, sometimes I would smuggle my Walkman into my blanket at night, and pray that the loud clicks of ‘Stop’ and ‘Play’ were inaudible in the next room. Tiny comics that fitted easily into our textbooks offered another great way to unwind while deciphering age-old equations and formulas or memorizing the antics of ancient royalty.

For fans of stationery, like myself, an exciting part of exam time was buying the clip boards that we wrote our papers on, and other essentials from little shops around Karama. Of course, I knew that while colourful pencils and cute erasers momentarily cured my exam blues, they couldn’t compensate for goof-ups when those dreaded hours ticked by.

On the day of the last exam, in March of 1988, we battled a particularly mighty foe.

“The graph was curved? But mine came out as a kind of rectangle…”

A heated discussion about the Maths paper dissolved into laughs during our bus journey home, past familiar daily sights in laidback, afternoon-time Karama. We even tried to soothe our more anxious counterparts, who were furiously rehearsing what to say to their parents.

Over 35 years later, as we embrace a change of seasons here in the UAE, I still think about that day, and how a bunch of perky Dubai-bred teenagers made it through exam-time, finding themselves on the cusp of yet another summer. – Enid Parker is a freelance writer based in Dubai


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