‘Excellent!’ says the remark in red ink, next to a hundred per cent score on a test. A glowing face looks at the rest of the class, looking for admiration. The face gets admiration and more—adulation, envy, dislike. The face takes the paper home and there are more glowing faces there.

In the dictionary, ‘excellence’ is defined as the “quality of being the best, better than anyone else.” The word comes with the built-in feature of comparison. In a field like sports, it is an easily recognizable quality. At the time of writing this, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships are around the corner, and if anyone is asked, they would say without hesitation that Serena Williams or Roger Federer excel at tennis. “Look at him”, we say, “he has worked very hard to get there to the top; he is amazingly talented.” And we wouldn’t be wrong.

Putting aside the idols, what of the humdrum classroom? How does one define excellence there? A student presents his or her work. Everything is complete, neatly done, correct; he or she has decorated the edges of the page with some design, made a cover page. Another one gives in his work. Everything is correct and complete but the work looks untidy. A third gives in his work. It is mostly complete, everything is correct and legible, but this one has a mind that thinks differently—he has solved the problems by using different methods. So then? ‘Excellent, excellent, excellent?’ Or not quite? Who gets the title and for what exactly?

And even in that last question, there lurks that requirement—a title given—by someone, to someone. A bit of judgement there, well, quite a bit of judgement, surely? And who decides, and on what basis, from whose viewpoint? What of a child who has a learning difficulty? How do we recognize this elusive entity there? When there are children with such difficulties, everything seems to become complicated. A severe difficulty is obvious. What of a less severe one? And here there is always the discomfort—is this all that the child is really capable of, or is she becoming complacent in her own acceptance of it? Is she taking the easy way out?

Does one see excellence in oneself —sense it, feel it? You have put your heart and soul into that bread you baked, you were supremely unaware of everything except the feel of the dough as you kneaded it, felt its silky elastic bulk move on the counter, sniffed the aroma as it baked and then when you sliced it, the feel of the crisp crust under the knife giving way to a lacy softness, ‘excellent’, you said. Is this it—these fleeting moments of your complete being giving itself over to the task at hand—without thinking of the end product or being apprehensive of other peoples’ opinions?

Yet, we recognise it in others—we see the end product and say that such and such a thing was an excellent piece of work, or that this or that child brings excellence to this or that job. And over the years as we work with scores of children we also see that there are a few individuals who seem to bring this quality to everything that they do. So is this it then? Something that automatically touches all that we do? But for this star performer, what of all the backstage supports—hard work, stamina, perseverance, passion—where do they come in? Or the backstage hindrances —expectation, pressure to perform, fear of failure? The glowing face with the perfect score—did he do it all from some inner source, by himself, and not for himself, but simply because he knew this and no other way? Or was there pressure, a desire to please? And would it still be excellent if there was the latter?

A word and an idea smoothened by use over centuries, like the smooth rounded stone picked up from a river, and we don’t see everything that has gone into eroding it. And now, I am almost afraid to say it to anyone!