When I was in the fourth standard, I got my first real diary as a present from a cousin. It made me feel very important because it was gifted to me in the year for which it had been printed. Until then the elders had always shoved at me, two or three-year-old diaries in which the listed holidays and Sundays made no sense. Naturally!

It was a diary bound in dark brown leather and was printed by some company that must have been making a lot of money. And the first week of my life as a diary owner went by in a haze. I would keep looking at it, my heart swelling with pride. And then I would inhale the smell of fresh paper. It was heavenly.

Schoolboy’s Diary - 4000 years ago
Schoolboy’s Diary – 4000 years ago [Illustration by Shinod AP]

In the second week, I suddenly felt nervous. I had not written a single word in the diary. And now each page seemed to be looking at me in sorrow for the way it was being ignored. So I decided to keep an account of how I spent the day at school.

I kept my promise to the diary. Every day after coming back from school, I would take out the diary, open the page dated for that day and write about what happened. But a strange thing happened – each page, instead of looking as if it came straight out of a famous writer’s book, looked dull and monotonous.

The entries were almost identical: “Went to school. Had a class test. The English teacher had not come. Lunch was good – not mine but Atul’s. Have got homework for tomorrow.”

The entries went on in a similar vein for the next six months.

Imagine my surprise when I recently read a 4000-year-old account of a young boy’s day in school. It sounded almost the same! This boy was from Sumer that was part of the Mesopotamian civilisation (now in present-day Iraq).

The Sumerians, as they were called, are responsible for a lot of things. They constructed the first cities. They invented writing and the idea that children must go to a place like school for education and instruction.

Rrelief sculpture of ancient Assyrian warriors
Rrelief sculpture of ancient Assyrian warriors

What was the account of the boy’s day in school like? Well, almost like mine but 4000 years ago! Unbelievable! It went like this: “Arriving at school in the morning I recited my tablet, ate my lunch, prepared my new tablet, wrote it, finished it, then they assigned me my oral work…When school was dismissed, I went home…”

They did not have paper books. Their writing was impressed on wet clay with a reed pen. The clay was baked hard in the sun. It was called a tablet. Their writing was called cuneiform. It consisted of wedge shaped symbols that made up words.

I read this account in a book called, The Mammoth Book of How It Happened, by a gentleman called Jon E Lewis. In a fascinating manner, he has put together into one collection, eye-witness accounts of moments in history, both eventful and ordinary. Imagine, eye-witness accounts of almost 4000 years of history, though clearly, it is events of the western world that dominate the accounts by people of the west.

Yet, the book told me that for schoolchildren anywhere in the world and probably, at any time in history, school has always meant the same. Perhaps, writing diaries too!