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The Day I Passed Maths

27 November 13 words: Edward Dingwall
An interview with the father and son behind the Notts video that went viral

Late on Sunday evening, at the end of half-term, Farnoosh Shahrokhshahi, 52, is in the kitchen of his Mapperley home. Yesterday he was presiding over a court, proud to be “Britain’s first Iranian-born magistrate.” But like most teachers, he is preparing to return to the classroom tomorrow. School books are piled high on every surface, pages full of A-level physics. “I must get them finished,” he says to himself, carefully marking each one.

The workload is particularly tough today - and in walks the reason why. Aria, at 17, is the younger of Farnoosh’s two children. He greets his dad with a grin and a down-to-work attitude. The family business this week has been an accidental enterprise: their YouTube video The Day I Passed Maths and the international media mini-storm which followed.

It all began the previous weekend. Relaxing after dinner with family friends, conversation turned to Aria’s achievement in GCSE Maths. He took the exam back in January and received his result in March, but in late October Farnoosh was still keen to talk about it.

The day that Aria gave his dad the news was captured on a mobile phone video which he set up in secret. It was not intended for anyone else. “I wanted to put this on Facebook, on the internet for friends and family,” says Farnoosh, “but Aria said ‘no, it’s private, it’s a private moment between you and me.’” When their friends did see the footage, the reaction was immediate. They begged Aria to post it online and share that moment with the world.

Aria relented, and uploaded the video to YouTube, adding several tags but not thinking much of it. “It got 10 hits almost instantly, then 100. At 500, I was going to sleep thinking ‘oh my God,’” he says. “By the time I woke up the next morning, it was 110,000, and it was everywhere.”

The following day, Aria got a Skype call from a producer at the American television network NBC, who had picked up the thread on Reddit. “They wanted to fly us out to New York that night,” says Farnoosh, “and I realised I had not renewed Aria’s passport.” The weight of this disappointment was quickly forgotten when it became clear that US immigration authorities would not allow them entry at short notice in any case. So NBC sent a crew to Nottingham. 

In the mean time, the hit counter kept ticking over, buoyed by mainstream press attention. Gawker, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail were among those to repost the video, while leading Twit-izens Stephen Fry and Piers Morgan shared it with followers. Interviews were given to desert radio stations in Utah and the Australian outback.

NBC arrived, ready to beam live from the Nottingham suburb to an estimated five million tuning in for the Today breakfast show. Farnoosh explains; “They had to park way down the road to get a satellite connection. We were running around pulling rugs out of the house to cover all the cables. The neighbours came out, so I had a bit of explaining to do.”

With every interview, Farnoosh has lived the memorable day of the video again. “Watching it, I still cry; sometimes I really laugh,” he says. That laugh, when it comes, is infectious enough to go viral on its own. Farnoosh’s feelings are often laid bare, which is something father and son both link to their Iranian roots. “I think it’s very important to not just feel love towards other people, but to show them and tell them.”  Aria describes the nation as full of “really emotional people. They cry a lot. In Iran, it’s a normal thing. At the Iranian funerals, the men will cry and express themselves very openly.”

His father takes up the Western contrast: “The culture here, says, ‘men don’t cry, boys don’t cry’. A lot of fathers say to their little boys, ‘boys don’t cry, girls do,’ and that is so wrong. In Iran, men do cry; very comfortably. I’ve seen my father cry many times.” Their family in Iran have followed the coverage, but see nothing extraordinary in its origin. “But,” he adds, “I think, even for Iranians, I am …” “a bit full on”, Aria says, finishing the thought.

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Farnoosh and Aria

Farnoosh’s tears of pride, joy and relief have flowed across international boundaries though. The resonance is not purely cultural. As Aria runs through the video’s statistics, he reels off a list of the countries who have visited the page most often - more than 3.5 million hits from South Korea to Saudi Arabia. Like many parents, Farnoosh still has questions about social networks. But as chair of the United Nations Association’s Nottingham branch, he is thrilled by what he learns: “Croatia! Taiwan! Chile!” Also, the vast majority are within the 45-54 age bracket. “For a parent it is a pinnacle moment for their child to achieve something they have struggled with all their life,” Farnoosh says, reflecting on the video’s popularity.

With more than 25 years teaching experience, Farnoosh is well aware of the importance of pass grades in Maths and English. Both are vital to the standards by which schools are judged, and to students’ personal progression. Even so, he says that “In all that time, the best result I’ve ever had, that also made me cry, was an F. One student with special educational needs, for him to get an F was absolutely incredible.” He also remembers a lab experiment with potassium, water and fireballs which may have taught future BAFTA-winner Vicky McClure a thing or two about drama.

Aria eventually passed all his exams, with a C in English, apparently provoking an even bigger reaction from his dad; not caught on camera that time. But the triumph was greater because of what had gone before. “Aria has always found Maths very difficult, but he is bright. For all kinds of good and bad reasons, he didn’t apply himself,” says Farnoosh. When his parents divorced, Aria split his time between their homes and passed through two secondary schools and a period of home tuition. As might be expected, he found it hard to adapt to the changes around him, and became subject to bullying and disciplinary problems.

By the end of Year 10, Aria was settled in at Colonel Frank Seely School, rebuilding his confidence with a new maturity born out of difficult experience. “The staff now tell me ‘when you first came, you were a nightmare’; apparently I was an absolute wreck.” But with a more stable life, things were changing, and Aria was learning to make good on the support he received. Farnoosh describes the school in glowing terms, which Aria sums up, saying “If everyone around you is happy, you’re happy.” He was still struggling with his studies though, and on course for a predicted F grade in Maths. There is, however, a simple principle which Farnoosh has passed on, “In life, just do your best. You are in competition with yourself, no one else.”

For any student to make the leap from an F to a C in four months would be impressive. “I just really focused, worked through every paper I could find, then went back and did them all again,” Aria remembers. Still, the result was unexpected. “That day, I got home, rang my dad, and said 'Dad, something’s wrong, I’ve got a letter from school.'” A worried Farnoosh hurried from work, and the rest is now a matter of internet record.

The video comments they've received have overwhelmed them both. Aria says “A woman sent me a message, saying that she’s a mother; she and loads of her friends have been so touched by the video, and they wish they could be a parent like that.” There have been the inevitable trolls too, inexplicably attacking Aria’s mother when she added her own note of gratitude. But on the whole, it has reaffirmed the pair’s belief in the widespread goodness of people. They are humbled.

Aria has been the one to field most of the attention, displaying a canny knack for handling the media which he is learning as he goes along: “People phone for interviews and ask to speak to my dad. I tell them they’re better off dealing with me.” He is putting that GCSE in Maths to practical use, monitoring the web statistics and negotiating agreements with the licensing and advertising companies who pounce on viral videos. His head has not been turned, but he is thinking of branching out into vlogs, perhaps putting his dad in the spotlight again. Tomorrow he goes back to his catering course at NCN, but there may be a new calling on offer from the media training courses at Confetti. As Farnoosh puts it: “This week has been an incredible apprenticeship for him.”

The fame might only last fifteen minutes, but for both of them it is based on lessons which will last a life time. They both laugh at the idea they might have sparked a new trend in parenting. On a Friday, after a date in the ITN newsroom, Aria and his father celebrated the end of their “crazy” week by “walking halfway across Birmingham to find the biggest bucket of KFC we could.” Turning back to the video that started it all, he said; “I was watching it the other day, and it was where I just went over to him and said ‘I love you Dad’ and gave him a hug. It’s a really sweet moment for me, watching that.”

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