… a public high school student
Retold by Clara Phuoc Nguyen
Image by Nam Quan
There’s nothing like being a 12th grade student in public high school. OMG! It means a timed bomb has been set for the university entrance exam and failure is not an option. What would happen if I fail? My parents would get an earful from neighbors and relatives, and I will lock myself up in a tiny closet to avoid any consolation. Just the thought of it glooms my day.
It’s 6am and I am getting ready for the day. History test is on and I am fearless as my friends and I have strategized on tackling it – writing the answers onto our table and legs. Yes, legs. Sometimes I think we’re so smart and creative, and we always know when to pick the right moments to peek. The teachers will never find out in a zillion years.
My name is Khanh Ha and I am an above average student. One thing about me is I hate literature. My parents are both teachers of literature and I am the biggest hater of that subject.
6:15am: Riding my scooter to school and wearing Monday’s uniform – an ao dai. My older sister told me that in her time, she had to wear an ao dai to school every day, except when she had PE (physical education). Perhaps because of that, there were more poems written about high school then than now.
6:30am: Flag saluting ceremony.
6:45am: 12th graders have to take a quiz every day at this time. Some days are scheduled for history while others are for literature. Four unlucky souls are called up to the board and have to write answers on the board as quickly as they can. Sometimes I think we are competing on the ability to memorise. The ones with better memory get better grade. Today the quiz is about literature. I cannot understand why we have to cite word by word a poem. Shouldn’t literature be about how we feel and appreciate a novel or a poem?
7am: The first subject of the day is math. I like math. Math is clear and straightforward. Unlike literature where we are punished for thinking the poem sucks big time, math is fair. We calculate correctly, we get the points.
7:45am: Another math period. The teacher gives us some exercises to do and he is off somewhere. I think he is off for his morning coffee. The class is like a fish market now and I am sure the teacher next door will come over in a second and shut us up. There she is and we are doomed now.
8:30am: Break time. My tummy is crumbling and I am running like the wind to the canteen for a banh mi. I need energy for the history test later on.
9am: History test. No fear really. The materials needed for the test are either on the table surface or on my legs. So the questions are about our victory over the Americans in the 1945 battle. The numbers of airplanes taken down and the number of soldiers captured are all… on my legs. I am so thankful for my mother who has given me such a long leg to use now. I’ll sure get a 10 for this test.
9:45am: It’s time for English period. We seldom have speaking exercises in English class, only grammar, reading or writing lessons. The other day I went to the shopping center and was asked by tourists for direction. My mouth felt frozen. I know how to show the way. I learnt it already but words kept sticking in my throat.
11:15am: Phew, the last period of the day is biology. This year biology is not part of the graduation exam’s six subjects so the teacher allows us to study any other subject we want. And he just sits at his desk reading the newspaper.
12pm: I ride my scooter home for a quick bite and a much needed nap. The afternoon tutorial on math, literature and physics is going to start real soon.
2pm: It’s the school’s regulation for all students to take tutorials in the afternoon but what is the point of extra studying time if the teachers do not really teach the extra stuff? I do not blame our teachers for saving the ‘secrets’ of passing the university entrance exams for the evening paid tutorials since their salary do not make ends meet.
7pm: I am at my math teacher’s home for a private tutorial. He is well-known for helping a good number of students pass the university entrance exam.
To be honest, my friends and I do not know what we like to study in university. We just pick the easiest to get in. The more intelligent ones might choose more prestigious universities but I am sure they are as clueless as I am in knowing what they’d want to study. I wish to study baking and want to be a pastry chef; and I would immediately apply for it if it is taught at university. There are only vocational schools that offer cooking and baking courses, and wearing a vocational tag is not fondly seen in society’s eyes and will make my parents lose face with the relatives and neighbors. A degree is always more welcomed than a certificate; even an irrelevant degree is still better regarded than a practical and useful certificate. This is exactly what makes my life and my friends’ lives miserable.
12am: My eyes automatically shut off. In my half-baked dream I see me in the exam room with eyes open staring at the test paper, horrified!
If someone asks 12th graders what motivate them to study 18 hours a day, I say it’s our innate wish to please our parents that keep us going.