I have taught at Cyrilometodějské gymnázium a střední odborná škola pedagogická Brno for the past six years. It has a long name because it has three different educational programs: an eight-year gymnasium and two vocational programs for future teachers.
Three programs means three groups of teenagers who are very stressed out right now. Within the next few weeks they will take part in a seminal rite of passage – the graduation exam known as maturita. If they pass, they move on to university and/or the rest of their lives; if they don’t, well, their lives become more complicated. There is a lot of pressure.
This is very different from my experience in America, where graduation is simply having a better-than-failing grade-point average. The Czech public school system, in general, is quite different. After primary school, students move on to lower secondary school and then, as late adolescents, upper secondary school.
Upper secondary schools are roughly equivalent to American “high schools” but they are already focused on preparing students for their career: vocational schools for more white-collar professions and trade schools for more blue-collar jobs. About a fifth of students test into a gymnázium which provides a general education with eight-, six-, and four-year programs; a gymnázium operates with the understanding that career specialization will begin at the university level.
Rather than take everyone who lives in a particular geographic area like the American system, Czech schools accept kids from everywhere. Some commute daily from more than an hour away and others stay in a dormitory from Sunday night through Friday morning.
My Richland High School graduating class had 301 students; the normal Czech class size is 30, and the students stay together for most of their subjects, splitting up for languages, information technology, and physical education. Czechs learn a foreign language for much more than the two forgettable years I had of French. There are no school sports programs, so there are no jocks and no cheerleaders. And there are no cliques that make sitting in the cafeteria a social minefield.
My final year of high school was one of the best years of my life. Right now, I’m not so sure that Czech kids would agree that their graduation year will probably eventually be considered a highlight, too. Nevertheless, there are four significant and symbolic events in the final year of school in the Czech Republic. The build-up that makes them special started in the fall, but three of them will occur in the coming weeks.
All of them are pretty much the opposite of my American experience, which, of course, makes them fascinating.
Stužkování: The get-drunk-with-your-teacher party
The first time I heard about stužkování was when I saw a friend one night at the Hlavní nádraží tram stop. He was lit up: “My students kept buying me shots,” he said. “I couldn’t refuse.”
Stužkování can be loosely translated to “ribbon ceremony.” In the fall of the graduating school year, the headmaster or class teacher pins a symbolic ribbon upon each student to mark the turn for home: the finish line is mere months away. In other words, have fun tonight, then start really hitting the books so that you pass the final exam. My school, a Catholic school, generally has the ceremony in a church, uses a sword as if the students are being knighted, and then moves to a restaurant for dinner and an entertaining program. Everyone wears formal clothes.
The dinner always begins with awkward small talk as students feel out how to address their teachers outside of the classroom. As the beer and wine start to flow, the tongues loosen: “Are Czech students smarter than American students?” “Is our class the worst you’ve ever taught?” “Do Americans really eat fast food all the time?” From the teenage point of view, I suppose, the alteration of the power dynamic is exhilarating.
The entertainment is various: an auction for worthless trinkets with creatively deceptive descriptions; a quiz to see how well the teachers know their students; a mock graduation test with the roles reversed. Matching baby photos to students is also popular. (There are two things that I have learned about myself: 1, matching baby photos to teenagers is impossible; and 2, the relative prosperity of American life is abundantly clear when you, alone among teachers and even most students, have the only color baby photo.)
After the program, when the respectable teachers leave, students start to buy rounds of shots. I couldn’t drink (legally) until my final year at university. Here, teenagers belly up to the bar and down shots of hard alcohol like professionals.
That’s when the interesting stuff happens. The girl who always wears a scowl of teenage angst in the classroom says that you are her favorite teacher. The guy you thought hated your guts says that you inspired him to study English in college. The boy who acts too-cool-for-school says that he was happy that he finally read the short story you had assigned – two weeks late! – and he is now reading another story by that author. The never-stops-talking girl actually apologizes for talking all the time.
It warms your heart… and your liver.
Poslední zvonění: The last bell
Months later, before the graduation exams begin, there is another important milestone. The graduating students gather at school and receive their final marks. Classes are officially done.
So, naturally, the students dress up in costumes.
Cavemen. Clowns. Street musicians. Super heroes. Sumo wrestlers. Traditional folk dancers. They dress up as whatever crazy characters they can think of.
Then, as if to validate their years of toil and study, the future leaders of the country go out into the streets of Brno to beg strangers for money. They use noisemakers to attract attention. Some sing songs and play instruments. Most approach random passersby, hands outstretched, like aggressive panhandlers.
This usually happens at the end of April and beginning of May. Beware.
Czechs understand the ritual and reminisce about when they did the same. Foreigners, however, have a different perspective. I give generously, especially to the kids whom I know, but I find it to be a very strange spectacle. I can’t complain, though. The money that is raised – in the thousands of crowns – goes to the graduation party, at which I drink a free beer or two.
Maturita: The graduation exam
First, there are normal diagnostic tests in the basic subjects; they are important but not so stressful. Then, after a week of cramming known as svatý týden or svaťák, each student dresses up to take the oral maturita exams. The snazzy outfits cannot hide the terror in their eyes. If, and only if, they pass these oral exams, will they be able to start the rest of their lives.
Two teachers from the school sit behind a long table with a starched white tablecloth. They have pens to make marks on official documents. A stranger from another school sits off to the side and observes the proceedings.
The student chooses a numbered pill from a bag. The number corresponds to the topics that they will be asked to expound upon. Fashion. Sports. Interpersonal relationships. Mass media. The British educational system. Shakespeare. United States history. American literature. Canada. Festivals in English-speaking countries. Prague.
Then the test begins: “First, could you briefly introduce yourself to the committee?”
It is so strange to think that I coasted through the end of my senior year with a bad case of senioritis. I went to my classes but I didn’t stress about anything. I had already been accepted to the university of my choice. In many ways, it was the best time of my life. Watching Czech students suffer through the maturita exam does not look like they, too, are enjoying their late adolescence.
The graduation party
In America, the graduation ceremony is the climactic celebration. Mine was in a packed football stadium. The girls wore golden robes and the boys wore green, our school colors. When we were alphabetically called to the stage, we received our diploma from the superintendent of the school district, moved the tassel across the mortar board, and tried to pick out our family from the thousands of people in the stands. Then we threw the hats up in the air. We felt bullet-proof, like we were the kings of the world.
To prevent anyone from testing their invincibility (read: driving drunk), we spent the night in the community center, drinking a lot of soda and playing games until dawn. There was a raffle for valuable items that had been donated by the local business community. You had to be there to win.
I’ve actually never seen students get their diplomas in the Czech Republic. I hear that it happens with a small ceremony, and definitely not with thousands of family and friends in attendance.
Then, the Czech graduation party feels like an afterthought. The atmosphere is subdued. The luster of talking plainly with your teachers had been lost. There is usually a buffet, but no program, save some comments and maybe a congratulatory toast by the class teacher. Oftentimes, not everyone in the class actually passes maturita, and they have to spend the summer studying to retake the test in September or after the next school year. It can be awkward.
After the stužkování celebration, the zaniness of poslední zvonění, and the bald-faced terror of the oral examination, the graduation party is more of a sigh of relief.
Come to think of it, though, I have never stayed very late at a graduation party. Perhaps, when all the teachers leave, that is when the students realize that they really are living the best time of their lives… and that is when the party really starts.
Was late adolescence the best time of your life? What was your school graduation like? Did you take a stressful test? Or did you coast through your final year with senioritis?