WHEN LIFE IS ON HOLD
The gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, ended a fortnight ago. But one image of this life-defining exam — taken by nine million students this year and treated as a major national event — refuses to go away. It shows a mother kneeling at the gate of an exam centre, begging the staff to let her son in. He was exactly two minutes late for his last paper, owing to a damaged cycle. He was refused entry.
The accompanying report says that the mother ordered the 17-year-old to kneel too. Instead, he kicked the gate and tried jumping over it. It was of no use, of course.
What did the student do afterwards? There was no follow-up. The mother’s words echoed across the country: “This will affect his whole life.’’
Indeed, the gaokao is the most important exam for Chinese students wanting to build their futures. Three years of preparation in high school are geared towards passing it with grades high enough to make it to the best universities. A score of 600-plus out of 750 can enable you to take your pick of colleges. A student can try again, but that’s not a popular option. Unlike in India, coaching classes aren’t regarded favourably. It’s the last three years at high school that are the defining factor. Students stay in dormitories with punishing schedules, as homes are seen as distracting. In the last week before the exam, lessons stop and advice begins. Once out of that cocoon, it becomes difficult to prepare for the exam on your own.
Judges have refused to grant parents divorces before the exam; post gaokao, divorce rates shoot up. This year, a teacher risked her life when thieves tried to snatch her bag which contained 659 hall tickets. When the big day dawns, cars with gaokao stickers are given right of way; economic summits have changed their timings so as not to create traffic jams; generous companies hire limousines to ferry candidates; and if they see a student held up, traffic police escort him/her to the centre, keeping the rest of the traffic at bay.
This year, a student’s parents were involved in an accident as they returned from meeting him in school 12 days before the exam. The mother died; the father was seriously injured. But the relatives, the school and the traffic police decided not to inform the student till the gaokao was over. It was only when he emerged from the final paper, looking for them, that he was told. A heart-wrenching photograph shows him telling his comatose father that he had done well.
It is no wonder that the number of candidates sitting for the gaokao has been decreasing since 2008. For those who are rich enough, foreign universities offer easier admissions. Others are put off by the prospect of low-paid jobs even after graduation. And then there are those who want an alternate system. Last year, 45 students decided not to take the exam. They had already joined a new experimental university in Shenzhen, which conducted its own exam and gave its own diplomas.
Unfortunately, it is metros such as Beijing and Shanghai that are seeing reduced numbers of gaokao examinees. For students in the backward regions, the gaokao is still seen as the only way to a better life. This year, for the first time, some parents were invited to witness the grading of papers.
The gaokao is mostly about rote learning. But there’s one element in it that no amount of mugging can fix — the essay all students must write in the Chinese paper. Some of the essay topics have included: ‘Glimmer in your heart’, ‘the drizzle dampens clothes but cannot be seen... flowers fall to the ground without a sound’ and ‘Would cats take the trouble of catching rats when they can have easy access to fish?’