Monday, February 10, 2014

Chapter 13

I'm in eight grade now - the end of elementary school. These are good times. The teachers go easy on us, treating us more like equals, pals even. Many of us ignore the requirement to dress in school uniforms, with the school emblem on a sleeve, and change our shoes for the hated juniorki - ugly canvas footwear supposedly with orthopedic benefits. Even the locker room ladies give us a pass, looking the other way as we sneak past in our tennis shoes.

We are the cool kids now. The age difference between us and those first- and second graders is so enormous (seven years!), that we don't even acknowledge their existence. They, in turn, ignore us as well, keeping to themselves at a safe distance. This is a chasm that's impossible to breach. The kids closer to our age - 6th and 7th graders - look at us with awe and jealousy, salivating at the thought that it will be their turn next year to be the masters of that particular universe.

It is also a terrible time, full of anxiety and doubt. At the age of fourteen I am expected to make a choice that will likely determine the rest of my life. There is no question that I will have to continue with my schooling - only complete losers or peasant kids stop at the elementary school - but which path to choose? There are three: vocational school, technical high school, and liceum. The first two options are seen by many as failure - that's where the academically weak kids go.  After two or four years in those secondary schools you end up a working stiff at some factory, perhaps clawing your way to a managerial position later on - if you join the communist party and make the right friends.

Kids with brains, or those who want to please their parents, choose liceum - the more prestigious the better. Ironically, that is the choice that severely limits your options afterwards; a diploma from that type of school is virtually worthless - you can't get a decent job with that, unless as a paper pusher in some office, with a pitiful salary. It only makes sense for those who plan to go to a university - and that's most parents' dream. Which is strange in a country that pays coal miners and some factory workers much better than doctors or university professors.  And yet, a university degree is a cherished prize that parents will push their kids to aim for, sometimes paying tutors or bribing admissions officials.

That choice, however, means that I will have to stay in my parent's apartment for eight more years, sharing the bed with Maciek and suffering whatever other indignities those cramped living conditions are bound to beget. This prospect is as scary to me as going to a two-year vocational school, where I will be turned into a semi-skilled laborer. I'm leaning toward the technical high school, but those have pretty strong math curricula, and math is my Achilles heel... Besides, all my friends are going to one liceum or another - some to the prestigious "16", to which I have no illusion of being admitted.

I am a mediocre student. My grades in math and physics are weak C's. Only thanks to Polish and Russian, where I get easy A's, my grade average climbs to a respectable level. I'm worried that I will flunk the math portion of the entrance exam; the only one from among my peers to be so humiliated. This prospect gives me nightmares, but I feel I have no choice but to submit my application to a liceum. I choose the "1" - a school that bears this number due to some mysteries of system-wide planning, and definitely not because of its rank among other schools in Warsaw. In fact, it is reputed to have lower academic standards and, most importantly, is easier to get into. It is a school for those less talented, less hardworking, less ambitious - should be a perfect fit. In fact, I do get in. I have never been so happy in my life.

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