Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Center Test

Huzzah! Final exams are over and grades are in. All except for one make-up examination which I have been persuaded to give to a student with too many absences because my class was thoughtlessly scheduled for mid-morning and she has problems getting up `early`. Note to the student concerned: sloth is a deadly sin not an underlying medical condition.

This year for the first time I also proctored one day of the Center Test, a two-day nationwide examination taken by motivated high school students (the ones who are able to get up before noon) looking to get into the higher-ranked universities. The students take a series of short examinations in various subjects such as national language (Japanese), maths, English, sciences etc, and universities take their results into consideration when offering places.

I noted several things:

1) My uni took the whole event very VERY seriously. At one point one of the admin staff called up the speaking clock so we could all synchronise our watches to the second. Having never been bothered with my watch`s third hand I didn`t know how to change it but then I noticed it was already correct to the second, and I recalled that I had had the battery changed a year ago at the watch stand in my local Japanese supermarket.

After the first examination, when we returned to the teachers` room to hand in the completed papers every teacher was given a small bag containining a Vitamin B drink, throat sweets, breath fresheners and chocs. Attention to detail, so Japanese. And of course at lunch-time we were given our obento with a nice piece of salmon, two meatballs (they may have been soy), rice, pickles, beans, spinach and other vegetables.

2) It is important not to disturb the students` Wa (their harmony). Many of the students spent time setting up their desks in the cutlery positions just so, with up to 5 very sharp pencils (some in metal pencil holders) all aligned in the knife position, erasers, eye drops, hand towels and tissues arranged horizontally in the spoon position and student identification (with photos often covered by an eraser due to shyness) in the place of the fork. Nudge one item out of place accidentally when handing out the examination papers and the flustered student would go red in the face and frantically realign everything. One student had THREE watches on this desk. I examined them all. One was his wristwatch, one was an alarm clock with luminous hands, the third was a countdown timer so he could know how many minutes he had left. Of the 21 students in our room who sat the first examination of the day, a one-hour social studies paper (students don`t have to take them all) 5 had to be accompanied to the toilet.

3) At least a third of the students had some grey hair. I first noticed this when I was an assistant school teacher (for those who know the Japanese education system, I was a Jet ALT) at a high level city school. Since they are sitting and I am standing hair is one of the first things I notice about students and generally the more `high tension` a student is the more grey hair they have. After changing jobs and moving to Tokyo one year ago, I noticed a large patch of grey hair on the right side of my own head which I pointed out to my colourist. "So you`re left-handed then" she said. I am. "If you are feeling some stress and you are left-handed it will show on your right side because you are right-brained". I found this to be rather far-fetched but have since discovered, on asking my over-achieving, high tension (`hai tenshon` is a common Japanese phrase) friends that it appears to be true. Students tell me that once `exam hell` is over their hair grows back its original colour.

I would have thought that due to the drop in the birth rate resulting in there now being a university or college place for every 18-year-old who wants one, that students could relax a little. But it seems that competition for top places is as fierce as ever.

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