Chapter One – Start of the Year

2015

For almost two-thirds of Eric Wang’s life, Septembers in Beijing had been cool and filled with smog. Even though he was already used to that kind of weather, seeing only gray and white outside the window made him feel tired very often. It was September first, and he was having his last day of his summer vacation.

He looked at the piles of books on his table, all about his six subjects which are going to be examination subjects in the next June. Over the summer, he had already finished learning what he was going to be tested on in the first mock exam in January. Today, he felt like that he needed to work on his algebra skills, which he had had problems with since ninth grade. He pulled out one of the books on his table, which was almost as thick as three laptops, turned over all the first hundred and ten pages that he had finished, then started writing the problems for the day.

On the next day, Eric eventually returned to his routine schedule for school days, that is, waking up at five twenty, then read his exam-prep books that he had bought over the summer, and then, the most important part, going to school for the following twelve hours. Waking up at five fifteen, five minutes before his scheduled wake-up, he found his breakfast sandwich in the fridge. He ate it within five minutes and then returned to his room, got a few books out, started his morning self-studying, which, according to Professor Wei at Tsinghua University, was extremely important for a good student’s success in academic life.

Eric decided to study English first today, since it had always been his favorite subject at school. It was his favorite only because he excelled at English in class, meaning that he almost always achieved one hundred percent on every English test at school. Maybe I will become an English teacher someday, he thought. He liked teaching people new things. It was really an enjoyable thing for him.

But he had got to focus on the Exam right now. Teaching English would not be possible without entering a good university, which relied on his grades of the National Higher Education Entrance Examinations. Even though the Examinations were not until next June, the pressure was right there from the beginning of high school for Eric, someone who was in a top-5 high school in the capital of China – Beijing. It’s been a long way from tenth grade, he thought, only one year ahead, until university. For Eric, sometimes thinking about the holiday to come after the Examinations could be subtly relaxing. Imagining the relaxation that he would experience the moment that he walked out of the examination classroom, the moment that he finds out about his grades, and the moment he got his university offer…

He pulled his chemistry book out after he was done with learning his TOEFL words of the day, and started reviewing about electronic configurations and the experiments. Once upon a time, he had loved chemistry, but as he grew up and the course became arduous, he had started to dislike the subject. Yet for his grades’ sake, he had to study hard for chemistry, which was why he managed to have an overall 92% grade at the end of last school year.

As time rolled quickly, it was time for Eric to depart for school. He lived around a kilometer away from his school, and it took him around fifteen minutes to walk there. Since he had to be at school at six forty-five in the morning, he had to depart every morning at six twenty.

His first walk to school this school year was smooth and relaxing, even with the gray sky wrapping all around the city. As usual, Eric wore a mask that filtered the air that he breathed, nearly everyone in Beijing now wore a mask on the streets unless they wanted to die of lungs cancer at thirty years of age. Whilst walking, Eric saw the gray sky repeatedly, and wondered if it would ever be blue again.

Eric walked into his classroom, now with the sign “Class 8, Grade 12”, he saw more or less ten of his classmates already there, their books open, either writing or reading. No one said anything as Eric sat down on his seat, which was in the middle of the classroom, since he was neither very tall, nor extremely short. The classroom had not changed at all over the holidays – the two sayings still hung on the front and the back walls, windows still dusty and stained with the coke that Andy poured on two years ago, and also, exactly forty-three pairs of tables and chairs. The saying “Excellence is won by training and habituation” in Chinese was huge above the blackboard, and upon seeing it every time Eric looked up, he thought, that is just, so true. If I had not worked so hard for years, I would not be who I am today.

Mr. Su walked into the classroom right on the bell of seven o’clock. He was wearing a blue shirt with stripes and a pair of gray trousers today. Same as always, he looked rather serious and gave everyone who looked into his eyes a chill. He cleared his throat, and started giving his start-of-school-year speech, just like the two years before. “Welcome back, everyone,” he began in a very deep tone, “to your final year at this school before entering university, or not, if you know what I mean. Next June, your fates will be decided, whether you go to a university or not, and if you do get to university, a good one, or not. Therefore, this is the single most important year of your lives, yet.

“The start of twelfth grade is always the hardest thing to overcome. I have taught seven different grade twelve classes so far, you are my eighth one. In every single of the seven, there were students, who excelled at school in previous years, fail the first several tests, and then, their confidence fell apart. Eventually, they fell into a bad emotional year and were not able to go to a university of any kind. Do you want to be one of them? DO YOU?” His voice raised by at least fifty percent, and Eric was scared. He didn’t want what happened to those guys in Mr. Su’s story happen to him, at all. What if I do start off badly? He wondered as Mr. Su continued, “You are not going to succeed in this special year unless you work really, really hard at the beginning. Do you understand me?”

There was a dreadful silence following the sentence. Obviously, every member of the class was scared of the teacher who had taught them for two years now.

After the annual speech, Eric felt very motivated and energetic for the new school year, but at the same time, he was also slightly scared by the fact that this forthcoming exam could decide how his life will be. Just one exam.

On that day, he had ten lessons, which were doubled Chinese, math, English, chemistry, and physics. And as he walked home, he decided to have an early dinner with Andy at McDonald’s.

“So, how have you been over the summer? What did you do?” Eric asked while having his spicy chicken cheeseburger. “Well, you know, just generally doing exercise books and going to those classes that supposedly help you improve by thirty percent over two months. How about you? I would guess the same for you as well, am I right?” Andy replied.

“Yeah,” Eric followed, “just nothing but studying, you know? All for the Examinations,”

“True. I mean, I really feel like, that this kind of one-test-decides-it-all system of education is not very effective. What if somebody is just very good at school generally during the entire year, and then somehow screw up the finals? That’s not really fair, is it?” Andy questioned.

Personally, Eric strongly disagreed with his best friend’s opinion. He thought that the system was great – nobody had to worry about those meaningless grades of those tests that comes along almost every day, and that’s quite relaxing for Eric to realize – grades during the school year didn’t matter a lot – meaning that he could just take a few days off his studying mode and not really worrying about his school year’s grade. He completely adored the system working in China.

“Nah, I don’t know,” Eric lied, “I mean, I don’t really have an opinion on this topic,”

“Well, alright then,” Andy said just as he finished his chicken nuggets.

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