Thursday, March 14, 2013

Abi-this and Abi-that

In the German education system, students at a Gymnasium (where I work) go to school from fifth grade through twelfth grade and then have a six-month preparation "thirteenth grade" before they take their school exit exam. This exam is called Abitur. Unlike in the States, where SATs and ACTs can impact school funding and college acceptances, a student who does not pass Abitur does not graduate from high school. They can leave with the equivalent of a tenth-grade completion certificate (which is what students from the Realschule, the high school that is a level down from Gymnasium, get when they graduate after tenth grade), but the extra two years of school and previous eight years of generally more challenging work will have pretty much been for nothing. And without Abitur, it's very difficult to get into university.

So this test is a big deal.

This week marked the Abitur oral exams. The Abitur written exams happened several weeks ago, and a combination score will dictate if the students passed. The students taking Abitur, known as the Abiturenten, append the prefix "Abi-" (which means nothing by itself) to everything vaguely associated with the test or their lives during this time. So we'll have an Abi-Ball on Friday, the theme this year was Abi-Vegas, the students write an Abi-Zeitung (Zeitung means newspaper), they have an Abi-Motto, and the list goes on.

One of the traditions surrounding Abitur is that the students celebrate at school the day after the test. With a handful of teachers supervising, they rearrange all furniture, block the doors with tables, cover the hallways in balloons, and generally make a big complicated mess within the school. At my school, all students were given the first three hours of the day for this celebration. The students blew whistles, played music, and generally made a lot of noise and chaos. It was kind of stressful for quiet-loving me.

Traditionally at least some of the Abiturenten show up for this celebration very drunk, and indeed that was true. They also run around with stamps that say "Abitur 2013" or a variation thereof and stamp everyone, teacher or student, on any bit of exposed skin. In the middle of March, that usually means the face and the hands. Most of the students sported these strange face masks of Abitur stamps. The second half of the day we have school as normal, though naturally the Abiturenten don't. Instead, they dash from classroom to classroom, blowing whistles, stamping everyone, and interrupting the lesson. Generally they just wreak havoc.

What's crazy to me is that these odd traditions happen in Germany of all places, and that everyone just sort of tolerates it for the day. All the teachers, aware that their classrooms would be regularly disrupted, still held lessons but didn't expect to get much done.

I can assure you that the result of this day was a great deal of Abi-chaos and Abi-stress, as well as some Abi-laughs and regular Abi-interruptions.

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