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The Bohemian way is to say it with flowers

I wished my final-year students good luck as they waited, immaculately dressed in elegant frocks and business suits, in the corridor. "Just relax, do your best and don't worry too much about making little mistakes." A pretty blonde rolled her eyes; a young man, groomed like an accountant, offered his hand resignedly.

It was the beginning of exam week in East Bohemia, the culmination of four or seven years of grammar school education, and I had just seen a curious ritual - a kind of "opening ceremony" in which the young Olympians faced their judges, offered flowers and begged for all the grace and favour any examiner could give.

Bribery, I'd thought, accepting a pink carnation and kissing the same pretty blonde on the cheek, wouldn't happen in England - not with A-levels. Little custom there, in halls filled with exam desks and charmless invigilators.

I still shudder at the memory of my own exams - at least 30 hours of written papers, spread over a month, marked by anonymous examiners. But I'd rather be judged by an independent, unbiased system than an Austro-Hungarian dinosaur. I mean, imagine squeezing seven years of intensive schooling into one solitary hour - that's 15 minutes per subject; four oral tests on questions picked at random from a drawstring bag, like numbers in bingo.

I decided to be sympathetic. Oldrich, for example, a weak student of English but not the worst, deserved a grade 3 despite his thoroughly dismal performance on "interests and hobbies". (Grade 1 is excellent; 5 is a fail.) Robert, the accountant, was no better but certainly no worse. But my boss and co-examiner disagreed.

"Robert is very lazy," she declared. "He should have '4'."

Yes, he was lazy, I conceded, but he was a "3" in class; and his topic - "Important issues in the world today" - was appreciably more difficult than the others. I stuck to my guns.

And Oldrich...? "Yes, he wasn't very good," agreed my boss. "But, you know, his father was headmaster here - an old friend of the school. We will give him '2'."

I was stunned. Evidently the carnations were more than symbolic. I deferred on Oldrich's case, none the less. After all, marking up was better than marking down - not in principle, of course, but emotionally more palatable, like stealing a shopping trolley instead of a wheelchair.

When the students returned to the exam room to face the assembled line of teachers - and their destiny -I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Robert had failed and he was visibly shocked as our chairman announced the results. I shrivelled too. It was public humiliation of the worst kind - casual, inadvertent - and magnified ten-fold by a shuffling procession of condescending handshakes and congratulations. I squeezed his arm and mumbled something encouraging as he smiled back the tears: it wasn't a disaster. The re-sits were in September and he would certainly pass with a little more application.

And then came Oldrich. He looked a little surprised at his success but delighted all the same, as if his four straight 2s were actually an achievement of ability and wisdom, nullifying at a single stroke the previous mediocrity of his entire school career. I pumped his hand vigorously. "Well done," I said.

Matthew Nicholls is an English teacher in East Bohemia, Czech Republic

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