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