It was a month before the high school entrance exam. Flipping through pages of math textbook, I yawned and put my head down on the desk. I could hear the old ceiling fan squeaking. I heard footsteps draw closer from the stairs. My mom came into the room with a glass of hot milk. She put the glass on my desk and patted my back. I sat up straight, starring tiredly at the textbook. I turned to the next page and kept working. My mom sat down on the bed behind me. She turned on the television and scanned through the channels, all in English. No local channels were broadcast after midnight. I looked at the clock, it was already 2 o’clock in the morning.
In Vietnam, the high school entrance exam was one of the most important gateways to the future. The school system was set up to prepare students for these exams. A month before the exam, students studied their days away; teachers stayed in school until late at night, and parents prayed with all their heart for the best results, meaning for their kids to get in the most prestigious schools. The day of the exams was marked on the calendar and taken as seriously as a sacred time. Security systems were set up from street corners to exam locations. Police were stationed on all of the main streets in the city. The roads were clear of heavy traffic. The whole nation came to a halt and carefully watched us like a parent watching a child taking his first step in life.
Indeed, the first step of our future started with the exam – one single set of tests that determined a fifteen-year-old’s future. Those who scored well were welcomed into the best schools, could sit in the most competitive classes and listen to lectures from the most experienced teachers. Those who scored not as high had to attend lesser high schools or no high schools at all, unless their families could afford to send them to private schools, which ranked lower than public schools academically.
The ability to reach the standard scores in the exams not only depended on one’s hard work, but also on one’s luck. If you had any religious belief, you should pray for the two most important things during that time – first was for the exam to go as smoothly as it could, and second was for the high schools not to raise up last year’s standard scores. If one of these two things happened, your hard work would be counted for nothing. I was lucky enough to pass the test with a set of scores that can get me to a good public high schools. Little did I know, getting into a better school also meant having more late nights of studying and preparing for the next big gateway – the university entrance exams.
In my senior year of high school, with the university entrance exams waiting ahead, and my future once again depended on another one-shot kind of test and hanging on another thread of luck. I decided to take a new path and study abroad. The lessons of commitment and hope that I’ve learned from that system was tremendously important. But I wanted to break out, to have choices, to be different and to learn. I wanted an education that would allow me to ask questions.
Studying abroad, I’ve had the opportunities to ask questions. One time, in our Bible class, the professor introduced us to the new idea of education: the teacher’s job was to offer his/her knowledge as a gift rather than imposing it as an authority. It was up to each student to decide the value of the gift and if he/she wanted to accept or deny it. From the lecture, I could see an ideal education system that sets students up for going forward and further into the world of knowledge rather than fighting for success and against failure.
It’s been four years since I started collecting questions for my learning journey.
Graduation is getting closer and I am overwhelmed with questions and the pressure to answer them. The pressure of looking for a job in the communication field pushes me to pick a specific path: What field do I want to be involved with? Which position in the field do I want to be in? As a traveler who has reached an intersection in life, I’ve paused for a long time to decide which road would be the perfect one for me. However, I realized that no matter which path I choose, I will still be unsure of what lies ahead.
A name sign on the street doesn’t tell the traveler what is on that street, or where the street leads to, but Robert Frost, one of my favorite poet, said he would choose the one where new things lie.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the differences.”