Forty years ago this summer I graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, and soon my daughter will do the same in Paris. My senior year ended with a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony (involving a small scandal, read more on that below), parties galore, a class ring, yearbook, high school photos, cards and gifts.
Here in Paris, rien. Nothing.
Instead, the end to high school is marked by the grueling baccalaureate exam for seniors—or “the bac” for short. It’s a marathon of over 10 tests that span two weeks in June, with a few starting in junior year. They consist of written, oral, and practical exams—like lab work or middle-distance sprints for sports.
Exam week officially began Thursday at 8 a.m. Paris time with the infamous four-hour philosophy test, featuring surprise questions. Picture over 700,000 students all over the world sitting with their ink pens and paper at the ready. They open their exam books to choose a question like this: To fight for your rights, is that the same as fighting for your interests? Can people free themselves from their culture ? Explain this text from Foucault : Ultimately, life means being capable of error. …
|Class of 2017, anywhere in France|
When the exam started my husband—like so many parents here—went online to see the questions, and texted them to me. Newscasts feature students preparing for the exam and interviewing them as they finish. It’s a national event.
|Class of 1977, somewhere in Pittsburgh|
And it’s a national debate. The bac is a big machine costing taxpayers €1.5 billion a year. The school year for other middle and high schoolers is cut short as teachers are requisitioned to staff the bac. Some teachers specialize in writing the exams, of which there are dozens of variations. There are over 4,000 test centers and 4 million tests to be corrected, by hand!
Seniors focus on the bac to the exclusion of all else. No extracurricular activities, internships, or part-time jobs. At my daughter’s school the yearbook was produced by the juniors, to free up the seniors. Parents hunker down with their children to keep them well fed. There’s no going away for the weekend or on vacation after December.
The new French president wants to trim the bac down to size—to about four exams, with classwork counting toward the degree for the most part. That sounds reasonable, but is a matter of debate. Meanwhile, the parents in my daughter’s class, most of them foreigners like me, have organized a party for our children.
As for the scandal involving my class of '77, we picked “Freebird” by rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd for our class song. It was a bit too much metal for the nuns at our Catholic school. We were banned from playing it during the mass celebrating our graduation. Did we truly think we'd get away with it? You have to admit that the lyrics are rather sweet:
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see …
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Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.