I have always been fascinated by North American high schools and universities. They seemed to have so many rituals, so many traditions that I felt we were really missing out in France.
Take graduation, for instance. One of the rite of passage in France is the “baccalauréat”, the national high school graduation exam. Preparation starts two years beforehand and the examination, in essay-form, takes place late June, lasting typically one or two weeks. Students are tested on between 8 to 12 subjects and the passing mark is 10/20. This is such a stressful time for students that most French vow to never take the “bac” again in their life.
After all the exams are completed, students wait for a couple of weeks for the papers to be corrected. Exams results are usually announced early July. It is always a national event, as they will be published in the paper and the media will comment on the results. To know whether they pass or not, students usually go back to the high school they took the exam at. In late afternoon, a long list of successful students is pinned up on a board outside. The students rush, hoping to spot their name, and many start to exult as other cry. And… and that’s it.
No graduation party, no prom, nothing. I clearly remember hanging out with my friends before the results. I remember spotting my name on the list and being relieved. And I went back home. Come to think of it, this is the last time I saw most of my high school friends, except for two or three I’m still in contact with.
Same goes for university. We don’t “graduate”. We pass, good for us. We get our degree in the mail later, that’s about it. I learned I graduated from university early one morning — I had come to bring some paperwork and the secretary, checking my file on the computer, told my I had graduated. When I called my mum, I was already at the airport since I was coming back to Canada.
French don’t have yearbooks, school-sponsored extra-curricular activities, residences on campus… high-school and university alike are not really “shield” from the real world.