Back to school around the world

From China to Spain, students talk about the pressures they face, and the fun they still manage to fit in.

Tanya Zarutskaya


Tanya Zarutskaya is a slender, nervous, and shy young woman who says her life's passion is mathematics. She's just about to enter the 11th grade, which in Russia is the last year of public school. She attends Moscow School No. 57. "I love my school," she says. "It's the best math school in Moscow. Our main courses are algebra, geometry, mathematical analysis, and physics."

The coming year will be tough for Tanya, as her performance in final exams will determine her ability to get into university. "There's a lot of pressure, but I'm not worried," she says. "I'll have to cut back on socializing with friends, listening to music, and going out. But I'm one of those people who likes to study. I don't feel bad when I'm alone with a book."

She's not exactly eager for exams, though. "I don't think they can show what your real knowledge is. During the coming school year, we will be constantly tested, in order to prepare us for those final exams. The only subjects I have problems with are languages.... But I do OK."

Students remain together in the same class, often from Grade 1 through graduation. So, not surprisingly, classmates are often friends for life. Even though Tanya came to School 57 only two years ago, her present classmates constitute her entire social circle. "Whenever one of us has a birthday, we all celebrate together," she says. "We chip in for the cake, and some presents. Sometimes we compose a special song."

She traveled with a group of classmates this summer to the historic Russian cities of Tver and St. Petersburg, staying in hostels and eating on the cheap. "I love to travel," she says. "When you're with your best friends,

it's fun and it's easy. Whatever problem comes up, someone figures out a way to solve it."

Tanya's greatest hope is to be accepted by the math department at Moscow State University, Russia's most prestigious center of higher learning. Her ultimate goal is to work in cybernetics, the study of artificial intelligence. "Cybernetics is going to change the world in the next decades," she says. Competition for places in the department is fierce.

With Russia still in a post-Soviet economic recession, Tanya is unsure of her job prospects. "I can't plan that far ahead," she says. "In this country, there are university graduates working as maids and fruit vendors."

Caroline Wainaina

Nairobi, Kenya

Caroline Wainaina is a Form 4 student (senior) at St. Theresa's Girls Secondary School in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

She spent half her August holiday taking what's known as "tuition" - optional extra classes - to prepare for final exams in her eight subjects, scheduled for October and November.

"When you know this is your last year," she says, "you feel more serious; you've stopped all that childish stuff."

She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Eastleigh, a working-class neighborhood. Her father is a businessman who runs, among other things, a butcher shop. Her mother is a community health nurse.

She says her parents are investing a lot in education for her and her younger siblings. Her school fees are about 15,000 shillings ($200) a year, more than half the average annual income in Kenya. Meanwhile, her older sister is studying computers at a London college.

"It's the most important thing. You just have to be educated to become someone of importance in the future," she says.

Wainaina says getting a degree from a university overseas would give her an added advantage. "I would like to join my sister in Britain," she says. "There are [university] graduates here who have even a master's and don't have a job."

When she finishes school, she's considering being a journalist. "I would like to be seen on TV, reading the news."

Wainaina has already appeared on television, as part of a debating team during her final year of primary school. She also successfully auditioned for the National Youth Theatre.

"Our main aim is not just to entertain, it's also to educate." She recently performed in "The Scourge," a play about HIV and AIDS. "[Acting] gives me a feeling of accomplishment, that I have done something."

For fun, she likes to go with friends to watch movies at one of Nairobi's downtown cinemas. The most recent one she saw was "The Mummy Returns."

Her course load of eight subjects is her main source of pressure (all final-year students take English, math, and Kiswahili, the national language, one technical course, and four electives). "Without pressure," she says, "there would be no determination."

- Mike Crawley

Jonathan Fonseca Camarena

Guadalajara, Mexico

Jonathan Fonseca Camarena arrived for his first day of school yesterday just before 2 in the afternoon - in time to see the last stragglers from the first shift heading home. More than 1,000 students attend his big public high school, or preparatoria, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Another 1,000-plus arrive at 2 p.m. and stay till 8 at night.

That schedule suits Jonathan fine. "I like the afternoon shift. Then I can hang with my friends at night, and do my homework in the morning before school."

On a typical day, he'll have between 2-1/2 and 3 hours of homework. Still, he will find time after school to visit with friends and play guitar, before returning to the condominium where he lives with his parents and two older brothers. "I have to be home by 10 p.m. on school nights, and 1 a.m. on weekends. My parents are OK. They aren't too strict."

The preparatoria, or prepa, which he and many of his 15-year-old friends are starting this year, is about a kilometer from their homes, and they walk there together. Unlike in primaria and secondaria - the equivalents of US elementary and middle school - students in prepa aren't required to wear uniforms. "I like finally being able to wear normal clothes," Jonathan says.

But he is required to take Spanish, math, art, geography, chemistry, physics, and history during the week - and his electives, computers and music, on Saturday. Chemistry was rough last year, "because there are so many chemical elements to memorize and tons of details to learn." But history made up for it: "My [former] history teacher is my favorite," Jonathan says, "He loves history, and shared that love and enthusiasm with us."

When it comes to his future, Jonathan is less certain. After prepa, some students go on to university or technical school. "During the last year of prepa," he explains, "we'll be given a list of all the possible technical professions. I'll choose one then, and go to a technical college to train for my career." He doesn't know what it will be - but the uncertainty is exciting: "There are so many possibilities! Every day I hear about more professions."

- Laurie M. Scott

Eric Ewing

Chesterfield, Mo.

As the new academic year dawns, high school is the sun around which Eric Ewing's life orbits. But there are plenty of other spheres of influence for this teen: work, sports, and his passion - computers.

"I love computers. If all the time I spend on my computer counted as homework, I'm sure I could have a 4.9 [grade-point average]," he says over the whistles and squeaking shoes of the girls' varsity volleyball team, which he manages.

Born and raised in Chesterfield, an affluent suburb west of St. Louis, Eric has just started 10th grade - his second year at Parkway Central High School. "I've gotten a little more mature [since last year]," he says. "But there's still a long way to go.... It seems like a pretty drastic change going from a freshmen to a sophomore."

He is a solid 3.0 student (the highest GPA is usually 4.0), but he admits to having developed poor study habits. "In elementary school, if you didn't do your homework, it didn't hurt you. Then all of a sudden middle school comes up, and high school, and it's getting harder and you're not doing a real good job on homework. This year, I'm trying to change all that."

This semester, he's taking world history, English, geometry, biology, Latin (which he says will help with the English portion of the SAT, a standardized college-aptitude test), photography (his only elective), and health.

The final bell at school merely signals the start of the rest of Eric's day. Several times a week, it's off to the local Dairy Queen restaurant, where he'll work the counter till 10:30 p.m. He'll get in a little bit of homework there - especially in the winter, when demand for ice cream drops off - and then finish it at home.

His parents, who own an embroidery business and work from home, don't mind his foray into fast food - as long as it doesn't distract from his homework. He's saving for a car, hoping to get his driver's license next June.

When he's not working, Eric goes home for a marathon computer session. He surfs the Internet, plays games, messages friends, listens to music. TV rarely enters the picture.

Easygoing by nature, he claims not to feel much pressure academically or socially. He says he's been offered marijuana, and there's plenty of drinking at parties, but it's not much of an issue in his circle of friends.

As for future plans: "I'm trying to decide what I want to do so I can start taking the classes I need to take, but I'm not, like, worried I'll freak out if I don't figure it out soon." he says. "It's more of a thing I'm going to look at next year or the year after."

- Craig Savoye

Ding Xu


Ding Xu, a fun-loving high school student in Beijing, loses some of her ebullience when she thinks about going back to school. "My head teacher is strict and doesn't care about us, and we have too much homework," she says, echoing a common sentiment, as tens of millions of Chinese students take up their notebooks again.

Teachers and parents are piling pressure and homework on Ding this year, because she's entering junior three, the final year of junior high school, when she must take the dreaded examination to qualify for senior high school. Officially, this is when the pressure starts, and it mounts until students test to enter university, which is the key to a good job in China. But parents start scheming much earlier, to get their children into good kindergartens.

"If I don't test into high school, then my parents will kill me," Ding says. "But if I test into a bad high school, then I wouldn't be able to test into university, and so that'll be a waste of three years."

She attends Beijing Railroad Number Three High School (which also houses junior-high students), an elite district magnet school; "magnet" signifies better teachers and facilities. Fifty percent of Chinese students qualify for public high school; the rest settle for vocational or private schools.

Ding complains about the ugly purple and white jumpsuit that is her uniform, and about how schools' promise of extracurricular activities is just for show. "The Ministry of Education asks schools to have extracurricular activities, but none of them do, because it takes time from studying," Ding says. "The ministry periodically does check-ups, so we have to pretend to be doing extracurricular activities. For example ... we went to the Forbidden Palace for a couple of minutes, and then used the gate ticket as proof."

Ding has a passion for drawing and calligraphy, and used to attend summer classes. But this summer, her parents - usually mellow, but now anxious because of the impending examination - made her attend physics and English cram courses.

"When my parents aren't home, I go out and play; when they're home, I study," she says. "My goal is to avoid talking to them, and hearing their lectures on how hard I have to study."

Ding started school on Aug. 19 instead of the official Sept. 1 start date; her school is anxiously adding on extra days to prepare students for the examination. She will study mathematics, English, Chinese, physics, chemistry, and politics - the subjects of the test in June. Students will strive to qualify for a city or national magnet school, which will guarantee a spot at a magnet university.

This year, Ding says, she'll feel pressure from parents, classmates, and teachers, and will spend every waking minute memorizing textbook material.

Still, there's a bright spot for her: "I was alone at home during the summer, and now I'll be able to see my friends again," she says. "So I'm 60 percent unhappy and 40 percent happy that I'll be going back to school."

- Jiang Xueqin

Eugenia Perea

Riudoms, Spain

Eugenia Perea is totally at ease doing nothing during the summer. "It's time to relax, isn't it?" she asks. "I work hard enough during the year."

Judging from the list of her extracurriculars, she certainly does. She practices piano at a conservatory, studies French at a language academy, hosts a weekly radio program with a friend of hers, and acts at the local theatre. This fall promises to be particularly busy, as her last year in school will focus on passing the Spanish college entrance exam, the selectividad.

Eugenia is from the small town of Riudoms in Catalonia, the Spanish region whose capital is Barcelona and whose official language is Catalan.

"I like the humanities," she says, a preference her schedule bears out: Catalan, Castilian (more popularly known as Spanish), English, Latin, Greek, Spanish history, modern world history, math, and physical education. Except for Castilian, classes are taught in Catalan.

"I want to be a translator and an interpreter," she says.

Until they begin to study elective courses in their last years of school, Spanish students stay in the same classroom, while teachers shuffle after each period. It makes for a tight group of friends. Eugenia's class has 23 students, and she goes out with many of them on the weekends. "We meet up around 11:30 or midnight," she says, "and go out to the discos until about 3."

Two summers ago, Eugenia and her friends decided to make a movie. "We had nothing else to do," she explains. Shot on video, it was about a rich girl kidnapped by three other girls. "It's a comedy," she says. "I was the rich girl." Local radio journalists who saw the film invited her to do a weekly radio show about movies. "My favorite ones are Woody Allen movies," she says. And her top choice? "Manhattan Murder Mystery."

- Otto Pohl

Heng Vanda

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

During his two-month summer vacation, Heng Vanda plays soccer morning, afternoon, and evening at a stadium near his house. Most of his friends sprint back and forth barefoot on the asphalt. He loans a left-handed friend his left shoe.

For many adolescents in the capital, September means that, instead of pulling on shorts every morning and heading for the stadium, they have to put on blue trousers and white shirts and head in the opposite direction: to Bak Touk High School.

Though public schooling in Cambodia is free, school enrollment and attendance for many youths in the countryside (and for poorer kids in the city) depends on the growing season, or on how much they have to help their parents work. Bak Touk High School's director says about 3 percent of the 8,293 students miss classes. But Heng Vanda says during some seasons, empty seats are common in his 60-student class: "Many students don't start coming to class until after the water festival in November."

"When I have free time," he says, "I have to help my parents sell shoes. But my father tells me I have to study hard, and if I have enough ability, I can be something big like a lawyer." He says he's taking his father's advice. He plans to dive into his curriculum - math, Khmer (Cambodian) culture, literature, physics, and natural science - to ready himself for the high-pressure 12th-grade exit exams he will face in a couple of years. The exams are so important that police have to cordon off test sites, where desperate parents attempt to pass answers to their children.

Since Cambodian teachers make only an average of $20 US dollars per month, they often supplement their incomes by charging students for teaching materials or private instruction. Some days, Heng Vanda studies Khmer, mathematics, or physics with a private teacher - for about 600 riel, or 15 cents, an hour. He says concentrating on his schoolwork will be particularly important this year, as the curriculum grows increasingly rigorous: "There's a big difference - in math and history, especially. We're going to start learning about countries that we never knew about before."

His extracurricular activities are not very different from those of many children in the Western world. "I have a Playstation at home," he says. "We usually play soccer on it."

- Eric Unmacht and Khieu Kola


The school year runs from Sept. 1 to May 25, plus extra days for exams. School hours are generally 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In Soviet times, all schoolchildren wore a standard uniform, but this rule was abolished in the early 1990s. Now, most schools do not mandate uniforms, and those that do, make them distinctive to the particular school.

Schools are allowed considerable leeway to set curriculum. Students typically study humanities, such as Russian literature and history. Many schools also specialize in languages, arts, science, or mathematics. Specialization can begin as early as Grade 1.


The school year - three 13-week terms, with one-month breaks - starts in January. Hours are typically 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Enrollment in primary school has dropped to 50 percent from 90 percent since fees were implemented in the early 1990s.

Uniforms are mandatory in government schools.

Government authorities closed more than 60 schools last term because of student protests over such things as heavy-handed discipline, corrupt teachers, and bad boarding-school food.


The school year runs from early September through late June.

Some large public schools host two sessions each day to accommodate all their students.

The government pays for secondary schooling of students with good enough grades to get in; many who are able to pay choose private schools.

United States

The school year starts in mid-August or early September and runs through May or June.

Classes run six to seven hours a day.

School is mandatory until age 16, and roughly three-quarters of adults have high school diplomas.


The school year begins Sept. 1 and ends in mid-July. Students go to school 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a two-hour lunch.

Uniforms are provided, not required.

China guarantees schooling up to Grade 9. Rural children often don't go beyond that, but the cities are fairly good at providing a high school education. Less than 2 percent of the population has a university degree.


School runs late September or early October to June. Attendance is mandatory until age 16.

In their last two years of study, students take electives in sciences or humanities. English is mandatory.

Students must pass the selectividad exam to go to college, but after this year, each college will have its own entrance exam.

School runs September to June.

The Cambodian literacy rate is 69 percent. For men it's 82 percent; for women, 58 percent.

9 percent of the population attends high school; 90 percent attends primary school.

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