Matriculation and the previous millennium

If ye be hearing sounds of screams from the north today, that’s just a weird reflecting trick of the upper layers of the atmosphere, carrying the sounds of the mathematics portion of the Finnish high school (lukio) matriculation examination (ylioppilaskirjoitukset) a long way to you.

What? Obviously 6 745 people wrestling with it could generate quite some moaning; why I myself years and years ago during one portion of the examination found myself thinking so profoundly I got a nose bleed.

And the paper-checker in distant Helsinki no doubt got a rude shock, finding the next paper had splatters of blood on it. (Because I have this sense of drama, the little bleeding incident only motivated me more; ended up with an eximia, or the second-highest grade, from that particular portion. “Clearly this student is a suicidal nutcase; give him a few extra points!)

Ah those were the days; waiting with nervous others for the beginning, cracking a few jokes (the more nervous I am, the chattier I get); then lining into this big giant room that was usually used for the playing of basketball, and was too big and high even for that; sitting down to one of an incongruous cluster of desks; waiting some more; receiving the questions, and noticing the silence; checking once more I had a sandwich an’ tissues an’ a drink an’ pens an’ eraser an’ sharpener an’ ruler an’ a compass for emergency trepanations, an’ wishing I could type instead of scratching; the clock starting its long run of six hours; turning over the sheet, feeling a mixture of excitement, confidence, trepidation, dread and deceleration (for the lack of a better word).

Then ferreting out the obviously easy questions, then those I by some quirk felt I could easily answer; then a complicated sorting algorithm that counted point distribution, knowledge of unacademic origins, ease of bullshitting and the aesthetic appeal of the questions and their probable answers; then a lot of writing. Then a nosebleed, that one time; other times, a break for a sandwich and an apple, and a drink (I suppose fruit juice, but all I can say is, not coffee and not alcohol); then more scribbling.

Then, depending on the subject, writing the answers out in a clear and clean form, or then round after round of tinkering, and then the final writing-out, all the time subaudibly cursing this pen-and-pencil-and-paper business when a computer would have been so much quicker and easier and, cor, wave of the future, not seen round here, no sir!

Logo of the Matriculation Examination Board of Finland

the logo of the Matriculation Examination Board of Finland: I don't think the examiners wear helmets like that, really

Then looking around, noticing so very many others were still writing; turning the sheet over just to see if there were questions hidden on some portion I had missed; then handing my answers and papers in, gathering the pens and others in a clumsy fistful, and skittering out. With luck, a word with a classmate about the answer that was obvious once one was out the door; otherwise, trying to forget the exam to focus on the next one, only a few days away, floating with a weird sense of fatalism that whispered if I wasn’t ready now, there was no way to be any readier tomorrow when the next exam was.

This for two weeks; then the long, nervous summer holiday that started too soon, waiting for the answers from Helsinki, from the national board of examiners; and then finally one sunny and quiet early summer day in the good year 2001, sitting in my dad the teacher’s car at the high school parking lot, waiting for his day to finish, a paper from the school office in hand, and on it my scores; and in my mind a whirl of disappointment at my imperfections, and pride at my achievements, and a deep sense that all was right with the world, and all was new and shiny and waiting for me; and on the radio, a fairly academic pop-sci show about giants kettles (hiidenkirnu); and creeping to my mind the slow awareness that, golly, I would be heading to such an academic environment when autumn came, to a city not very distant, but quite alien; to live on my own, and to make of life what I would.

Oh, the days. Turns out most of the positive intimations were right; but things are always more complicated than they seem.

The three years of Finnish lower high school (yläaste) are a mixture of the American nightmare of a high school, and a particularly pessimistic prison drama; but the following (if one goes there) three years of (proper) high school (lukio) can be a bliss of good friends, great teachers, and all the information one can imbibe. (Not that the curve stops there — from yläaste on every step is to better and better worlds. Then again, Dante’s Hell would be a step up from the aimless thoughtless evil of the denizens of a typical lower high school class. And I wasn’t even bullied, mind you — that’s not done to someone who broods and looms like I do.)

(Wait — a memory from my lukio days, the good days. Strikes me there was one course about the history of religions, and the usual stress of poster-making; I drew a few irreverent cartoons of Mohammed and the caliphs to illustrate the text on Islam’s early history. Didn’t strike me or anyone else then that such activity could offend anyone. The quality of my drawings, well just maybe; but the fact of drawing a few jokes of Mohammed and the caliphs, well, no, never. Oh, the days, indeed.)

(And then — and mind you, these are not the only content our small and lovely high school had — there was the history course whose teacher also also infatuated with spoken presentations and posters and the like: thus the presentation of my posse: four or five boys with one reader and the rest acting out “theories on the demise of the Roman empire”. One, with the help of the classroom faucet, was “lead poisoning from the water pipes”. Another, with screaming and a packet of ketchup, was “barbarian invasions”. I think one more, without any props, may have been “stagnation, eh”.)

For completeness’s sake: my grades were two laudaturs, four eximias. The first two in long English and long mathematics; the four in (let me think) medium Swedish, short German, science and Finnish composition. (The subjects have fluctuated quite a lot since; and what I call “science” was the reaali or the “real[ity related subject?] examination”, which included every single subject save sport and those mentioned above; for me, it was physics and chemistry and a ginormous temptation to answer an easy-looking psychology question despite not having had a single course of the subject.)

The range of grades runs, from the best to the fail, laudatur (“L”, to the best 5%), eximia (E, to the next 15%), magna (M, 20%), cum laude (C, 24%), lubenter (B, 20%), approbatur (A, 11%), improbatur (I, 5%); the mnemonic is Lem-C-Bai.

And yes, the system is so rigged that each year 5% of those taking part in a particular exam will fail it. That’s surprisingly cruel, now that I think about it; but the system also means smallish fluctuations in the quality of the questions don’t matter; the relatively best will get an L no matter what, even if the questions were (as in one infamous case) a Swedish listening comprehension test about the repair of space shuttle components. If there are big changes, though, a test that is absurdly difficult or easy, then one’s grade can be a toss of dice, with a whisper and no more between an L and an M.

(Oh, and the examinations are organized once each autumn, and one each spring; most students (I guess) still take most of the exams in springtime in the third year, and maybe farm out a few to the previous autumn. Or the next autumn, if things go all banana-shaped. And then in addition to the examinations you have to pass all the various courses, and add more until you have 75 courses or more; usually takes three years. In my three years, I ended with 90+ courses, and stopped there only because there were no hours left to take psychology. That level of studying was easy for me, and I love understanding the world; and also I was a (recovering) superciliously thoughtless little asshole with a reputation to maintain at the time.)

(“Superciliously thoughtless” translates as “Well, oh-bviously I am better than Those People. They listen to Undignified Music, and Smoke, and Drink even. It is well known, for reasons I don’t care to consider, that such things are for the ones that lack a Proper Attitude. I shall not desire their company; I shall mope here in the corner and make them feel bad. Yes, I shall. I wish to rub their noses in their inferiority. If only they would stop having such a good time!”)

(I like to think I’ve extricated most of the said iron bar from my rectal regions since then, occasionally with the use of a mattock and a kit of welding equipment; turns out “Why so serious?” is an excellent question, and you will improve as a person if you just keep asking yourself why you think what you think and whether there’s any sense in it. In no time you’re a George Carlin fanboy listening to Iron Maiden, reading Richard Dawkins and, er, actually still drinking nothing stronger than coffee and Coca-Cola because when the inner Savonian breaks free, no further intoxication is required.)

And, fsk, this is what happens when I think I’ll write a short, humorous note on the reason for the possible ubiquity of drunken youngsters this evening. Mathematics day of the matriculation examination; matematiikan ylioppilaskoe; er, that’s it.

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