The news about the coronavirus pandemic – and the subsequent lockdown – were what altered the lifestyle of many Romanian twelfth graders, myself included. When schools closed in our country – March 13th, I remember, a Wednesday – everyone thought it would be temporary, for a week or two at most. At that point none of us had really taken into account the way other countries had been affected by the virus, because if we had, we would have realized that the pandemic could not just end in a fortnight simply because we wanted it to, because we had more important things to do – we being mostly people involved in education, students and teachers alike. And the reason why we needed the outbreak to end? The Baccalaureate was coming.
The Romanian school curriculum is heavily anchored by the Baccalaureate, “bacalaureat”, or “bac”, for short, as we call it. This exam – or rather, set of exams, is viewed as being the most important exam students will ever take, the one that will open the gate to adulthood. All my life, whenever I thought of the bac, even as a middle schooler years before I had to take it, when I envisioned the exam only in a faraway future that, in my thirteen year old mind, seemed like it would happen in another lifetime, one thing was always certain: it was a monolith. Adults always talked about it like a threshold that you have to pass in order to begin your life, and from a young age, its importance is drilled into your mind, — you know you’re going to have to go through school and that it’s going to end with the culminating occasion of this exam.
A big part of the typical Romanian student’s life goes like this: if you’re going to take an exam, be it the bacalaureat or the “National Evaluation” that eighth graders have to take in order to be accepted into a high school, chances are you’re going to have to be tutored. Tutoring, or “meditaţii”, as we refer to it, is when a student has private lessons with a teacher – typically at the teacher’s house – that the parents pay for. They usually occur once a week, often with groups of two or more children at once, and they are a very common thing in Romania, especially for students who are preparing for exams. In some cases, like it was for me when I was preparing for my Romanian literature bacalaureat, it’s not that you don’t have a good teacher at school, on the contrary, but that you want to get more guidance from a tutor who is more focused on you individually. Even if you don’t do the session one on one (I had two other classmates for my tutoring), the tutor can obviously focus on you way more than they would at school, where you are typically part of a class of thirty or so students.
Tutoring is a pretty important component of the Romanian school system, even though it’s not exactly “legal” in many cases, and the reason it is so commonly practiced is, once again, the exams, particularly the bac. Parents want their children to succeed, and more often than not, at least in the environment I am a part of, parents are willing to pay around 1200 lei (about $300) a month for one child’s tutoring, which is significant taking into consideration that the minimum wage in Romania is currently around 1500 lei (about $370).
So, we’ve already established that the bacalaureat is perceived as being very, very important in Romania. And when the coronavirus pandemic came about? Everything was disrupted. The bac is based on a curriculum that is usually very closely followed, and when it was announced that we would not be going back to school for the rest of the year, except to take the exams at the end, people panicked. The vast majority of teachers had not finished teaching the whole curriculum yet and some were still behind, and then the debates started. Should we include the whole curriculum in the exam? Should students even take the exam anymore? The latter question caused a lot of indignation, both from teachers (and a number of students), and the masses, as well. The bac is nothing short of holy, in the Romanian mindset, and some people basically believe that not taking this exam is the equivalent of having no chance of surviving adulthood. In the end, the exam did take place, although it was only based on the first part of the curriculum, the one that had been taught until December, in the first semester.
Despite the lessening of the exam curriculum, the lockdown was still draining for most twelfth graders in my country. The lack of a routine tipped everything off balance for many of us. Most students still had online classes, both school courses and tutoring, however, for me, at least, it sometimes felt like they were all over the place. Sometimes I had a course in the morning, then a few hours later there was a tutoring session, and in the evening, there might have been another school course. This lack of a very clear timetable, like the one we usually followed, made it more difficult to focus, at least for me, and the majority of my peers seemed to agree.
You don’t really have a routine anymore, like you used to do when you went to school, my history tutor told us, and I think this makes it way harder for you to concentrate on studying like you did before. he added.
A friend of mine also mentioned that she found it hard to concentrate when she had nothing else to do,— you’re at home all day and this is all that you do, over and over. You don’t really leave the house, except maybe to go buy a loaf of bread or something, and this makes you stir crazy, it becomes really hard to focus on anything.This was something I resonated with on a very deep level, as I found that the lack of a certain kind of stimuli made it very hard for me to find the energy to focus on studying, and with the shadow of the impending bacalaureat looming over me, getting closer and closer by the day, I sometimes felt like I was going crazy, like I was going to fail at life.
I did eventually manage to pull myself together, about a month and a half before the exams, and I started to study really hard, almost every day. I managed to catch up fairly quickly, due to the fact that I usually am a very quick learner, and I even managed to score maximum results in two of the three exams, which had seemed like an impossible feat at the time. I think this experience certainly changed me, because it made me realize that there were things that I used to hate, like having a routine that at times seemed very boring, waking up at the same time every day and starting classes at 7:30 every morning, but that grounded me in a way I didn’t even realize was important until it ceased to exist.
One thing that I realized during this pandemic – and I think this is very universal, not only for students but for other people as well – is that we shouldn’t take things for granted. There are things we may not particularly enjoy, like waking up at 5:30 every morning to get ready for work or school, but their absence can definitely make life harder, in a way, and that we should try to be grateful for what we have, when we have it – we never know when we’re going to lose it.