Toil and trouble for Greek adolescents

They start their day well before dawn, when they should be sleeping, and they finish later than the most driven executive at some big corporation. They pile onto public transport to go from school to coaching colleges, from one obligation to another. They can only dream of leisure. From the time they finish elementary school, and worst of all, when university entrance exams loom on the horizon, the teens of Athens are under massive pressure to be perfect at everything. Striving to acquire as many skills as possible in an ultra-competitive society and a labor market that does not have enough jobs for all, they put their hopes in university, unable to imagine a different future. And not even university entrance can guarantee them an easier existence. Angelos would love to go to the theater every week; this year he has been once. When I tell him my university tutors sometimes took us to the Ancient Agora for lessons, he doesn’t believe me. He and his classmates are stuck in dull buildings listening to dull lessons from dull teachers. They stopped complaining long ago. Angelos is just 16 and he has much ahead of him – anxiety, pressure, coaching college, informal tests, exams and university entrance exams. Like most in his age group, he has dreams, ambitions and plans. He wants to get into medicine at Athens University. Going by his grades, he’s likely to succeed. After all, grades are all that count for Greek universities, not the fact that he is president of his class, a member of the school council or that he took part in the UN simulation or Mathematics Association competitions. All that matters is grades, and he doesn’t complain; he repeats what his parents and teachers say: «It’s just two years; it will pass.» The happiest part of his day is at the tuition college, where he meets his friends and where, he says, lessons are taught by teachers who are prepared for students who want to learn. It’s okay, except for the days he stays up all night, when all he wants to do is to go to bed. «You can’t get up in the morning. Some days you go around like a zombie. There’s no coordination among teachers about tests. If you do 5-6 a week, it takes you at least three days off to recover.» Of course, he never gets those three days off. On Fridays class ends late and by then all he can handle is the cinema, «with his bag on his shoulders, full of books from his tuition college.» he says. On Saturday morning, he’ll probably have supplementary lessons at the coaching college if he has fallen behind in some subject at school. Then there’s English. Like most young Greeks, Angelos wants to get his certificates in a foreign language before he goes into the final year of senior high school. He has already passed his Sorbonne second level exam in French and in two months he will try for his certificate of proficiency in English. He is only free on Saturday afternoons, and not completely even then, because he needs to study for the coming week. On Sunday morning, the tuition college has set a three-hour simulation of university entrance exams, so he’ll get home after 3 p.m., free at last for the rest of the day to relax and do as he pleases. «What I really miss is time to do something for myself, mainly sports. I used to ski at championship level until last year. I can’t this year because I’d have to be away for entire weekends.» He can’t imagine an ideal day without school, which he likes anyway as it’s the only place he sees his friends. «I can’t take it for granted that I’ll go out on the weekend any more. My friends are from Nea Smyrni and I live in Glyfada. We manage to go out once or twice a month. Luckily we’ve got school.» I insist that he imagine an ideal day, without school. «I’d get up quite early, 9.30 to 10 a.m. so I could use my time. I’d have a leisurely coffee and go downtown to wander around Plaka, those little streets that lead up to the Acropolis. That’s what I’ve been wanting to do since Christmas. Then I’d arrange a game of paintball with my friends in Keratea, even though it’s far away and would take half the day. When I got back, I’d hang out in the streets and clothes shops in Glyfada. You don’t have to shop; window-shopping is enough. In the evening, I’d like to go to a disco I’ve heard about in Kallithea that only plays music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.» The reality is very different. Second term has just started and Angelos has an extraordinarily demanding schedule. «I get up every day at 6 a.m. for a shower which I need to get my eyes open, I have something to eat and the school bus goes by at 7.05. I get to school around 7.40, and have lessons till 2.30 p.m. I come back from Neo Faliron on the school bus and get home around 3 p.m. I study for the tuition college and go to the center of Glyfada at 6 to take the bus back to Neo Faliron for the tuition college. We have lessons from 7.30 to 10.40 p.m. and I get home at 11.30 p.m. I see my parents for a bit, then I study for about an hour-and-a-half. I get to sleep around 1.30-2 a.m.» What happens if he doesn’t succeed? «I just think about how it will pay off in two years. But even if I don’t pass, I won’t be disappointed because I’ll feel okay about myself. Besides, if you don’t do well one day and you get disappointed, you’ll be affected psychologically and make a mess of everything. I don’t think I’d try again. I’d probably go abroad, to France, because I know French,» he says. Perhaps the first thing that is lost in the ordeal of getting into Greek university is the sense of youth, those explosions of sentiment that go with adolescence. Angelos insists that adolescence, as presented in psychology books, is a cliche. «My parents support me and give me what they can. They’ve stayed up all night with me and they do whatever they can to help. I don’t feel the need to rebel or to oppose them,» he says. There simply isn’t time to rebel when you have to keep up with school and other obligations. You have to shut out everything else if you want to succeed. You get the impression from your teachers that overly sensitive types won’t do well. The more you want to succeed, the more you turn a blind eye to the system, to its shortcomings. Because, in the eyes of a 16-year-old, that is how you secure your place in the sun, however dubious it might be. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s supplement K on February 18, 2007.