The clock is ringing, and ringing and ringing like screaming drums. Wasn't it a moment ago that she lay down to rest? It's 4:30 and time to rise. Outside, the world is still sound asleep. Her mother has gotten up to pray and will be sound asleep afterwards. But the girl will not have that privilege. Nor will the time come until 8 at night, after what seems like 30 college exam prep classes.
She is behind already. Her friends whom she called before going to bed at around 2 in the morning have gone through 10 more sets of multiple choice questions than she has. Her rank was all the way in the 5000s range on her last konkoor exam. The number of people registered to take the exam is one 20th of the whole population of the country. The thought of that makes her want to vomit, scream; and then go to her mother and weep. But she has already done that for the past two nights and obviously her mother can take no more.
There's one thing she does to make herself feel better at the end of the day. She gives herself until tomorrow. Tomorrow she thinks; that's when I'm really going to start catching up in the race.
Her eyes are itching, and the cold water makes them burn. She is nowhere near the finish line and yet she is already exhausted. After taking the konkoor and getting her ranking a month later, she will be able to write her first 100 prefereances of what she would like to study in college. A month after that, the final exam results will be published and it will become clear who gets accepted where. But unlike her friends, she has never been one to compromise. She wants to go the school of her choice in the program of her choice. It is her way or the highway. And she is slowly beginning to understand that unlike her childhood days, life is beginning to show her the highway.
It's all a pain for her, but family and neighbors are having a ball, waiting for the results which are published for the whole world to see in newspaper and on the internet. It's a favorite pastime to go around trying to figure out how everyone did. From grandmothers to cousins to the grocer down the street, they all love it.
She can quit. She can just say to hell with it all. She can go visit her cousins in Shiraz. At least she's a girl. The boys, poor things, will have to burn two years of their lives in the army in some faraway village if they are not accepted into college. She knows girls could be in far worse situations than she; they could be forced into marriage if they fail the konkoor.
She is immersed in all these thoughts and more when the next batch of tests peak at her from behind her desk. She will try to do at least five prep exams: chemistry, physics, math, and two more of all subjects combined. Then she will mark them. She will find out that no more than 60% of the answers are correct. And that will again lead to more crying or just pure fright. All her life, she has never been regarded as stupid. But in this race, you end up being a genius or a loser, there's no middle ground.
She gets up to check her email. When she's back it's already 5:30. She knows that she wastes a lot of time daydreaming, emailing, and walking instead of taking a taxi. She could have used the time to sleep. But she doesn't think too much about it. She sits down to take more prep tests, and to her surprise, this time her average is around 75%… not nearly as good as she needs to be, but still much better than last time. That makes her feel better. And as she heads out the door for her first class, she feels lighter than she has in a long time.
The room is small and stuffy. Originally, it was not intended for anything more than a single bed and maybe a small table. Now, somehow they've managed to cover one wall with a black board, and the rest of the room with small desks. About 30 people are there this morning. It amazes her to see these girls. With all that makeup, and fancy hairdos under the scarf, she wonders where they found the time?
This is an illegal Arabic class. Illegal in the sense that it's not a registered teaching institution. The teacher is a superstar by all means. The most famous Arabic teacher in Tehran. Rumor is that he earns around 300,000 tomans an hour through private tutoring. And he teaches from 7 in the morning until 1 or 2 at night. His car parked outside is clear proof. All his official classes are full, but he teaches this group for an hour every week. And he's quite good actually.
After Arabic she runs to physics class. And chemistry after that. Since she wants the best teachers, she has to go to different institutions as opposed to taking all her classes in one place. She knows all this running around especially in Tehran's polluted air makes her extra tired. Her wealthier friends have all these teachers come to their house. Less privileged people sell their jewelry, carpets or even their car to send their children off to prep classes.
Her cousin who lives in New York thinks it all sounds crazy. Maybe she's right. She was able to go to college without lifting a finger. But this place isn't called a third world country for nothing. And despite all the troubles it causes for so many kids and parents every year, it still seems the only way to get ahead in life. When there are so many applicants and so little capacity, what else can anyone do? And you have to admit, this is about the only thing in the country that's not based on who you know or how much money you have. Money will only get you better teachers, but that's about it. It all comes down to four hours on a hot summer day.
She is walking home drunk with sleep. She even contemplates the idea of lying in a corner of the street and closing her eyes. But seeing the homeless beggar without a leg makes her change her mind. Once home her father will want to learn all the details of her day. What she's learnt, how well she did on her tests, how much she has left to study. She dreads this every time and tries to change the topic. Sometimes she is successful, other times she's not.
At the end of the day, she really doesn't feel like she's learnt anything. All she does is solve tests and memorize formulas she doesn't understand; like painstakingly trying to walk in the dark. Maybe if she had sat home all day and focused on one subject instead of 7, and had read her books instead of constantly solving multiple choice questions, she would have learnt a little. But now there is just an ocean of formulas and equations floating around in her head that will be washed away before midnight. Her mother will kiss her head and ask her to come to dinner. The extra-delicious meals are her mother's way of making her feel better and she is grateful. The 20 minutes that she spends eating around her family is about all the peace and comfort she has.
Coming home is not the end of the day . She has to gather her notes, and solve as many sets of multiple choice questions as she can. But Thursday nights she feels more beat than ever. She goes down to start studying, but usually falls asleep or reads a magazine until she does. She lets herself sleep an extra four hours. Although the class schedule only permit three hours. The instructors hand their own personalized schedules which include when to eat and sleep. The only thing not taken into account is when to go to the bathroom.
She could have accomplished lots more today she thinks before surrendering to sleep. She could have done much better. But there are exactly five more months to go. Tomorrow, she thinks; the race will start tomorrow.