A little explanation first. The Japanese school system is structured differently than the American school system. In America, all kids attend their neighborhood public school whether they are Einstein Jr. or more of the ilk of Beavis & Butthead. Brilliant or brainless, all troop to the same school. Not so in Japan. Here, students are grouped by intelligence level — or to be more accurate, by their ability to achieve a certain score on a test. All junior high students must take entrance exams to get into high school, and some schools have higher requirements than others. Joe and I both teach at what are considered to be "high academic" high schools, though Joe's students are more like the A or A+ variety whereas mine are more like a solid B.
It's extremely important for students to get into a good high school. Students at the best high schools get into the best colleges and go on to work at the best companies. Students at the lower-end schools get cut out of that fold. Testing into a mediocre high school can pretty much doom a kid to a life of mediocrity. As Joe would say, "It's like they just failed at life."
On Thursday all the junior high students who applied to my high school as their top choice school came to find out whether they got in. Around 420 or so kids took the test, but only 320 get in. My school printed up these huge signs showing the student identification numbers of all those who were accepted. The signs were taken onto the balcony of the teacher's office on the second floor, tied to the railing and laid on the inside where no one could see them.
Late in the morning, all the kids gathered in the parking lot below the balcony. When the clock struck noon, the teachers picked up the signs and dropped them over the edge. The students crammed together and craned their necks in anticipation, rapidly scanning the signs for their ID number. Almost immediately, screams of joy burst out as students found their number and excitedly jumped up and down, hugging their friends. Others, meanwhile, continued squinting up at the boards, scanning silently once, twice, three times, frantically searching for a number that wasn't there. Reality sunk in and their faces crumpled, tears flowed, hysterical cries rose up. It was a scene of ecstatic joy and crushing disappointment all flowing together.
I felt truly bad for those students who didn't get in. It seemed a horribly humiliating way to learn their fate. It's like applying to school is reduced to the level of going to check the locker room door to find out if you made the cut for the football team. Except, you know, you're finding out if you made the cut for a good life.