For Fast Company, April Rabkin spends a year with high school students at an elite school in Beijing to get an inside look at the preparations for the gaokao, or college entrance exam:
These students’ lives are remarkably devoid of choice and of what might be classified in American high-school culture as “fun.” Classes are picked for them. Dating is forbidden. Fashion is largely irrelevant: The blue-and-white Second High uniform is a unisex polyester track suit so devoid of shape and visual interest that it negates almost everything attractive about the wearer. For many years, long hair, perms, and hair dye were banned, though it could be a sign of China’s baby-step liberalization that girls may now grow out their locks. “Before, they didn’t. That was a violation of our human hair rights!” says Yang Keyang, a senior with long braids whose English names include Coppelia, Pealina, Coco, and Rosalind. (English names being one of the few areas of total liberty for the students, she chose those–all of them.)
The point of all this rigor: to remove every possible distraction as the students prepare for the gaokao, the national college-entrance exams, which are seen as the gateway to success in life. For seniors at Second High, the pressure is extreme. If all goes as planned, its students will eventually join the elite that is driving China’s political and economic resurgence. They will become thought leaders, Communist Party officials, power brokers, billionaires–and, just maybe, reformists.
Over the past year, I followed a group of seniors as they prepped for the gaokao and the next stage of their young lives. What are their teenage dreams? What gives them angst? How do they express themselves, or not? What hopes do they have, for themselves and for their country? I also wanted to hear from their parents. How are the real Tiger Mothers and Fathers–with a strong helping hand from the peculiar species one might call the Tiger Teacher–grooming a new generation of Chinese leaders?
Read more about the gaokao via CDT.