For most of my student life, I was relatively relaxed about schoolwork and exams compared to my peers. I didn’t understand why my classmates were stressed with getting good grades.
The only time I was stressed at school was when I was 17, at the end of my first year in junior college, when I spectacularly failed my Chemistry paper and barely passed those for Mathematics and Physics. It was a wake-up call to stop sleeping in class if I wanted to pass my GCE A Level and get into a university in Singapore.
So I started to do my homework instead of copying them on the bus while on the way to school. The months that followed were tough – I had to learn from scratch most of the things that had been taught in the first year of junior college plus all the new stuff in the second year.
I passed the A Level exam and made it to university.
Today, if you ask me to explain carboxylic acids, solve a binomial differential equation or apply Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction, I’ll have no idea how. The terms sound vaguely familiar, like some distant memory that has been blocked off by trauma.
I exaggerate. The main reason why I’d be clueless about these is because I didn’t have to use any of these formulas or knowledge after I left junior college.
In any case, the level of stress that I experienced in junior college must have been nothing compared to what Kurt Gerber and his classmates – as well as thousands of Austrian schoolchildren – went through in their final academic year in secondary/grammar school. This is the year of the dreaded ‘matura‘, which determined if one would go on to university or go to a vocational school.
Written by Friedrich Torberg and translated by Anthea Bell for Pushkin Press, Young Gerber is a riveting tale about the final-year school-leaving examination system in Austria and the students that go through it.First published in German in 1930, Young Gerber was partly inspired by the series of 10 student suicides in Vienna that took place in one wintery week in 1929.
The story revolves around Kurt Gerber, an intelligent 18-year-old who is not motivated to pay attention in class. That is, until his class is put under the charge of a sadistic teacher who is called “God Almighty Kupfer” by his students and derives pleasure from breaking their youthful spirits.
I’m not going to say more about what transpires in Young Gerber, which I would recommend reading. But be warned that it is not a comfortable tale.
I read Young Gerber in one sitting, late into the night. As I followed the story, I became increasingly agitated and anxious. The stress that the students felt was starting to rub off on me. The cruelness of the teacher was terrifying. Yet I couldn’t put away the book. It kept drawing me further in with every page.
I was exhausted – mentally and physically – when I turned the final page at 4am. After I got into bed, I tossed and turned for an hour before I could get over the anxiety and discomfort.
On a less stressful note…
One of the main reasons I bought Young Gerber – aside from the fact that it is from the excellent Pushkin Press Collection series – is because of its cover. If you’re familiar with Egon Schiele, you will probably have recognised that the cover features a self-portrait of the artist.
I was introduced to Egon Schiele last year, shortly after I had stumbled upon Lucian Freud’s portraits at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. I love the raw intensity of Schiele’s portraits, which often challenge the social conventions of his surroundings (i.e. bourgeois Vienna).
When I was in Vienna earlier this year, I visited the Leopold Museum so that I could see up close some of Schiele’s works. The museum has the largest collection of his paintings and sketches in the world.
Here are some of my favourites. Enjoy!