From Ballagás to Bankett

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Here in Hungary, after students finish the last of their school-leaving exams, they might have a special dinner at a restaurant, a “bankett,” (like a banquet but not exactly the same), to which they invite their teachers. It’s a chance to spend time together and talk informally. I went to two such celebrations this year and had a great time at both. Serious and light conversations, warm atmosphere, enthusiastic hosts (the students, who made sure we all had plenty to eat and drink). This is all so different from the customs in the U.S. that I want to say a little more about it. I wrote about the serenades and ballagas already. Now for the exams and bankett.

After the ballagás (a ceremony that takes place twice–at school and in the city–after the seniors have finished their classes), the seniors begin taking their exams in several rounds, in a range of subjects. First come the written exams, which (like most of the oral exams) they may take at the standard or advanced level. The standard-level exams are administered by the school; the advanced exams, by the district (and at a location other than the school). Then come advanced oral exams, also administered by the district. After finishing all of this, the students take their standard-level oral exams, which are usually administered by their own teachers in the various subjects. There are oral exams in physics, biology, chemistry, languages, Hungarian language and literature, history, music, informatics, civilization, and more. Not everyone takes every exam; typically, at this stage, students take two or three, depending on what they have taken already and what they need for the university.

I administered the American and British Civilization oral exam to eighteen students in two classes. In addition, I administered two standard-level English exams (since all my other twelfth-grade students from those two classes took the advanced exam). I also sat in the room and listened while other exams were being given; that was part of my responsibility, but it was also an honor.

I did this last year as well and enjoyed it, but this time I understood much more. At its best, the oral exam is a dialogue between student and teacher. The student comes in the room, walks up to the teacher administering his or her first exam, chooses an envelope at random (which contains the specific topic), and sits down to prepare for at least half an hour. When called up–only one student takes the exam at a time–he or she goes to the examination seat across from the teacher, and begins to speak about the topic. Once the initial presentation is over, the teacher poses questions and the student responds.

I saw several physics exams, each of which involved a different experiment–one with a pendulum, one with an electric current, and one that I don’t remember. I listened to a music exam, which started with some theory and sight singing and ended with the student rising and singing a Bartók song magnificently. I heard Hungarian literature (including world literature) exams on topics ranging from Homer to Kafka to Radnóti, and Hungarian grammar exams on vowel harmony, etymology, and logic. History was one of the most dazzling experiences; students spoke in detail about topics from ancient Greek democracy to the rule of Szent István király to the Reformation to the Holocaust to the Kádár regime. Across the subjects, students weren’t always able to answer the teacher’s questions, but those questions served a purpose beyond the test itself. Some questions served to clarify or correct a detail; others challenged the students to explain the meanings and reasons behind the facts. All of this reminded me a little of my oral exams in graduate school; there, too, I found that I was learning something through the exam itself, through the exchange with the professors. But that was graduate school; I have never seen anything like this in high school in the U.S. (or even in college).

I forgot to mention that we dress up for their exams. The students wear white and black (shirts and suits), or white and blue, or their own class’s color combination. The teachers wear white and black, though not as strictly (and we all made some adjustments for the weather, since it was intensely hot). The oral exams as a whole begin and end with a ceremony: all the students in a row, facing all the students who will be examining them. They present flowers to the exam supervisor, who comes from the district. At the end, they receive their diplomas, certificates, and report cards and present flowers or chocolates to the teachers.

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Through these exams, through showing what they have learned and discussing all these topics with their teachers, the students cross over into another stage of life, which is why the bankett is so fitting. It’s a kind of recognition of each other and many things. We get to ask each other questions about life, studies, politics, future plans, cultures, languages, things that you have wanted to know about each other. We get to express appreciation that maybe didn’t find its way into words before. We get to laugh together.

I fear that my description was clumsy, but so is everything right now; I leave for the U.S. the day after tomorrow and will be there until early August. There is much to look forward to this summer and in the coming school year. As for this year, thanks to all the graduating seniors, their families, and their teachers for building this beautiful ending, which holds, transforms, and releases the years that came before.

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  1. Friendship and Place | Take Away the Takeaway
  2. The Ballagás That Wasn’t | Take Away the Takeaway
  3. Biking to Abony | Take Away the Takeaway

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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