Throughout the whole term-time, you work hard to succeed on the tests, and even then, you have to sit there in the exam period, bent over books… At some universities it’s the term-time that’s tough, at others, it’s the exam period – for us, it’s both. Yet somehow, when medical students talk to their friends who go to different unis, or their relatives, they can hardly imagine what can possible be so overwhelming.
The protagonists of the following stories know exactly what it’s like to study hard, and they do justice to our perilous souls when we need a little empathy.
Ferrante, Elena: Neapolitan Novels
Lenu and Lila are best friends – they grew up in the outskirts of Naples, they are poor, but smart, and they both want to escape from poverty. Lenu considers Lila to be smarter than her, yet Lenu is the one who’s given the chance to attend high school, later university – Lila’s parents don’t allow her to go.
We could say, for this reason, Lenu is more successful than Lila, however, their rivalry and Lenu’s feeling of inferiority causes her to be jealous of her friend’s life. She feels that Lila’s life is changing dynamically, spinning constantly, while she’s just sitting over books. Studying hard throughout the year consumes all her time and energy, and separates her from her friend for longer periods of time – this also adds to her fantasies about Lila’a life being more colorful.
“Although I imposed on myself an appearance of self-assurance and an iron discipline, I gave in continuously, with painful pleasure, to waves of unhappiness. Everything seemed to be against me. At school I couldn’t get the grades I used to, even though I had begun to study again. The days passed without even a moment during which I felt alive.”
“For the first time, I skipped school. I was absent, I think, for some two weeks, and not even to Antonio did I say that I couldn’t stand it anymore, I wanted to stop.”
In order to be a part of the upper-class intellectuals, Elena feels the need to obtain a rather diverse intellect: she starts to learn Latin, literature, dives into sociology and politics. She reads newspapers and at the same time, she learns from them – she absorbs different approaches and perspectives to meet the standards of different boys, her teachers and her sister-in-law. Yet, she feels like she could never leave behind her roots, the neighborhood she came from, she feels like she could never learn enough and that others will always know more than she does.
Two different periods keep alternating in her life: one filled with motivation and hard work, the other filled with desperation, where she feels like studying eviscerates her and she can’t move forward. That she pours all her time and her youth into a bottomless pit, while others get married, buy their own houses and have children. At this point, there’s a clear separation between Lila’s and Lenu’s course of life: Lila gets married and starts a job, while Lenu is sent to university right after high school.
“Then I forgot about it, taken up by other problems: the bookstore, school, the class interrogations, the textbooks. Some I bought, most I stole from the bookstore without too many scruples. I began studying rigorously again, mainly at night. In the afternoon, in fact, until Christmas vacation, when I quit, I was busy at the bookstore. And right after that Professor Galiani herself arranged a couple of private pupils for me, and I worked hard for them. Between school, lessons, and study, there was no room for anything else.”
All that hard work bore fruit, but anybody can see that studying in itself doesn’t make you happy. Nobody can be happy if they study from dusk to dawn every day, and doesn’t have time for anything else – we know this from experience. Especially, if one loses touch with their friends, without receiving any feedback. Generally speaking, Elena was a good student, but she had a year, when, despite all her hard work, she couldn’t reach the desired results, which had made studying an even bigger torture for her.
For those, who are interested in the story, but feel like they can’t read another letter because of all the studying, the first book of the Neapolitan Novels was turned into a TV show titled My Brilliant Friend.
Poutanen, Kira: The Wonderful Sea (Ihana Meri)
In her diary, 15-year-old Julia tells the story of her everyday life, her family, school, what it’s like to run in snow, to wake up in the middle of the night to do another round of sit-ups, to spit out sugar buns, to memorize Swedish words or to tolerate the smell of hair spray in the girls’ locker room.
Julia is in high school, and is anorexic. The teachers are scaring them, saying that their pace at the time was not enough, that they have to study more, that they are not kids anymore, and they can’t eat that many sweets from now on. She wakes up very early in the morning just to get to school on time, and she spends the whole winter break studying just to finish every task they were given in school.
Her friends and classmates are pushing each other in studying and in their diets as well – “what did you write there, because I wrote this and that, wow, this was so easy, wasn’t it, how can I be this fat, look at her waist, so thin!”
A little, blue hell. The stress, the lack of communication with her parents, her future – she doesn’t want to work and to run a household; she doesn’t want to cook all day just so that everything she made disappears in 10 minutes, and she doesn’t want it to be evident that she, being a lady, would serve the others – led to her eating disorder, her anorexia. We, the readers can see the signs throughout her diary, but it is heartbreaking to witness how late the people around her notice them.
And of course, studying. There’s no better way of describing what it is like to attend high school than the way Kira Poutanen did: to memorize unnecessary details, to constantly prepare for tests and pop quizzes, to be nervous about the results of a simple vocabulary test, to wake up early in the morning, to take the late afternoon bus home, and to change clothes in a tiny locker room along with everybody else.
It is painful to read all this, but we can empathize with Julia, and it feels good to know that we are not the only ones suffering. Moreover, we can also draw strength from the fact, that we’ve been there, done that, we don’t have memorize these kinds of things. It is salute to the work of the youth, and a bit of a reminder of what studying is like for teenagers.
Frank, Anne: The Diary of a Young Girl
Now that we are feeling sufficiently sorry for ourselves, and for anyone, who was ever damned to memorize at least one collocation, let’s look at the bright side. Studying in itself is a productive, positive thing, that helps the individual as well as society to move forward, and is something you can do with joy – Anne Frank is the perfect example for that.
Anne lived in complete isolation with her family for two years – both of which she spent studying, so that she wouldn’t drop behind her peers, and also to make herself useful. This was her window to the world – for her, this new knowledge was like the fresh air she couldn’t breathe in. True enough, she herself chose the study material, and, apart from algebra, she really only did study things that caught her interest, and since she didn’t have to prepare for any exams either, studying wasn’t the primary source of her stress – for us, that might be a little different.
In the entry she wrote on May 16, 1944, she listed what the members of the Annex Family were studying. Her older sister, Margot decided to do most courses, but here’s what Anne chose:
“Anne Frank. Shorthand in French, English, German and Dutch, geometry, algebra, history, geography, art history, mythology, biology, Bible history, Dutch literature; likes to read biographies, dull or exciting, and history books (sometimes novels and light reading).”
Reading Anne’s diary, we can look into another young girl’s mind, we’re there with her through her adolescence – setting history and their tragic situation aside, it is still a good read. We can witness her problematic relationship with her parents, how she separates herself from them, how she deals with confinement, but we can also read about her first love and her ambitions. She wanted to travel, to write, to learn even more – no matter the amount of stress it causes us, we can still be grateful for even getting the opportunity, even if it is not much of a consolation in tough situations.