When I was a teenager, in Essex, in the mid-90s, parents nagged their kids about not doing enough revision and their kids rolled their eyes and stomped upstairs melodramatically. There was a very clear Rollenverteilung. One night, the night before my German GCSE oral examination, some very popular boys knocked for me, and so, even though officially I had an exam the next day, I went out to hang out with them. i.e. stand outside Londis, drinking cider. When my mum got in from work my stepdad told her where I was and she came marching down the road, grabbed me by the ear and pulled me home, forcibly.
“You are going to walk into the exam hall tomorrow and get the shock of your life!” She shouted.
“It’s an oral,” I said. “They do them in normal classrooms.”
“You’ll walk in smiling – and then that smile will be wiped off your face quick-smart. And then do you think I’ll be there to pick up the pieces? I will not! I will be there to say I told you so, young lady. I. Told. You. So.”
I spent my teenage years being nagged by my mum for being a loser, and my adult years being nagged by my son for being a loser
I’d like to say that I replied Chill dein Leben but I didn’t because a) people weren’t saying it yet and b) all you learnt to say for German GCSE was Bockwurst, Bratwurst and Currywurt and wie komme ich am besten zum Schwimmbad.
Now I am the mother of a teenager, in Berlin, in 2022, and oh my, how the turntables have turned!
“So, you have your philosophy presentation tomorrow, right?”
“And when’s the exam?”
My son’s face turns to stone. Cold, grey, stone. Actually, no, marble.
“What?” he says. He pronounces the t on “what” more clearly and carefully than I have ever pronounced the letter t in my whole life.
“Well, if the presentation’s tomorrow, when’s the exam?” I ask politely.
He looks at me as if I have just asked him if he wants to have a lump of shit on toast for breakfast – or maybe even to do the washing up.
“What?” he repeats.
I look at him politely. I know I’ve fucked up.
“I DON’T HAVE AN EXAM FOR PHILOSOPHY! JUST THE PRESENTATION! THIS ISN’T HARD! IF YOU STOPPED POSTING ABOUT AMBER HEARD ON FACEBOOK YOUR WHOLE LIFE MAYBE YOU WOULD HAVE SPACE IN YOU BRAIN TO REMEMBER WHAT EXAMS I HAVE!”
So, the exams they do for Abitur – German A-levels – are called PKs. They do five of them but weirdly, they’re like not in the right order? I know, it’s mad. Your fifth PK is actually your third or something, and apparently your mum should know this, and if she doesn’t, it’s because she’s a bad mum and a terrible person. Now, the thing is, I know that an LEK, which are the exams they do during the whole of their school career, stands for Lernerfolgskontrolle or something like that. I have no idea what PK stands for? I always thought it stood for Pressekonferenz – press conference. But I can’t ask my son what it stands for now, he’ll bite my head off. I’ll just have to die not knowing.
Sometimes it just seems really unfair. To be honest, I spent my teenage years being nagged by my mum for being a loser, and my adult years being nagged by my son for being a loser – but when I complain to German mum-friends they are always (AND I MEAN ALWAYS) on his side. “It must really hurt his feelings,” they say. “If you can’t even remember which exams he has! The difference between a presentation and an exam! When his fifth PK is! No wonder he gets so angry!”
Anyway, good luck to all German kids who are about to sit their exams – remember, grades don’t actually mean anything! But don’t tell my son I said so.
Jacinta Nandi’s survival guide Wtf Berlin: Expatsplaining the German Capital is out now from Satyr.