8 years in a 150-year-old school

8 years in a 150-year-old school

BELGİN AKALTAN - belgin.akaltan@hdn.com.tr
8 years in a 150-year-old school

Hürriyet Photo

Robert College is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. I am proud to say that it was “my school,” although I am not so sure if the school was ever “proud” of me.

I fell in love with its garden first. I must have been 11 when I walked up the hill at Arnavutköy holding my father’s hand. I was there to sit the entrance exam. I was just out of elementary school and a friend of my father’s recommended this “American College for Girls.” We had not heard of it before. It was the first time that my father and I saw the school.

 We walked around the beautiful trees; I was astounded. I had never seen such a school before. I remember telling my mother how beautiful the garden was when we went back home. I did not know that there was such tough competition to get in there…

I scored well enough to be accepted, together with a few other good schools in Istanbul. My father told me it was up to me to choose which school. I chose RC because its garden was nice.

Why eight years? Because, in those days the school had two preparatory grades, three years of middle school (orta) and then three years of high school. It was a girls school when I started, then we became coed. In other words, the boys came to our campus causing mayhem… Just as in real life.

Yes, again, personal history. Believe me, I started writing about the current status of Turkey, titled “Where are you going, dear Turkey?” but then even I got bored after two paragraphs. Also, my husband protested after last week’s column. He said he does not want to see himself in my pieces; this was his genuine wish as a reader. (Yes, dear, sure…)

Well, I guess you wouldn’t expect me to thoroughly explain how, what and why RC is such a legendary high school. Yes it’s only a high school, but I guess it can easily compete with several universities…

This school is, has always been and will always be a very special school in many aspects. Engin Ardıç once wrote about Boğaziçi University, which is a diluted version of Robert College, in a brilliant article way back then in Nokta magazine (when there was no Internet, so I can’t give you a link to his article) in which he said: “We were actually living in a mini America – but we were not aware of it.”

Contemporary values

That was actually it. It was a mini America, the RC campus, providing us with equipment, the individualism, the tolerance and the contemporary values of the world that had not arrived on this side of the planet yet… This top-level educational atmosphere, the “normal relationship of teachers and students – not the authoritarian approach,” respect for students (yes, they cared about us), the latest technology, the latest equipment, freedom again and democracy… No I’m not exaggerating. I remember a teacher apologizing to me in front of the class.

Later in life, I hired several graduates of RC and in almost all of them, I saw the same defect: Difficulty in harmonizing with Turkish society; a deficiency that I also had to deal with all my life. Maybe a school should not be so perfect after all… Or maybe all high schools in Turkey should be made into imam hatips (religious vocational high schools)…

Turkey was not like today in those days. There was no TV, no automatic connection on phones, no taximeters… Of course no computers… International teachers had difficulty adapting. It was the 1970s…

That school prepared me for life, as it does all its graduates, equipping them with good language skills, a sound academic background, other opportunities, with confidence to make your own decisions in life…

The following is a big sentence to swallow, but I believe Turkey’s troubles would be gone if the Turkish education system could at least adopt 10 percent of what RC provides for its students.

Because the school is such a special one and its students are selected among the best of the best, the perception of the school is overmagnified in society. A friend of my sisters beat me in chess once. Well, yes, an ordinary event. But the guy started dancing when he learned that I was an RC graduate. He was singing “I beat an RC graduate in chess.” I mean, yes, that much…

I went to the Faculty of Political Science (Mülkiye) at Ankara University after RC. To make a good contrast.

American competitiveness

Now, I’m going back and forth in time but when our son was in high school, he was not doing well academically. We were not exerting any pressure on him but I was giving examples from my life, telling him that even though I was not a good student I was never a trouble for my parents (academically) and never failed.

Then, from an old box at home, I found some kind of an old document, a list that clearly stated I ranked around 148 in a class of 150 people. Ugh. The truth is bitter.

First, I decided to keep this to myself but then being who I am, I showed it to my son after making him promise not to use it against me. I told him I did not know I was this bad. Damn the competitive American system.

Anyway, success is a relative concept. What did I ever want to achieve in life? I wanted to be a happy person, have fun and enjoy life. (That I have achieved.) Be a good citizen. (That I have certainly achieved.) Then, if I have a child, try to make him/her happy. (That needs to be asked to our son – if he ever answers my calls, I will ask.) Professional: I really did not have any professional ambitions. Money to go round until the end of the month was enough for me – here my husband comes to our help…

We had good teachers, both Turkish and international. I had terrific classmates; I still see them; we meet regularly. I started counting them but then it would have been unfair to those left out. From our graduating class, there are medical doctors, professors, surgeons, company executives, a famous poet, a former top civil servant, a leading, opinion-forming journalist, a university rector, NGO activists, a member of Parliament, professors at U.S. universities, a gastronome/radio program host, a sculptress, successful businesspeople, entrepreneurs, those who married rich, an actress, terrific moms and dads whose children are very successful, an ambassador, internationally renowned economists, human rights activists, housing rights activists, bank executives, radical columnists, a few early deaths, retirees… And a few losers like me…

No wonder I graduated third from last. (But, as a happy girl…)