Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Fork in the Road

on May 9, 2017

As 1973 rolled into a hot dusty summer, my GCE test scores came out: I now had passed 9 “O” level subjects and 1 “A” level subject and was eligible for university. My father decided to enroll Saadia and me in the University of Jordan while I felt uneasy about it. I had barely turned 16 in June and had I stayed in the French education system, I would still have two years of study ahead of me before high school graduation. Looking for help, I wrote a letter to my old French teacher from Noyer-Durand — and that took some tracking down since she had tra

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

nsferred to another school — and she advised me to sign up with the CNTE (Centre National de Télé-enseignement). Both Saadia and I did so immediately.

At the same time, my father took us to the U of J to register us. The only two choices that taught all courses in English were the English Department and the Faculty of Science. Naturally, as an Asian, we had to select Science. But the snag was that they required two “A” level science subjects for admission, while we only had one subject, which was French literature. So, we were accepted as “special students” pending our getting one more GCE “A” level science or math subject. We looked over the list of possible “A” level subjects and opted for Applied Math. As “special students”, we were allowed only three courses per semester, and a transcript afterwards. Saadia picked Biology 101, Math 101 and Chemistry 101. I also chose Math and Chemistry but took Physics 101 as my third choice. We planned to take the other missing courses during the summer. Then we ordered the books necessary for studying Applied Math on our own.

When I wrote “The Fork in the Road” as the title for this entry, I was inwardly laughing. So we had two choices: complete our education in the French system, or move on to university with a British education. We did not select either, but both. I can imagine myself walking with one foot on each path, and as these paths start diverging, I eventually had to lift one foot and fall onto just one of the two choices.


In 1979, the CNTE became the Centre national d’enseignement par correspondance (CNEC), then changed name again in 1986 to Centre national d’enseignement à distance (CNED).

We spent the summer having fun with friends, learning Chinese folk dances with Anney Ku who was visiting from Saudi Arabia, and bowling our hearts out. As September dawned, our packets from the CNTE arrived, and we started taking the service and city bus daily to the U of J which was located outside town. So we immersed ourselves into the world of study, juggling all the work we had brought upon ourselves. I enjoyed Math and Chemistry, but since I only had one year of Physics in Taipei, I struggled in the Physics 101 class. Saadia and I both loved our Math professor and we decided to ask her to tutor us for Applied Math which, we had found out, was beyond self-teaching. She was flabbergasted when we told her why we needed that extra A level. She explained that British universities required indeed two A levels for university entrance, but these being equivalent to what here were first year courses, a bachelor degree at British universities only took three years to complete. Therefore, the U of J had placed its own bar above that of British universities. She told us that since we scored at the top of our class of over 200 students — indeed Saadia led her Biology class with a 98% in the first test while I did so in Chemistry with a 96% in mine– we should write a petition to the council of deans to convert our status to “regular students” without the need for that extra A level. We loved the advice and consequently submitted our petition.

French high school studies was great in all subjects except in Math and German. I had taken a couple of courses at the Goethe Institute but this was fourth-year German and studying it meant spending most of my time flipping through the dictionary. Math was a foreign language in itself. I had no idea what they were talking about. I figured that since the last math I took in Paris was called the “New Math”, this must be more of the same. English (yes, we had to take two foreign languages) was a breeze since I’d just come through Shakespeare, Tennyson and Jane Austen. Indeed, I remember clearly our first assignment: the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice; and the next one, an excerpt from Three Men in a Boat, which I promptly went on to borrow from the British Council library.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

That year, Ramadan, our holy month of fasting, started on September 28. My long-standing health problems make fasting particularly difficult for me as I become thirsty very quickly. We went on struggling with our two-pronged studies when suddenly on October 6, the Syrian and Egyptian military forces attacked Israel.  One direct result was the shutting down of the post office. And this in turn directly resulted in our being unable to continue with our correspondence course with the CNTE. We had been receiving weekly printed handouts for the first four weeks and were supposed to switch to textbooks thereafter. The textbooks never arrived, so we were unable to do our assignments. Moreover, we could not mail out any homework or test anymore. I must confess that I breathed a sigh of relief. We now only needed to concentrate on our university courses.

Although the war was over as suddenly as it had started, the post office did not resume regular service until January. By June 1974, our textbooks finally arrived. So did a letter notifying us of our having failed the year since we had not been submitting assignments.  On the other hand, the Council of Deans finally approved our petition, while we failed the GCE A level Applied Math exam which we had registered for but not studied at all. In the summer of 1974, Saadia and I took the missing classes from our first two semesters and became regular students the following autumn.

This is how I entered university at 16, despite my best efforts not to.

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