This must be the flat building they wrote about. A few sad plants, chairs, tables, an older television set, travel typewriters. This seems more like a training centre for door-to-door salespeople. But we’re here to learn how to print, not to press. Or at least something like it. It’s the day of the entrance exam, and the competition doesn’t look much smarter than me.
Picture test, questionnaire, short article. There will be points awarded for each. A nice and knowledgeable gentleman has explained it all. Now, for the picture test, we are led past a series of news photos. In addition, questions are posed. “What do you see here?” a blond lady named Hruska asks me. I don’t know, I think and feel like I’m doing the Rorschach test. “A dark spot with a hundred on it,” I answer truthfully. “A little more exact”, says Ms. Hruska. I don’t know any more details. She whispers: “Hundredth birthday of the Ei…” “…ffel Tower,” I add with caution. She graciously makes a mark on my list. Her good-naturedness has its limits, however, so I don’t count on more than nine or ten points afterwards.
I answer the questionnaire so quickly that I have forgotten it only three minutes later.
Then the short article. We are shown a television film about how the Budapest population deals with the market economy. We are supposed to convert it into a newspaper story. Unfortunately, I’ve been assigned a typewriter from the days of the founders. The “a” is stuck and my periods and commas punch holes in the paper. When I am finished, my little report looks as if a Mafia killer had drawn up his tax return with a machine gun. Back home, at Westdeutsche Zeitung, I wouldn’t be allowed to do submit something like this. In the evening, I get drunk and fall into a dreamless sleep. The hearing in front of the jury is for the next day.
The Sex Pistols are overrated
Let’s see who sits on this examination board. There’s a list on the door:
Udo Flade, Abendzeitung. I don’t know him.
Adolf Althen, BR. Bavarian radio, aha.
Elisabeth Bär, Burda. Never heard of her.
Karl Forster, SZ. I’ve read his name before.
Jürgen Frohner, DJS. That’s the man who gave the speech the day before.
Dr. L. Maaßen, BR training. Unknown to me.
Mercedes Riederer, DJS. A lady who was also present at the test.
Alexander v. Sobeck, ZDF. Hurrah, I’ve seen him on television.
Actually, I had expected more celebrities, like Günther Jauch or Hellmut Karasek. Well, so be it. A little later, I sit in front of the ladies and gentlemen. There is an identification number on my jacket; I have drawn number 13 and it doesn’t bring me any luck. How would I assess the importance of the Sex Pistols for Punk in general, a small man with a mighty moustache wants to know. It’s Mr. Forster. Good topic, I find, and launch into a lengthy lecture about Malcolm McLaren. I digress a little and talk about Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants, then add a few thoughts on the solo projects of Malcolm McLaren. After about five minutes I let my gaze wander around the room. Mr. Flade and Mr. Althen seem to have dozed off, Mr. Maaßen and Ms. Riederer take notes, Ms. Bär and Mr. Frohner smile at me, Mr. v. Sobeck stares at me and Mr. Forster says in a friendly tone: “Actually I just wanted to know how important you think the Sex Pistols are”. The man knows what he wants, I think and say: “I think they are musically overrated. The Clash were more important.” That answer would obviously have done it. A few weeks later I receive a thin letter with the brief news that I have unfortunately not been accepted. Lesson from Round One: Don’t talk too much.
This time I decide to hedge my bets and also apply to journalism school in Hamburg. I write a story for each school as well as an opinion piece for Hamburg. A few weeks later, two thin letters reach me with the brief news that I am unfortunately not admitted to the further examination.
Lesson from Round Two: Concentrate on one exam, otherwise you won’t pass either.
Of course I don’t ask myself if I should rather study something else. I have never had another career wish apart from journalism, and I am far too inflexible to want to become a professional footballer or surgeon at this stage. Besides, I am too old for that. I rehearse a sporty, casual appearance for future encounters with the jury and apply again. Business as usual.
With a furious piece about the decline of the West German construction industry, I have torn down the hurdles to the entrance examination and once again face the flat building. I have read a lot of newspapers, watched the news and consumed all political magazines of the past half year. I know all the prime ministers and parliamentary leaders. I know the names of all European heads of state and, to be convincing, I’ve acquired the life experience of a Swedish nobel winner in literature with a world war trauma.
With my face clenched to a fist I tackle the picture test, which this time around is projected onto the wall. We see an emaciated guy in a muscle shirt. My questionnaire says: “He was one of the best in his field and died of AIDS. His name?” The girl next to me writes “Freddie Mercury”. Bad luck, baby, I think, because the man in the picture is Rudolf Nureyev. The questionnaire is not a real problem either. They ask about Wolfgang Joop, Kurt Masur and when the next Olympic Winter Games will take place in Lillehammer, Sweden. I write down 1994, but miss the fact that Lillehammer is in Norway. The correct answer would have been “never”, a cocky high school graduate explains to me. Before I get to the point of beating up the little boaster, we are called in to write our story. Next to me, a girl starts crying and leaves the exam. I don’t have time for pity, because I have to write a highly explosive article about the lack of hygiene in German hospitals. It’s about an evil germ called Pseudomonas Aeriginosa, which lives in almost all drains.
The panel of judges the next day is slightly changed. This time I want to do everything right and have carved a friendly smile into my face. I won’t let anything upset me. And then, a girl with a titled name sits next to me, bringing down my good resolutions. Even before the commission asks the first question, she points out that she bought herself an expensive pair of shoes for the occasion and that this is why she should be admitted. She wears bright red patent shoes with high heels. My Kennedy smile can’t compete with that.
To her left sits a guy who stated in his previously submitted CV that he unveiled a building scandal in his hometown. What this scandal consisted of, he has unfortunately forgotten. I realise that I cannot beat these applicants and make myself invisible. Not a single question is put to me, not even the classic: “Why do you want to become a journalist?” After the exam I have dinner with the titled girl. She orders half a litre of milk with her salad and tells me that she always has to drink milk with her food because she has a piece of intestine in her throat. “Excuse me?” “As a child I drank Domestos and burned my esophagus. They took a piece of intestine out of my stomach and sewed it into my throat. Now I am missing a muscle and I always need something slimy to eat so that it slips better.” She should have told that to the jury. A few weeks later I receive a thin letter with the brief news that I have unfortunately not been accepted. Lesson from Round Three. Do not just smile, show your teeth as well. And don’t cheat on your CV.
Everybody knows me. It feels completely different from the first round. Mr Frohner asks me how many times I have been there. We discuss my professional progress in the past two years and chat quite nicely. “I wish you good luck,” says Frohner. I have the same name tag as last year. They probably counted on me coming back.
Picture test and questionnaire pass me by. I do not estimate points in my mind anymore. This time all I’m here for is sportsmanship. It doesn’t matter to me whether they accept me or not. Actually, I only wanted to enter because I enjoy the story competition. This time it was about funeral homes. And if I don’t make it now, they’ll have to get along without me. It’s my own fault.
That’s probably why the exam is easier for me. During the writing exercise, there’s another incident. An applicant is disqualified. He recorded the TV report about the legacy of the car industry with his Walkman and played it over and over again via headphones. His neighbour ratted him out. Frohner kicks the botcher out and I hurry to hide away my high-tech micro-video equipment with which I projected the film again and again on the inside of my glasses.
This time the weekend is much nicer than during previous exams. With a friend I row across Kleinhesseloher lake and later we go to a party.
The next day, during the conversation with the jury, a super nervous boy sits beside me. He has to answer the classic question and makes a beginner’s mistake: “The famous journalist Egon Erwin Kisch once said,” he begins his answer and then quotes the famous journalist Egon Erwin Kisch. Promptly it comes from across the room: “Have you memorized any other quotation from Egon Erwin Kisch?” “Uh, no,” says the boy and gets a fiery red face.
On the left sits a militant anti-abortionist who writes commentary on infanticide for a Catholic youth newspaper. Once she has really talked herself into a rage, she is interrupted. One of the examiners wants to know from me how I feel about this topic. I say that everyone has a right to make mistakes, including the Catholic Church. I can’t think of anything smarter right now. A few weeks later I receive a thick letter informing me that I have been accepted. To this day I do not know why, and I don’t care. But three-and-a-half years later, I got married to the acquaintance with whom I went boating in the English Garden.
Thank you, dear DJS, for that weekend.