Like the families of most civil servants in Turkey, we moved from place to place depending on where the government posted my father. During my early childhood we lived in Afyon, with summers spent in Simav. When my brother, Yavuz, was born a couple of years later we became a family of five, including my father’s mother, Emine, who lived with us from then on.
I started elementary school in Afyon, at a school that was located next door to our house. I was not quite six, but they allowed me to attend first grade. (Elementary school start age was seven back then. My dad must have pulled some strings:) Unfortunately, I could not find any photos from those years.
When I was in third grade my father was posted to the high school that had just been started in Urfa, in southeast Turkey, just across from the Syrian border. This was a promotion for him, as he had been vice principal in Afyon and became principal in Urfa. We were quite nervous about going to Urfa. For one, it was about 1,000 km away from Afyon (and a bit longer from Simav) and the only way you could get there was by train connecting to a bus. The train would take us up to Gaziantep, where we would take a bus to reach the Eufreates River, cross the river on barges (there was no bridge then), and board the connecting bus on the other side in Birecik. Second, Urfa was culturally so different from western Turkey we were accustomed to that we were not sure how we would be able to adapt. It was also much warmer (and drier) than the more temperate climate of Afyon.
It did not take long for us to adapt to the conditions in Urfa. Initially we lived in a house with a courtyard and rooms around it. Later we moved to the principal’s quarters that had been built as part of the new high school. We learned to knock our slippers before wearing them (in case there is a scorpion inside), sleep outside in the courtyard when the weather got hot, made friends with children with Arabic or Kurdish backgrounds, witnessed deadly “blood feuds” between families, etc. We were able to make the long journeys to Simav during the summers, where my brother and I told stories from Urfa, with our audiences listening with wide open eyes and amazed look on their faces.
I finished elementary school in Urfa (Şair Nabi İlkokulu) and started middle school which was part of father’s high school. During our fourth year in Urfa dad got transferred to Isparta as the principal of the only high school in the province. This was in the middle of my second year in middle school.
We needed little adjustment to Isparta as this town was much like the ones we had been to in Western Turkey. We lived in a house not too far from the high school (also including middle school). As the city was small (population about 25,000 then) all students walked home for lunch. It was renowned for its rose gardens and the rose oil factory that extracted the essence prom the petals. In May the whole town smelled roses. It had also made a name for itself in rug weaving.
I was a good student. Like in the middle school in Urfa I studied hard in order to erase any suspicion of favoritism by my teachers because I was the principal’s son. My weakest subject was PE (I had a hard time doing a simple somersault). But I had 10s or 9s on all other courses (grading was from 0 to 10, with 5 as the passing grade). I was also active in a number of school events. Most often I would be asked to recite a poem or speak in front of an audience. In those occasions I made sure I memorized everything well to overcome my nerves. In retrospect, these tension-filled events were great learning opportunities.
I was 13 when I finished middle school (and my brother finished elementary school). During the summer my father learned that a private school in Istanbul was offering scholarships to five “students from Anatolia” (the Asian part of Turkey). (This was like the Green Card Lottery of the USA to increase diversity, as the school catered mostly to children of families that could afford the high tuition fees.) To be eligible one needed to be among the top two finishers of middle school in a province. I happened to be #2 in Isparta based on my grade point average. The school was called Robert College, an American school for boys founded in 1863. I had never heard of the school, but the idea of living in Istanbul was so enticing that I urged my father to help in having my name sent. This was done through the provincial education directorate which certified my standing among the graduates of middle schools in the province.
Dad and I went to Istanbul (24 hour train ride). Before the exam we went to see the school, located on the Bosphorus in Bebek, introduced ourselves and got information about the next day’s exam. The campus looked beautiful. Having learned that over 100 students would be taking the test (there were 67 provinces in Turkey, then), I knew my chances were low to had low to be among the few to be awarded scholarship to this school.
The day of the exam dad and I made sure we were there early. I only knew two people among the crowd of students and parents, my classmate Celal and his dad. He and I chatted a bit before the exam, which lasted the whole day. We had never been exposed to multiple choice tests. If I remember correctly, we had an aptitude, a quantitative and a social studies test and a written composition. Both Celal and I were dazed at the end. When dad asked me I did, I replied that I had no idea. We left the next morning for Isparta and I registered to attend our local high school.
After school started, one day when I was going home for lunch I ran into one of my dad’s friends who stopped to congratulate me. He had seen my name in the newspaper among the five winners of the Robert College scholarships. I was elated, as were my parents and brother. The same day we received a telegram inviting me to join the school a.s.a.p. Thus started my journey to independence and exposure to English language and American Culture.