Rites of passage: we’ve had a few recently. First, my younger child reached sixteen years of age. My older child is preparing for university. Last week, my naughty little sister reached a significant birthday (although she will always be nine years old to me). And today while my daughter and all English and Welsh students of her age start their GCSEs, my son and his English and Welsh peers start their A levels.
Exams. You either enjoy the frisson of them or you loathe them.
I recall the desks lined up with rigid precision in the gym. The windows were open to let in some air and perhaps dispel the underlying gym-smell of sweat and the overlying examinee-smell of fear. I remember dark green trees on the left side and the open expanse of the yard on the right as we laid out our weapons: pens, pencils, geometry sets, lucky objects etc. My over-dramatic friend performed for that day’s Oscar by pretending to pray to the heavens and cross herself (despite not being Catholic). My other friends just mouthed ‘good luck’. During the exam the slow silence was marked only by the slow tread of the invigilator walking up and down in time to passing seconds, tick tick tick. My pen exploded during one exam; my Geography teacher nearly wept when I told him I’d said the lake in question 2 was Erie when it was Michigan. That is the most excitement I recall. My O levels (GCSE equivalents) took place during two weeks in June. Once the exams were over, I was a free agent until September.
Before the exams, I revised. Well OK, I made a revision timetable. It was very pretty. I worked out mnemonics for history, one of which I can still recall, GRASP to remind me of Hitler’s rise to power. G(ermany) gaining political control thereof; R(e-arming) Germany without any of the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles noticing; A(ustria) gaining political control thereof; S(udetenland) annexation thereof; P(oland) invasion thereof. If the exam had only covered that I would have been fine. Unfortunately it covered the period 1870-1953. I did all this and then fell asleep. It was a good sleep but I did only get a C for History. To my astonishment I also got a C for Physics perhaps because I could remember formulae.
Still, that was then. Apart from work already finished for the exams (art and drama for example) my poor daughter and pals have exams stretching from today until the end of June, six weeks. She had been revising hard and I applaud the teachers who gave up holidays and weekends to help the students prepare.
My sister’s birthday party was on Saturday. Afterwards, my husband, daughter and I retreated to our hotel for the night to watch the end of the Eurovision Song Contest and digest the festive food and drink. My daughter asked if we could test her on history and belief & ethics. It was somewhat surreal to sit in a strange room watching a yodeller from Romania and listen to my daughter going through the definition of voluntary euthanasia and the causes and effects of the Vietnam war when I just wanted to doze off. Or perhaps I just ate too much cheese and am imagining it.
Exams feel like the end of an era and the start of a new one. In a way they are. They mark a point in time when you are tested about things you may never ever need to recall again and they tend to coincide with moments when you and your friends may take different paths. The results will make you rejoice, grimace or cry. You think they will define your whole future. In some ways they do of course. You may not get the results you need and will have to alter your plans. You may do better than you thought and change your mind about your future.
If you are sitting exams right now and you’re in despair, try to take a breath and give yourself a break.
You are a wonderful being.
You will never be defined by your grades, they will be part of who you are but not the whole. You may go down the path you planned and be happy but you could go down a different path and be happy. Sometimes the path you plan is not the right one and you won’t know until you step down another.
Speaking for myself, I didn’t get the grades I could have if I’d spent more time revising and less time making a revision timetable. I was disappointed in myself, but the world did not end. The adult me looks back and tells the teenage me to make different choices. I tell my teenage children to learn from my mistakes, but they’re teenagers and I’m an adult. What do I know? They have their own triumphs and mistakes to make. And despite my original disappointment, I’m happy with where I’ve ended up.
It is what I learnt after school and college: teamwork, humility, compromise, humour which have given me the ability to pick up the pieces, to accept things and move on regardless, even when the path planned had a diversion sign across it and I had to travel by a different way.
The best advice a teacher ever gave me was to focus on the point beyond the end of the exams. It will come and it will come sooner than you thought. And then you can step towards the next adventure and you can triumph because you are full of potential. No-one else can offer what you can.
I wish everyone well during the exams but if it all seems too much, here are some helplines which may assist.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission