The End of the Tunnel

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.

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

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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

Third Choice

To this day, I can’t remember why, after clearing, I ended up in the university which interviewed me over the phone rather than the one which interviewed me in person.

Perhaps it was a wrong number that started it; the wrong number of marks in my exams. Now Sheffield University didn’t want me after all.

Colchester had a course I really fancied; but it was so far to the east as to be almost in Belgium. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere so flat that you could see your enemies coming for miles and worry, having lived most my life in the hilly west, where you can hide from your enemies and then ambush them. So I spoke on the phone to the cheerful lady at Chichester and a couple of months later, headed south; east, but south-east, and still technically west, if only in Sussex terms. It was not flat either, although history suggests the downs and hollows weren’t much use for hiding, over-run as the area has been by Romans, then Saxons, then Normans, then Londoners.

Two weeks in, I wrote letters to my grandmothers, forgetting the first time, caught up in the newness and excitement of living away from home, and also the lonely longing for a loving familiarity to connect with, yes, forgetting the first time, that the one who was always proud of me had died two years earlier and the sudden recollection made me cry. I wrote hopefully to my beloved and cheerily to my parents and probably to my younger sister, the usurper of parental attention.

Beyond the nestling college were fields and beyond that the city. A Cathedral city, bijou and full of tea-shops. If I had got into Sheffield, I’d have been in a proper metropolis with lowering buildings, sprawling development and the constant movement of faceless strangers. Perhaps I’d have felt lost. Perhaps my little college in its little circular city, still bound by Roman walls in places, its central roads still marking a cross by the Cathedral, an easy stride from halls to the railway station, was just perfect for me. A nest for a country mouse.

I was entitled to lunch and dinner in the refectory where meals were served at set times, with grace given by the Dean at the start. The food was, in the main, pretty good, I recall with vegetarian options I’d never tried: mushroom stroganoff, ragu pomodoro and bean casserole. But I eschewed them in the main, growing thin on soup and biscuits instead, rather than face the faces I feared would turn and stare at me.

I was very lonely that first year, not finding my life-long friends till the following September; so I sat in my room a lot, listening to the radio, writing stories and poems which now make no sense. I can still see the room where I wrote them in silence, isolated and shy, first looking out of the window at Autumn leaves and then Spring snowdrops and finally hail brought by June heat to smash the roof of the greenhouse on the other side of the path.

I can see the room but not myself, not really. I read over those old stories, full of hyperbole meant to be enigmatic and actually obscure, and wonder about the serious girl who wrote them and what she really thought she was trying to say. As for the poems, well, the torture of first love, the agonies of teaching your parents to let go – they are all there, but generally, there ought to be a law against people in their late teens and early twenties writing poetry, unless of course they’re Keats.

On Monday evenings, I went to Compline at the college chapel. I wasn’t familiar with the service, coming from a non-conformist background, but the soft, late night liturgy was like cocoa for the spirit, calming and reassuring. There was nothing for me to do but absorb the comforting words: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end…From all ill dreams defend our eyes, from nightly fears and fantasies. Tread underfoot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know.” Solaced and warm with the comfort of faith, I walked back to my room and slept without the nightmares which otherwise plagued me.

In lectures, I learnt about literature. The main thing I learnt was that I didn’t like studying it, I just wanted to write it. My tutor tried to encourage us to produce flash fiction. The Odyssey in fifty words? Ridiculous. Having been asked the previous term to write epic poetry, the leap from verbosity to brevity was impossible to execute.

What else did I learn? Friendship, how to cook using two gas rings only, hand washing, photography, late night debating, how to start to break down my own protective walls and venture out.

What didn’t I learn? I didn’t learn teamwork then, or compromise or how to recognise the grey fuzzy edges of my opinions, thinking myself a failure if I didn’t stick rigidly to my views, rather than realise that maybe life is just not that black and white. I certainly didn’t learn common sense, leaving with a degree and no idea what to do next.

The subsequent drift is a whole other story.

Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing now if, in the sixth form, I’d concentrated on my A levels instead of on my heart, first full, then broken. Maybe, if I’d got into Sheffield, I’d have ended up in a different career, maybe become famous, maybe rich or influential. Or maybe not. The course I’d originally chosen made sense at the time, but thinking about it now, it’s hard to dredge out from my memory what I thought I was actually going to do with that Ancient Norse and Anglo Saxon.

So here is where I am.  After all, as they say, the choices I made, in the end made me and the path I didn’t mean to take, took me to the right place anyway.

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(This was written after a prompt to write something including 13 words and one phrase.  I meant to write a story but this came out instead.  I may still write the story, so I’m not going to say what the 13 word and one phrase were!)

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission