Exam Season, With a Pinch of Salt
MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
My students are highlighting their calendars, and my colleagues are swamped with marking. Deep breaths, all round. Remember to eat, drink, move the body. Try this short Self-Compassion First Response practice, as many times as you need.
On the other side is Christmas.
Exam Season, With a Pinch of Salt
I – You Are Not a Script
In my dream, I am sitting in the classroom where I turned twelve, and they are handing out empty script booklets for the exam. It was always pressed upon us that the paper we were given had to be free from other writing. Any booklet that had somehow already been used, even if just a sentence, a scribble, had to be returned. Our examination answers must be free from influence.
In my dream, they keep giving me paper with other people’s handwriting on it, and I keep giving it back, and I keep not being able to start my exam. The time is ticking, and everyone else is writing, and I grow increasingly frantic. All I want in the world is to be able to do my exam, but I can’t. I know, in the midst of my dream, that even though it is they who keep giving me the wrong paper, the consequences will be all mine.
We begin exams when we are little: times tables, spelling tests. In my day there were SATs, then secondary school entrance. End of year exams. Music theory tests. In England, GCSEs. The exam calendar came around mercilessly. Today, even remembering what we’d do to the desks each summer – split them up in rows of one, from their ordinarily convivial twos and threes – brings me out in a mild sweat. We dreamed up ingenious ways to cheat, pre-smartphone, but were always too scared to follow through.
Each time we sat exams, we learned a little more thoroughly that they were the most important thing in the world. To do badly on an exam was a source of shame. Not to be able to do it at all – panic, lack of preparation – was unthinkable. We learned to long for and fear exams in equal measure: we longed for them because they would, finally, prove our worth; we feared them because we might discover that we were unworthy.
Unworthy, in the eyes of who?
As we grew older, that was the question that began to whisper in our ears as we sat down dutifully to our mocks, our A Levels, our termly exams at university; as we wrote down our candidate numbers and filled the empty script booklets, exhausted ballpoint after ballpoint. We wanted to be there, of course we did, to prove ourselves. And we also didn’t want to be there, because regardless of what they said, it wasn’t just us and our ideas sitting in that exam room. Others kept following us in. We kept bumping up against the scripts that they had written.
And so, although we didn’t know it, every exam became a battleground of will: of frustration and shame, wanting and fearing. The problem is that what gets lost in battlegrounds is everything that makes life worth living.
As we got older, we sat fewer exams. In the spaces between them, as the old scripts began to fall away, we discovered what they were really for. They were never meant to be the most important thing in the world. They were meant to be moments in time that punctuated seasons of curiosity, joy, discovery. In those seasons, we grew like trees grow: soaking up whatever soil was at our feet, in whatever directions the wind took us. Layer by layer we became more solid; shaped by rain and gale, we were perfectly imperfect. We became miraculous fractals of fact and theory, insight and imagination. When the time came and we entered the exam room, we opened the windows wide, looked at the script booklets they offered, and said, ‘I brought my own.’
II – Recipe for Dark Moments
In the middle of the night, or the morning before, or the second side of the question paper, when you are convinced that your world is ending, try this:
A base, like your onion, carrot, and celery, of feel your feet on the floor. Exams are moments in time that come and go. Your feet will still be here.
A rich dollop of this will pass. In years to come, you will have stress dreams about this moment. You will wake up, make breakfast, and look out the window at the falling golden leaves. You have many seasons to come.
A spoonful of feel the breath in the belly. No matter how shallow or short or scared, it’s the centre of you. Let it breathe you, moment by moment, until you put down your pen.
A pinch of salt.
Warm wishes to you all,