I received a phone call yesterday telling me that I had passed my Adult Literacy exam. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it. I’d sat the exam in mid-June and then it clean went out of my mind. This is not at all like me. Normally, I’d have worked out exactly when I would receive test results and apprehensively await them. But not this time. This time, I wasn’t the slightest bit concerned or bothered.
My relationship with exams is fraught with self-doubt and insecurities. It has always been this way. I study and revise and sit my exams with little problems. I rationally consider how they went immediately afterwards. I’m upbeat and positive about my chances – for about a week. And then that nagging voice starts. The one that whispers in my ear that I’ve failed. The one that speaks of being too big for my boots. The one that reminds me that pride comes before a fall. By the time it’s finished with me, I’m convinced that I’m a total, utter failure.
This voice first appeared when I sat my ‘O’ levels (yes, I am that old). I studied and revised. I sat my exams without any thought of failing at all. And then, about a week or so after my last exam, the voice first appeared.* The voice sounded very important and authoritative to a young woman who had only just turned sixteen. The voice sounded like it knew what it was talking about and, to a young woman who had just turned sixteen and had some other crappy stuff going on in her life, it just had to be right. I don’t think some adults appreciate the stress that ‘O’ levels, or GCSEs as they are now, can be to some young people. To me, these exams were the pinnacle of my school life. The success or failure of my eleven years at school seemed to hang on the outcome of these tests. I remember thinking to myself, that if I failed I would never be able to go out in public again. The weight of self-expectation was enormous. There was no wonder I crumbled under it.
The voice very kindly brought a friend with him – the black dog. The black dog made me hate myself, hate everyone else, shout and scream, cry and sob, and think about taking my own life. Luckily for me, I refused to listen to the black dog when he suggested this. His idea frightened and terrified me and I would try to shut it out when he barked it in my ear. I dealt with all this alone. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my friends. I was ashamed and frightened by the depth of my feelings. I thought if I told someone, I’d end up being locked away and I’d never see the light of day again. My parents didn’t realise either. The problem with having depression at sixteen is that it’s rather like being a sixteen year old. My teen years had been quite difficult up to this point anyway. As far as my parents were concerned, I’d just ratched it up a few notches due to exam stress. And this was 1987. People knew very little about depression, teen or otherwise, then.
Of course, when my results came through, I’d passed my exams. Even the one I was sure before the ‘crazy episode’ I’d have to resit. The voice and the black dog faded away for a little while, at least. You probably think that this experience would put me off sitting exams for life. Writing this now, I can’t believe it didn’t. But it didn’t. The truth is I love to learn. I love to take new courses. I love to try something new. Over the years, I’ve taken countless exams and had countless pieces of work assessed. Unfortunately, it is a necessary evil when learning. In order to obtain funding to run courses, providers need to have demonstrable outcomes. These outcomes usually come in the form of some sort of test. And with each test, the voice would return. Only on one occasion was it right. On all the others, it was completely and utterly wrong.
When I reached thirty, I realised that I no longer wanted to work in the highly pressurised selling environment that is retail banking in this country. I decided to leave and go to university to study History. So that’s what I did. I loved being a student. I loved everything about it from the studying to the socialising (complete with a subsidised Student Union bar). At university though, testing was more rigorous and frequent. In the space of three years, I sat over a dozen exams. And, at each one, the voice returned. But this time he didn’t bring his friend, the black dog, instead he brought another – the little brown terrier.
The little brown terrier made me feel like I could cope with anything. The little brown terrier filled me with endlessly supplies of energy and drive. The little brown terrier made me feel invincible. But, of course, I wasn’t. The little brown terrier may have convinced my mind it was indomitable but it didn’t fool my body. After three years of undergraduate study, the terrier tricked my mind into thinking that a further year of post-graduate study would be a good idea. My body protested but my mind refused to listen. By the end of the final year, I was a physical wreak which it took me many years to recover from. Clincial stress nearly destroyed me in a way depression only hinted at.
After this, I vowed never again to sit any exams. Any learning I wanted to do, would have to come from other sources. But then, in September, my daughters’ school offered parents the chance to attend a course that would enable them to support their children at home. The course would run for two hours, every week, over the academic term. The first hour would be spent working with your own child (or children in my case) and would show parents lots of different activities and games to supplement the learning in the classroom. The second hour would be an Adult Literacy course. If you wanted to do the first bit, you had to do the second due to funding requirements. I really wanted to do the first part of the course and so, reluctantly, found myself once again on the treadmill of exam results driven learning.
But this time, it was different. This time I didn’t care if I passed the exam or not. I wanted to. I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t. But suddenly the ‘stigma of failure’ didn’t bother me anymore. It seems. at long last, I’ve managed to quiet the voice. It’s only taken me twenty-five years to do so.
* For the record, I have never heard voices. What I experienced was a thought, of my own making, that would keep occurring in my head. Nor, have I every ‘seen’ a black dog or a brown terrier. The ‘voice’, ‘black dog’, and ‘brown terrier’ are merely literary devices.