You may turn over your paper now
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My son is revising for exams at the moment, which start next week. By some horrible quirk of timing, my husband has important exams too – the final stage of a midlife major career change. Me? I am making comfort food.
My son’s exams are not GCSE’s – we have that joy to come – but still, they are quite a big deal at his school. I lurch between telling him to just do his best and not making a big deal out of it to firing off 50 Latin declensions over Cornflakes.
Just the words ‘You may turn over the paper now’ bring it all back.
I remember the frenzied comparing beforehand of who had learnt what. There was always someone who shrugged and said they’d done no revision and you never knew if they were double bluffing. There was always one or two who were still clinging onto their textbooks in the corridor outside the hall, frantically cramming facts in, until the book had to be prised out of their hands like a villain removing the hero’s fingers one by one as they dangle off the cliff edge.
There was always the smell of fear and peppermint – everyone had Polo mints. There were the ones who brought half a dozen spare pens and arranged them neatly like a surgeon laying out their tools, the ones who brought some talisman from home – a good luck gonk or Beanie baby. There were the ones who cradled one right angled arm around their work in case anyone copied, the ones who kept asking for more and more paper, unnerving everyone else. Some perfected a fixed stare straight ahead. Some sighed and groaned like a tennis pro. At university, one girl memorably threw her papers up in the air like doves being released at a wedding and as they fluttered to the floor, left the room sobbing, the swing doors banging in her wake. It broke the concentration of the room and we were given an extra ten minutes at the end. She was okay – they let her sit it in a secluded room and she got a First.
Then there were the scandals – some witnessed, some apocryphal. One girl was caught with the answers written in pen on the tops of her thighs – we wore bottle green wrap around skirts which fell open when you sat down. Then there was the girl who hid her notes in a plastic bag in the toilet cistern and kept putting her hand up to be excused but as we had to be accompanied, she was rumbled when they grew suspicious. I’m not sure that was true. At college we were told they annually reserved a whole ward at Addenbrooke’s for the ensuing mental breakdowns. I’m not sure that was true either.
It was the last few minutes before the exam started that always got to me. Putting your name – or number – on every sheet. Tying the sheets together with one inch pieces of bone coloured string. Knowing you can’t do any more. It’s that feeling I still have anxiety dreams about. Those seconds before they said ‘You may turn over the paper’ and there was a giant rustling and shuffling and then the questions swam before your eyes until they came into focus.
‘Stop writing now please.’