In which I look at successes and failures from my past, and gaze bleary-eyed into the future
So exam season is upon us, and I found myself getting a phone call from the University Disability Support Officer wanting me to fill out an “Application for Deferred Assessment” form and an “Extenuating Circumstances” form. I met up with her and she explained that it’s basically to cover me in the event that I completely screw up and need to resit – it’s much harder to get help afterwards if you haven’t submitted a form prior to sitting the exam.
The other thing is that if I’m a few marks off of getting a particular grade it might bump me up, e.g. from a very good 2:2 to scraping a 2:1. I really don’t feel good about that, and tried to explain that I wouldn’t want to live the rest of my life with a grade I don’t deserve, like if I earn a 2:2 I wouldn’t want a 2:1. She didn’t really get my point, and said I wouldn’t want to be looking back and thinking I could have gotten a better grade.
The thing is, I’ve had a couple of grades bumped up before. My GCSE French teacher basically cheated for the whole class – giving back coursework with corrections and telling us to re-write it and submit it again, and writing out words and phrases to say whilst sitting the oral exam with him, so I ended up getting an A in that class. My GCSE Electronics teacher gave me an A for my coursework based on the written element and my understanding of the subject, even though I didn’t have the ability to sit down and make a working product. The irony is, I didn’t want to take either class in the first place – French I had to take because of the half of the year I was in, at the time I remember asking if there was any way I could be in the half that learnt Spanish, on the grounds that three-quarters of the world speak Spanish, so it would be the more practical language to learn. Similarly, I originally applied to take Food as the compulsory Design & Technology GCSE, as I figured cookery was a skill I could use every day, whereas electronics, woodwork, graphic design and textiles were areas in which I had no natural aptitude and no interest in pursuing a career in. I had to go and speak with the head of DT and she pushed me into taking Electronics, looking back it was probably because Electronics was under-subscribed, especially seeing that the secondary school I attended was a “Technology College,” and Food was a pretty popular choice. It was also kind of assumed that I’d be good at Electronics because I was smart (this was after I joined MENSA) and that I was taking Food as an easy option, which kind of offends me looking back at it, as that was definitely not my thinking and I stand by my logic that it would have been the more sensible choice for me, although maybe not for the school.
So anyway, I know I rambled a lot there but I guess I want to emphasise that I’ve been given an easy ride before and it doesn’t feel good, and it was embarrassing at the time and it’s embarrassing now. The really bad thing is that I almost certainly did have the ability to get an A in French under my own steam without having the teacher cheat for me, only I was lazy and I didn’t care for the teacher or the subject.
That isn’t to say that I’ve always had an easy ride or that teachers have always been on my side (though most have, because I was a nerdy kid, I would show up and learn quickly and be enthusiastic, and I liked most of the teachers.) I took AS-Level ICT and had two teachers, one for one session a week of coursework and the other for two sessions of theory. The coursework teacher was a miserable old guy who just straight up didn’t like the students or the job. He told me my coursework was so poor that the maximum grade I’d be able to attain would be an E, and that would require me to ace the end of year exam. Naturally, I was completely dejected and felt like quitting until I realised fuck him, he was an incompetent old bastard who had barely looked at my coursework and there was no point in quitting. It turned out that I was right, he was talking a bunch of old arse and I ended up getting an A, although I dropped the subject and took up AS Sociology in my second year because I didn’t want to risk having that dude teaching me again.
I tell that story partly to highlight that if I want to succeed at something academically I generally have the ability and work ethic to achieve that goal. There was never any doubt that I’d be accepted for sixth form or University, and I was doing well, especially pre-Canada. My fear isn’t for exam season, it’s for afterwards. I know I’ll be able to return home, but I don’t want to spend too long there, as I feel I’ll shrivel up inside myself and it will become harder and harder to leave. The trouble is my life so far has followed a linear progression, of school to sixth form to university, and there is no natural next step. My degree isn’t like Law or Medicine which pushes you a certain direction, and I have learnt skills that could be transferred to practically any business, though I feel I want to be a force for good somehow, rather than working for a company that makes too much money and takes too much from the rest of society.
On the other hand, there is something very appealing about setting sights low and just taking it easy, getting a low-paying job that isn’t too demanding and just enjoying myself. I have no real desire for a fast car or a huge house; the one thing in life I want above all else is a Bally brand Twilight Zone Pinball Machine, which I figure would probably cost a maximum of £1,500 to purchase, transport and restore to original condition. So if I get a job that covers my month-to-month living expenses, allows me to pay off my debt and gives me a little left over to save up for that Bally, then I’d be just as fulfilled as a high-paying, high-stress job.
So yeah, I’m fairly confident about exam season and I’m not working myself up into a frenzy about the final results. I guess there is a lot of pressure, both internal and external, to do well, just because I have the ability to do so. But it feels somewhat irrelevant what grades I get at this point, I don’t know what to do with them anyway. I’ve allowed myself to fail before, and I’ve never put in any more than the bare minimum of effort. I know my mother was disappointed with my A-Level results although I was one of the top three in the college, and it was a big college. I guess if I had revised as much as I could and taken past papers and whatever, I could have been awarded five As and my mother’s approval, but with very little effort I could get very good grades (two As, two Bs and a C) and go to my college of choice. I guess I feel that as I have the intelligence and ability that others don’t, I should really push myself to get the best grades possible, otherwise it’s almost like I’m insulting everyone who doesn’t have the ability and wants it. Not that I’m bragging, I know I don’t deserve to be smart and didn’t earn it, it’s just a part of who I am, like having brown eyes.
I guess the problem is, I’ve allowed myself to fail twice in my academic life, and both times it felt glorious. The first time was in Year Nine, when I actually took Spanish class but just didn’t give a shit. “But Rees,” you cry, “Didn’t you say earlier you wanted to learn Spanish?” Yes, I did, but that was in Year Seven. For some insane reason that was never explained, after taking three hours of French every week for two years, the school decided to mix it up a bit and give us two hours of French and one of Spanish each week for a year, at which point we would go back to three hours a week of French for two years before sitting a compulsory French GCSE. It quickly occurred to me that this was lunacy, that I’d be spending an hour a week conjugating verbs for no benefit, and that there was a good chance that actually studying both languages simultaneously would likely be detrimental to my French, which was the only thing I’d get rewarded for. So I was automatically put in the top tier class for Spanish, as it was assumed that I’d apply myself and be as good as that as at everything else. I didn’t ask to be in that class, and I’d have happily chosen to be in the bottom group considering I really didn’t plan to give a shit about Spanish all year, and I didn’t. I completed all assignments and sat all tests, but I was always bottom of the class, and it felt fine.
The other time I allowed myself to fail was one module of my Math A-Level. I really got on with the first year of Math, where two-thirds was applied stuff (Statistics and Decision Making) and one-third was “Pure Math,” completely hypothetical stuff. The second year the college changed exam boards, and we were the year that got shafted, having to re-take the pure stuff from the first year and then having to do a full year of the hypothetical stuff. This wasn’t what I’d originally signed on for, and it really didn’t interest me like the applied stuff did. However, I’d got 250 UCAS points in my first year, and only needed 240 to sit the course I wanted at the University of my choice. This meant I could fail every module of every subject and still get into University, though obviously I wanted to do a good job anyhow. But I also figured out that I’d scored enough percentage points on my first three Math modules (92%, 95% and 98%) that I could score nothing on the final three and still get a C. I decided to take the first two seriously but ignore the very final module and spend my time on the other subjects I was taking. I got a U for that module but did well enough to get a B in Math overall, so screw it, right? And it was great going into class, being told all this crazy math stuff which I knew I’d never need to use in my own life (as opposed to the Decision Making and the Statistics, which I took very seriously) and letting it wash straight over me, and goofing on my friends instead. That last year was honestly the happiest time of my life.
So I know I can fail academically and carry on, it’s really not a big deal for me. The only real fear is knowing where to go once I’m done studying, and the worry that the choices I make will disappoint the people closest to me, I know I can allow myself to self-indulge and settle for what’s comfortable rather than what’s best. But maybe comfortable is good enough.
So thanks for reading, I realise that this post is even more long-winded and self-absorbed than usual, but I hope it gives an idea of where I am and where I’ve been, and maybe there’s something in there you identify with. Next time I’ll be looking at some of my favourite failures from fact and fiction. I hope you’ll be there for it!
Comment by Lucy posted on Tue, 04/05/2010 12:26
I know what you mean about not needing to revise for exams and it feeling a bit like a piss take when you dont and still do well. I know my friends have hated me a few times for this and I have always been able to do very well in exams or coursework with minimal effort. Exam season is close by and for one of my modules I still know nothing, but I will probably get a 2:1 or 1st for it anyway.I have also been thinking that is there more to life than just doing well in academic stuff. I suppose what we both need to decide is do we want to follow down the path that everyone else follows and is expecting us to follow or do we go our own way down a path that may seem scary and maybe disappointing to everyone else.
Like you want to be comfortable I want to embrace my creative side. I want to perform on stage and bloody damn enjoy my life doing something that i personally find better than sex….performing. Its a tough call though because i could fail. I suppose like with you you could make the wrong decision now and it could go tits up. it must be scary, but you are not the only one who is scared right now. You dont need to know right now. Get your exams done with. Get a job no matter what it is. Save up for something u really want…maybe travel..you said you wanted to help maybe volunteer abroad? You have loads of time to decide still really. If you do cock things up right now then you can always change your path….it may be hard but its not impossible. If your family are willing to support you in everything then they can help…and if they wont then just do it anyway. There will always be someone around that will support you. as long as you are doing what you want to do with your life at the time then you should be fine.
Hope this helps in some way