My boy, in bed, looking suddenly so very small and vulnerable.
I wrinkle my nose in puzzlement. ‘Scared?’
‘Of my exams.’
‘No, no, no… Exams are fun. They’re the best.’
He looks doubtful. ‘But they are,’ I continue firmly. ‘You just do what you can, work like fury for…what?...45 minutes or so and then that’s it. Over. Done.’
‘It’s okay for you. You liked exams. Dad says you were weird like that.’
‘Yeah, well. And you’re my son so you’ll probably be weird like that too. There’s an exam gene you know and I’ve given it to you. It’s about the only useful one I’ve got, so make the most of it.’
The edges of his mouth start to curl and I know I’ve nearly got him. ‘Are you really scared?’ I go on. ‘Or are you only going along with the crowd?’He tugs at the sheet. ‘Well, everyone else is shitting bricks…’
I raise an eyebrow.
‘Oh, okay,’ he looks down. ‘It’s just English really. She says if I don’t do well, I’ll be dropped down a set. I’m terrified of getting a bad mark.’
I mentally stick pins into the prone voodoo doll of a teacher who thinks this is the way to encourage a (admittedly lazy) twelve year old boy to do better.
‘Okay…’ I let out a long sigh. ‘Sooo…. What is the worst that can happen? You get a crappy mark. So what?’
He looks puzzled.
‘Well, really. Do you really think that, when you go to do whatever it is you will want to do, off in the future, that they, whoever they are, will be standing there, shaking their heads and pointing at a sheet of paper and saying…’
He laughs out loud and finishes the sentence. ‘….he got a fail in his Year 7 English exam?’
‘Exactly! I couldn’t begin to tell you what I got for those exams…’
Except, weirdly, I could. But I don’t tell him that. Instead I sit on the bed and wrap my arms round him and he lets me and relaxes into me and his eyes close gratefully and I stroke his hair and I feel all the tension melt out of his body. And I hope I have banished his dark thoughts. And I throw a poisoned spear of loathing at the system that sets us up for fear and anxiety so very young.
Occasionally I still have nightmares about exams – and I know I’m not the only one. I am about to sit an exam, in a language I don’t know; in a science I don’t understand. And I feel it afresh, all those years down the line – the fear and the dread and the anticipation of humiliation.
‘Stuff exams,’ I whisper against his soft hair, inhaling his clean skin scent adulterated with Lynx. He smiles happily. ‘Yeah, stuff ‘em.’ He hugs my arm a little tighter.‘I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too, Love.’
How do you help a child with exams? These are the other things I told James – just not last thing at night…
· Relax. Your mind can’t work when your body is tense. Do some stretching. Release the shoulders; release the jaw – we hold so much tension in our jaws.· Plan. So often schools don’t teach children how to divide their time according to the questions. Teach them how to prioritise – how to play the game.
· Don’t panic. If they get frozen with fear, teach them the ‘right now’ technique. Instead of worrying about the future, ask them if they are okay, right here and now, in this precise minute? Then tell them they can always come back to the minute and be alright.
· Focus on the finish. A nifty little technique. Get them to imagine they have written a blinding paper; answered every question with total ease and project that image really clearly – have them see themselves leaving the exam room, punching the air with pride.