I don’t know why I decided to sit a GCSE at age 50. I have been studying Latin on and off for about 3 years at evening class – something I had always promised myself I would do. But I was happy just pottering along, satisfying my curiosity, why did I decide to put myself through an exam?
It was all Queenie’s fault. The idea only surfaced when Queenie announced that she wanted to sit a GCSE. At age 13, Queenie is a linguistic genius with several GCSEs in modern languages under her belt already. Once Queenie joined my Latin class, the pace really picked up. I had been the star pupil before Queenie joined: in fact, I was often the only pupil, and certainly the only one that bothered to do homework. Now I had competition, and I didn’t much like it.
So when Queenie said she was going to sit GCSE, I said I would it do it too. “She needs a running mate.” I declared, graciously. Running mate be damned! There was no way I was going to be beaten by a 13 year old! (Of course, back then I had no idea I would have an operation a few weeks before the first exam.)
So what is it like to sit exams at 50? It is nearly 30 years since I last sat in an exam hall, and I can tell you it feels exactly the same. These exams don’t mean anything to me: I have my career, thank you, and there is nothing a GCSE in Latin can give me, but it still feels the same. You still feel nervous walking in. The trestle desk feels just as flimsy as it did back then, and the same person has scored their initials on it in a fit of boredom during a Geography exam, along with the word FAIL. The same fidgety person is sitting in the seat next to you, sucking sweets. Your heart still races when you look up at the clock and see you have less time left than you thought. And when you hand in your paper you still go home and look up the words you didn’t know in the heat of the moment, and you know despair.
I thought it would be interesting to remind myself what my kids were going through. I was astonished to find that I was still so very nervous, even though I don’t have any pressure on me at all to succeed except what I put on myself. My kids, of course, have plenty of pressure: slip a grade, and they don’t get to study at the sixth form college or the university of their first choice. In principle, slip a grade, and it might be difficult to do some things in life at all (though this risk is greatly exaggerated by teachers, I find).
So to all teenagers everywhere, sitting exams in this June heat, I salute you: it is every bit as hard as you say.