When I am particularly anxious about anything, my brain rewards me with particularly noisome dreams. There is the one where I, for what ever surreal, parallel universe reason, have been invited to open a shopping centre and, as I am being shown around, I realise I have no clothes on. There is the one where I have a baby and can not remember where I have left it. Then there are the ones where I am sitting exams.
These vary somewhat more than the others. Sometimes I have two days to go before the exams and I have not done any revision. Sometimes I have two weeks to go and it turns out that I haven’t attended any classes, opened any books, undertaken any scrap of work for the whole course. Sometimes I am sitting in the exam hall and not only have I done no work, but the paper is written in some unknown language. I have nothing. I can do nothing. I have demonstrated that I am nothing.
Exams. I hate them with a fiery passion. I hate preparing for them, I hate taking them, I hate waiting for the results. I could attribute this to my university experience, where the entire degree was dependent on eight papers taken at the very end. All of it. Three years spent nurturing my nascent research and analytical skills boiled down to what I could hammer out in eight, three-hour blasts of my life. Hateful. Stressful. Made a man of me. What my dream self understands is that early and regular preparation is the key and that where brilliance is lacking, hard work and organisation can make up some of the shortfall. It still never felt or feels enough.
Every single exam I took during Finals began the same way. Having forced myself to have a good night’s sleep after what I perceived to be woefully-inadequate preparation, I would take myself to the Examination Schools and prepare to commence the ordeal.
For the first five minutes, I would attempt to read the paper and pick out questions. The room would swim and the harshest admonitions of my tutors would ring in my ears.
For the next five minutes I would excuse myself to the bathroom, drench my face in cold water and mentally bitchslap myself into some semblance of functionality.
Then with the next fifteen minutes I would actually read the exam paper and start to sketch out basic essay plans so I could finally begin. They were always pure rubbish, but to finish, I had to begin, even if that was all that I felt I had.
Give it another fifteen minutes and the chaos would subside. Just another day of work, albeit one where I had to watch the clock carefully. It all melted into one diligent mass. I survived.
I once, way back in school, actually managed to sit through an exam unable to do anything for the whole time. It is the only academic exam that I have ever failed. It was Pure Maths, punching well above my intellectual weight, and I had never been able to make any sense of the work during the term, I felt. It was both the longest and shortest three hours of my life, starting questions and then crossing them out repeatedly, working hard at not weeping or running out of the room in a fit of drama-queenery.
In the last ten minutes I managed to pull myself together enough to actually complete a question and, ironically enough, I got decent marks for it. Pity I was meant to answer five more, but there you go. I floated on a golden cloud of hazy warmth for the rest of that day, the quiet peacefulness of the foredoomed. The worst had happened and yet I lived. There was no roll of thunder, no boiling of the seas nor turning of the sun to blood. I had acquited myself poorly and still life went on. I was entered for the public exam anyway and did well enough, having already hit rock bottom with the nerves. The only way was up after that.
My brain remembers the other version, however. The one where I am trapped in the nightmare of failing and there is no possibility of redemption. Somehow my brain wants me to know that I am bupkis. Somehow I still believe that I am not.