Exam Fever

( Something I wrote a while ago, but re-living it now!)

I will be glad when this year’s exam epidemic is over.

Glad when every  surface in our house is not covered by an untidy carpet of revision books, coloured paper, broken pens and biscuit wrappers.

Glad when our 15 year old son can stop spending his evenings revisionally reclining on the sofa and return to spending them in the park with friends, playing euphamistic football in the dark. 

Glad when our 17 year old daughter can return to worrying about boys-parties-clothes–bad hair days  (am I really saying this?!) rather than French vocabulary and psychology case studies.

But most of all, I will be glad to stop pretending that exams are the most important thing in the world.

Because I really don’t believe they are.

I don’t believe that they are a fair test of what we know. or a way of making us care about what we learn.

We’ve all been there, feverishly filling every last minute with exam-cramming, spending sleepless nights worrying about all the things we don’t know, trying to remember what we’ve forgotten, turning our brains into bloated sponges, dripping  with too many temporary facts and too much unnecessary information.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that our exam system tests:


will power… perhaps,

the ability to make your writing legible under pressure.. maybe.

But with GCSE’s in particular, I’m not sure how much students actually learn.

Having to revise for so many different subjects, so close together, (our son is taking 21 exams in the space of 4 weeks) makes it hard to retain anything for longer than the length of the exam.  You don’t just leave the hall when you finish your exam, you also leave behind everything you have learnt for that subject, otherwise there just won’t be enough space in your brain for the next one.

May and June seem to just be ” one bloody exam after another.”

And what exactly will the students have achieved at the end of it all.

Have they been  inspired with  a love of learning? A thirst for knowledge? The desire to find out more?

Mostly, completely the opposite..

” Son sat English Lit. GCSE today,” wrote one of my very good friends on Facebook ” told me that he now never has to read another book….So Proud” 

And she’s not alone, many of us are feeling proud in the same way.

Somehow we are managing to make our kids despise learning rather than love it.

It’s not that what they are learning isn’t important or interesting, it’s just that sitting all day, learning things off-by-heart, never stops being boring and in the end, what you remember is the boredom, not the subject.

How often do books that we love turn into books that we hate because we have analysed every sentence to death?

 Language that once seemed beautiful becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Subjects that we once loved become a series of boring, uninspiring facts in our desperate desire to simply remember them.

” Can you test me on my French sentences,” asks our son, before his spoken French exam.

And I test him and he’s pretty good, he’s learnt them really well.

” There’s just one bit,” I say, ” you got the tense wrong, think about what it means.”

He rolls his eyes at me.

” It doesn’t matter what it means,” he says, ”  I just have to remember it right.” 

That’s what our exam system is doing to our kids. 

 Making them learn things “right,” so that they can pass exams, not so that they can understand what they mean or gain an insight to their wider significance. 

I understand and remember nothing of the physics or chemistry I crammed for my GCSEs.

 I still believe I am rubbish at maths and although I loved geography, all I can remember about it, is drawing bad pictures of animals in Polar landscapes and that rocks have different layers, although all these years on, I’m not really sure why.

Like rocks, the acquisition of knowledge should be a layering process.

Each layer providing firm foundations for the next.

Learning shouldn’t be a lot of temporary,, flimsy structures designed only to last until we have got the required grades.

We need to help children understand that learning things, finding out more about what they see or hear, gives their world a depth and beauty it wouldn’t otherwise have.

We want to make them excited about the fact that everything they do is an opportunity to learn something new.

We need to inspire a hunger for knowledge, an interest in the world around them, a belief that finding out more about ” things,” makes those “things,” more interesting, meaningful and useful.

Somehow our education system has lost its direction and as a result, our children have lost their way.

And we need to help them find their way back to a place where they are proud of what they know, eager to learn more because they are inspired by the potential of all they do not know.

I’m not sure how it can be done but I am sure that our exam system is not the way to do it.

Socrates said: 

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 

 I wish we’d listened because our exam system seems to be all about temporary vessel -filling and very little about permanently flame-lighting.

I turn back to the revision chaos that used to be our living room.

And with all my heart, i hope our kids do well in their exams.

They deserve to, they’ve worked really hard (if that is what helps you pass).

But most of all I hope they realise that there are things you can’t figure out from a revision book, that life is too small to fit between the walls of a classroom, that learning doesn’t end with a full stop and handing in an exam paper.

The world is out there waiting for them, full of beauty and pain and unanswered questions.

I hope, that when they have finished their last exam, they will still want to step into it full of awe and wonder and a desire to try and find the answers.

The Absolutely Completely Right Pair of Shoes

We were at a wedding last weekend – seems to be the year for them.

Not a big meringue-dress, smart-car, complicated-seating-plan sort of wedding.

But a small, quiet celebration of two people’s love for one another.

It was in Pallant House Art Gallery in Chichester and it felt very special.

A bit like Night in the Museum without the animals, dinosaurs and historic characters, we had a whole museum all to ourselves

After tea served from beautifully mismatched vintage cups and plates full of pastel iced cakes, we sat under the trees of the flagged courtyard, chatting and laughing until champagne and endless canapés were served in the gallery itself.

And as the notes of a gently strummed guitar wrapped themselves  around us, we wandered through the small, history infused rooms.

I am not usually good at art galleries or museums.

After one room, I find my thoughts drifting towards the cafe or the gift shop or…anywhere else.

But there is something magical when you are the only people there.

Suddenly you have a personal relationship with everything you are looking at. 

Shell – Sussie Macmurray

 I walked, alone and bare-footed  through the historical rooms full of antique furniture, old masterpieces and moder installations, or climbed the elegant, age old staircase made modern by a wall completely covered in mussel shells and velvet.

And  I couldn’t  help thinking that everything I was looking at, knew I was there.

And since, without me, they would be completely unadmired, they must be pleased to  see me..

And as I left each empty room or hallway behind me, I wanted to turn and wave goodbye and say  how nice it was to meet  the picture in an old wooden frame or the piece of antique furniture…….. or the ball dress made out of 10,000 balloons….

Balloon dress by Susie MacMurray

But despite being surrounded by priceless works of art and clichéd as it sounds, nothing could compare to the beauty of the  bride.

Because nothing can touch the beauty of happiness.

And as she stood, serene and beautiful in her simple 40’s style dress, her sparkling eyes matching the deep blue of the the flowers she refused to put down ( hard to see in black and white! )

 I walked up to her.

” You look amazing,” I said. ” Your dress is perfect, the sun is shining and the food is delicious. Is it all as you dreamed it would be ?”

She smiled.

“Yes  it is, ” she said,  “we just wanted to share today with our closest friends.

But can I tell you the story of my shoes.”

I grinned.  

There is nothing I like more than collecting other people’s stories.

” I would love to hear it,” I said.

And so the bride began the story of ” the absolutely, completely, perfectly right pair of shoes.

” You remember,” she said, ” how last time we met I was telling you that I had found everything, the dress, the flowers, the hair-do. And that the only thing I missing was the right pair of shoes?”

I nodded.

The search for the right pair of shoes had been long and, last time we met, fruitless.

” Well, in the end, I gave up.  I found some shoes that were OK, not perfect, but OK. And since there was only a week to go until the wedding and since I had hunted in every shoe shop in Chichester, Brighton and much of London, I figured they would just have to do.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like them.

It was just that they weren’t quite right.”

” Shoes are never easy,” I said, supportively, ” they are the glitch in every plan.”

She laughed and carried on.

” So anyway, last week, with 2 days to go until the wedding, I was walking to the station from  a friend’s house in Chichester, when I passed this tiny, very chaotic, second-hand shop.  Half the clothes were outside, hanging by the road.

And that’s where I found them, on the pavement, the shoes I had been looking for, for all these weeks.

My perfect pair of shoes, waiting there beside the road.

They were the perfect colour, the perfect style and when I tried them on, they were the perfect fit.”

We both looked down at her shoes and smiled.

” That’s a lovely story,” I said.

” But it’s not finished yet,” she said. ” because when I took them off and went inside to pay, I noticed something else. The name inside the shoe, look.”

And balancing on one leg, she pulled off a shoe.

Inside slightly worn but still clear was the word  ” Candena.”

” Is that your favourite shoe designer or something?” I asked.

” No,” she said, ” but it’s an important name to me because it’s my mum’s name. I’ve never heard of anyone else called that. Who calls their daughter Candena! 

Lovingly she slipped the shoe back on. 

” My mum’s passed away,” she said, her eyes glistening “and I know it sounds stupid and I know these shoes might not look special to anyone else, but it feels like they are her wedding present to me. Like somehow she is here , wishing me well.”

I looked at the absolutely, completely, perfectly right pair of shoes. 

I looked at the absolutely, completely, perfectly beautiful bride.

” It doesn’t sound stupid,” I said, ” it just sounds true.

And perhaps that’s what made the artistic treasures of Pallant House so special that day.

It’s not so much about how things look but about what they once meant or will mean to someone.

It’s about the stories they are part of and the history they will still make.

Our past is what forms us.

And if life is about anything, it is about finding the absolutely, completely perfectly right pair of shoes when you least expect it.  

Dear Brexiteers and Leave Voters

Dear Brexiteers and Leave Voters

Just so you know, I’m finding it hard to forgive you.

Hard to forgive the damage that is being done to our country by the vote you cast.

Hard to forgive the fear and sadness and racist comments that haunt our mixed-race family since you voted to leave.

Hard to forgive  the rise in hate crime and the way your vote seems to have legitimised racism.

Hard to forgive the uncertainty to our economic future that leaving Europe will cause. 

Hard to forgive the constant, and uneasy feeling that since that historic day in June we are teetering on the edge of chaos..

Just so you know, I’m finding it hard to forgive you.

And I’m sure you will say that  it’s because I don’t understand.

That I don’t understand the huge advantages of being financially independent from Europe.

That I don’t understand that leaving Europe is the only way to stop our country from bursting at the seams with those seeking a better life.

That I don’t understand that leaving Europe is the only way to save our drowning National Health and benefits system. 

That I don’t understand the advantages of being free from the European “ball-and-chain,” That I don’t understand how important it is to stand alone, to make our own decisions, to be in charge of our own destiny.

But it’s that destiny that If fear the most.

And there is much that I do understand.

I  understand that not everyone who voted to leave Europe is a racist or a bigot or a xenophobe.

I understand that many people, much cleverer than me, could cite a million reasons why we are financially better off out..

I understand that people were feeling disempowered by decisions made about them without them from miles away

I understand that the old system was flawed and broken.

I understand all that.

But when has a problem ever been solved by running away from it?

When has the way to mend something that is broken, ever been to leave it to rot?

The European Community was created to try and build peace and understanding, what message have we given by choosing to leave?

And I wonder.

Wonder if, on the day you cast your vote to leave, you imagined how it would actually feel for those who have become the victims of your choice.

Wonder if you truly considered all the consequences of your actions.

Wonder if you can picture our 18 year old Sri Lankan/English daughter walking down the stairs that morning, the 24th of June, trying to stop her voice from trembling as she asks 

” why doesn’t my country want me anymore?”

Wonder if you can hear the voice of our sixteen year old son telling us that he is going  to try and study in Canada now, that he doesn’t want  his future to be in a country that doesn’t want him.

And I know.

I know that’s probably not what you thought you were voting for.

But it’s the message your vote gave to our children and thousands like them.

You were voting for the future of our country.

They thought they were its future.

You’ve told them they are wrong.

And I’m trying.

Trying hard to understand your motives.

Trying hard to see it from your point of view.

Trying hard to acknowledge the benefits there may be.

Trying hard to believe that good can come out of this.

But it’s difficult  to understand what is better about being separated not just by a sea but by an ocean of difference and indifference.

Hard to believe that anything but good can come out of learning to work together, learning to value each other cultures, learning to care about something greater than ourselves.

I suppose, in the end, all any of us can do is what we believe to be right.

And I truly hope that’s why you voted the way you did.

But just so you know, on the day our son boards the plane and flies away from us into a world that is still too big for his seventeen years, I will find it very hard to forgive you for my broken heart. 

With hope that the future will be better than it seems