It is exam results season for many. I think I’ve worried as much about the results of others as my own. How do you feel when you think about your experiences with exams? Perhaps more importantly can you remember your favourite teacher?
Here is a grand claim: all of life is a big exam…it is the measure of our courage, care and contribution that matters most. How those translate into our academic and professional lives will be a unique story for each of us. Some will start with the abundant advantages of a loving home, enough resources and education being valued. Some will start with few of these blessings and still manage to outrun their circumstances. Some will start with nothing and find every step a struggle.
Now here’s the interesting bit…if you’re loved, young, fit and capable ~ you’ve got everything. I used to say that at the start of my Lifejoy Lectures to University students who thought they had too much homework and not enough party time. They looked at me with perplexed faces and then decided that I couldn’t possibility understand their workloads and pressures. They were probably right. I couldn’t understand but I did know something that they didn’t ~ I knew what it was like to long to be one of them. A longing that was articulated so eloquently by Willie Russel in Educating Rita. A longing to just be part of it so that you could be immersed fully in a life of learning and all the lovely student stuff that goes with it. The pandemic has shown us how lovely it is just to be able to go to school, college and university. How precious normal days can be.
My life has been very odd. It has had many advantages and blessings alongside immense amounts of illness. Illness that stops everything, disrupts everything and makes you strive to manage the smallest things in life. I’ve been the cleverest in classroom and the least clever. I’ve been the strongest and weakest. I’ve been a teacher’s pet, swot and the pitiful girl who plodded on at one-sixth time. But does any of that matter now? Yes and no! In my bravest moments I tell myself that every experience has value and in my less brave moments, I long for calm years where everyone is safe and well.
That is rare set of experiences but I’ve come to realise that they have to be used to loving purpose and share the insights from them. My academic results have been all kinds of things. As the Headmaster’s daughter they were scrutinised by a larger audience than usual. As someone who did most of their learning whilst severely unwell, there was that added novelty to it all. One thing I’ve learned repeatedly is that exams are a process that need to learn how to do them. How to read, note, learn and test oneself over and over again. It is a process and once you know the rules of the game you’re in a much easier position. You might be fortunate and have had something show you the rules or stumbled across them but just to know they exist, is a revelation.
Throughout the media there are always cases of young souls who have worked hard, had supportive homes and excellent teachers. Their moments of glory are a collective effort where collaboration outruns competition, delayed gratification is celebrated and everyone sees that hard work is the secret to almost all success. It’s the slog that does it!
The other thing that seems to happen is that prominent people do one of two things: they either tell us about their impressive grades and the great need for them or they denigrate the entire system and tell us how impressive they have made their lives without any exams. However, there is a third and often less abrasive voice that must be heard: those who tried their best and things did not go as they had hoped. And YET! AND YET might just be the most powerful words in the world. Because they still made something of themselves. Therefore, the fabulous and the futile are buffeted by the reality that most things aren’t that important. Most things can be put right with additional effort. Most things teach us lessons if we are willing to learn. Most things are there to keep our Lifejoy on track.
With every coaching and counselling client I serve, there are repeated themes. They all understand that the life exams will keep coming. They understand that unpalatable truth and embrace it with varying degrees of gusto. We have to try to set our own syllabus whilst dealing with the one sent by life. It is all about finding coping strategies that work for us. How we find our Lifejoy through the challenges of life. How we keep going through difficulty and how we keep looking to contribute are the most fabulous questions we can ask ourselves even when everything feels futile.
After witnessing immense pressure heaped on some young souls I made a decision. It was just a small one but something that I could do: I would not ask about test or exam results. Instead, I would ask them about their effort, health and care for others. If they had done their all, then that was marvellous. The outcome was almost irrelevant. If they had given something to the Foodbank we would be equally proud of them. If they had stopped a bully in their tracks we would commend them and if they had taken care of their families with good grace then we would rejoice in them. (Oh and I would help them if they asked…in any way.)
August is not just results month but in our Lifejoy Year it is designated as our month of grace….good grace for those who have done better than us, good grace for those wishing they had our circumstances and the grace to thankful. Perhaps what is truly fabulous is that our exam seasons are part of the privilege of normal life. Perhaps after the last eighteen months we have discerned that we must value our health and loved ones more than ever. We have learned that mental health matters as much as physical health. We have seen great dedication and care in a set of people who are often overlooked in life. We have seen those who are already struggling, struggle more, when difficulty descends.
There is a thin line between that which is fabulous and that which is futile. It is a line which will change throughout our lives and one to be viewed with courageous hope and agile joy. I wish you your kind of success. I wish you fabulousness in the things that really matter and the ability to discern the futile with grace and a bit of glee.
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