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Frances: Why I’ll never forget the trauma of exams

By Frances Burscough

Published 30/05/2015

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

Like most people at my age, I have been through a lot of painful experiences in my life, both physical and emotional. Bereavement, heartbreak, divorce, childbirth, illness, accident, debt … but I can honestly say, with hand on heart, that the only long-lasting and repetitive trauma was caused by one thing. Exams.

The last exam I ever took was my English Lit A Level in 1981. I was 18 years of age. After an entire childhood of hard slog preparing for that moment, I handed in my final paper and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Goodbye Jane Eyre. Goodbye Antony and Cleopatra. Goodbye Shakespeare and Keats and Byron and the whole damn lot of you. At last I could finally rid my mind of a hundred thousand facts and get on with living my own life. I hoped I would never have to take another exam as long as I lived. And I didn’t.

But that was an entire lifetime ago and yet to this day I am still plagued by the memory of exams. In “my day” the approach to O and A Levels at my strict grammar school was first to instil the pupil with a very real sense of fear, dread, trepidation, panic and worry and then brainwash the bit of the mind that wasn’t completely petrified with a hundred thousand quotes, facts, figures, dates and lists. It worked so effectively that by the end of Sixth Form I could compare, contrast, analyse, discuss and recite verbatim two full-length plays, 10 poems and every significant line from two classic novels.

But, although I did go on to pass my A Levels with flying colours, thus proving that it can indeed work, the long-term psychological effects have proved quite catastrophic. The physical manifestations of fear/panic/ dread I speak of may have ended as soon as I handed in the last piece of foolscap, but the memory of them remained and has been retained forever. Thirty-four years later, I still have vivid dreams or even worse, nightmares, about exams on a regular basis. And, as each of my kids have got older and started to sit exams of their own, I’ve become plagued by them almost every night.

Now Finn is currently immersed in his A Levels of History, English and Drama and I’m going through it all over again ... I’m sitting at a desk in a hushed hall, awaiting my fate armed with two ball-point pens and a mind crammed to capacity with quotes from Macbeth. The examiner approaches and hands me a document that seems almost as thick as a telephone directory. It thuds sickeningly on the desk. The clock ticks, an alarm bell rings and the moment has finally arrived to open the page and put pen to paper. I look down and instead of a question about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s about

Sheridan’s The Rivals. I’ve learnt the wrong play! The wrong bloody play!!! I haven’t even seen this on the telly let alone memorised it word for word! What am I going to do?! Fear turns to panic turns to terror and then ... and then ... I wake up with a jolt, my heart racing like I’m about to go into cardiac arrest.

Calm down, calm down, it was only a dream! And so it goes on. At the moment it’s almost every night. Some nights I wake up and then go back to sleep and I’m back there again in the examination hall and there’s no escape. This doesn’t seem normal. Is it normal to be so traumatised by exams? I decided to ask around, to see if anyone else I knew suffered from the same kind of flashbacks, in case it was just me and I needed to see a shrink or a hypnotherapist.

So I posted a question on Facebook. “Anyone else still haunted by exam anxiety?” The response was overwhelming. Yes, apparently it is quite normal to be plagued by nightmares about exams. Some friends who are 20 years older than me were still suffering similar nightmares, as were my younger friends who had only just graduated.

I keep telling Finn it will all be over soon and he can get on with his own life. I haven’t the heart to tell him this is just the beginning of a life sentence!

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