Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The moment I knew my GCSEs number was up

Frances Burscough

My 15-year-old son has been preparing for the first modules of his GCSEs all month. The exam timetable is stuck on the fridge and the first one is the most vile and vilified of all. Maths.

The very word still strikes dread into my soul.

When my elder son Luke was doing his maths GCSE a few years back, as I dropped him off outside the school gates I felt like a cruel and heartless traitor, delivering him to the gallows.

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 but I can honestly say, with hand on heart, that the only really long-lasting and tangible trauma was caused by exams.

More specifically, my O Levels. Even more specifically than that, my maths O Level.

I failed it miserably, getting an ‘E’ grade. Even though I had passed most of the others, my dad wasn’t impressed. As far as he was concerned, ‘E’ stood for “Eee, by gum!” — which, at the time, was the ultimate expression of disapproval in 1970s Lancashire. He and mum had scrimped and saved all their married life to send me and my seven siblings to grammar school, and at the age of 16 I still couldn’t even fathom a basic grasp of the most basic subject.

My teachers, too, were equally concerned. “I’m sorry, but you’ll never get anywhere in life without maths. No university will accept you. It’s just one of the fundamentals.”

Consequently, I was made to do it again. A dreaded O level ‘re-sit’ slap bang in the middle of my A Levels.

How I dealt with this looming blot on my horizon became the stuff of nightmares, quite literally.

That is because I didn’t deal with it. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I carried on with my further education and my life without so much as a cursory thought about this inevitable event. No extra-curricular tutoring. No cramming. I didn’t even go to a single maths lesson. I was in complete denial.

The only time the exam did involuntarily enter my head was at night, in the dark, as I was lying awake trying desperately to go to sleep and not to think about it.

That’s how and when the nightmares started. Jumbled numbers firing at me from every angle, like artillery Mum and Dad shaking an exam sheet in my face as I stand shaking in my dunce’s hat ... Teachers tutting and sighing then another bombardment of numbers and symbols, like a swarm of bees this time killing me with calculi; death by decimal points

So, yes, you could say I was not-plussed.

In fact, by the time the exam came I was a gibbering wreck, having invented my own personal psychosis: the morbid fear of sums, or can’taddnaphobia.

Needless to say, I failed with flying colours. I even managed to surpass my first pathetic attempt, amassing a ‘U’ grade. (U standing for ‘Unclassified’ so it could have been anywhere between zero to about 25% but, Carol Vorderman I ain’t, so I’m incapable of even a rough estimate )

“U as in ‘You stupid bugger’!” was my dad’s response.

Fortunately for me, calculators were invented soon after and the whole issue became irrelevant. I even managed to find a course where maths was not essential and secured a BA honours degree.

Indeed, apart from being useless at working out my bill at Tesco (usually by at least £50) and hopeless at budgeting and bank statements, it has never affected me aversely.

Except for the dreams.

I still have them, recurring with sickening regularity at least once a month, 30 years later. I know, perhaps I should see a shrink but I can’t afford it, or at least I don’t think I can.

As for my two sons, neither of them appears to have inherited my condition, thank God. In fact, Luke sailed through his without so much as a single quivering nerve.

“Insultingly easy,” was his summary of GCSE maths. He went on to get an A.

I can only assume he got that bit of his brain from his dad's side ...

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