I was a pint-sized fourteen year old when I took my GCSE mock exams in Fulham Cross Secondary School for girls. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never live past sweet sixteen. It’s a dramatic thought given school is supposed to educate rather than inculcate thoughts of death, but hardly surprising given my age and the heightened hysteria exams stress induced, particularly in an all-girls school. I was convinced I would leave the black metal gates in a pine box, my dreams and aspirations cryogenically frozen into the unique candidate number and illegible scrawl on my exam paper. Writing this more than ten years on is almost like speaking “beyond the grave”.
In those days, the worst of secondary school problems were about acne; buying into the latest trends of McKenzie hoodies and Nike bags; how hanging glass dummies around your neck was the biggest fashion faux-pas of the decade; and formulating ways we could dupe our parents into endorsing soft porn by purchasing stationary with the Playboy bunny logo. There were no Kardashians then to dictate to the obliging masses what to wear – only disapproving high-school girls who would shred you to pieces with one dagger as they scanned you from head to toe. Everyone just wanted to “fit in” to the human jigsaw puzzle that would become disfigured the moment we left our sequestered little school bubble. So you can imagine how it was that exam stress was the final straw that broke the teenage camel’s back.
Exams were always held in the gym. It was in these four walls, the centre of our scholastic universe, where dreams were made and broken, and where generations of students ruefully froze their butts off during the winter. The first day of exams was always the worst. Completing day-to-day activities was lost to us students. The ability to form an orderly cue for example, which comes innate to any Brit, became impossible as we huddled outside the gym like a group of Emperor penguins braving the arctic winds, shuffling sheepishly side to side as we counted down the seconds until the gates of school purgatory would burst open.
After manoeuvring her way through zombie-faced students, the deputy head stood in front of us with her arms crossed, her lips pursed, and a steely look in her eyes: “You are the worst year we’ve ever had!” she said. There was no kissing of the teeth from the bolder students, the ultimate teenage sign of disapproval, and there was no high-pitched screeches of “Later!”, a euphemism for “What the hell are you talking about?”, amongst other less pleasant things. Whether it was because we’d heard it so many times before or because the year group had spent half the night snoring on top of their CGP revision guides, with its dry jokes nestled at the bottom of the pages that only knocked us out even more, no one responded. There was just an eerie silence. Even the hardiest, most anarchic Fulham Cross gal was grim-faced and mute.
The clock struck twelve and the year elevens, the big fish of the school, came streaming out with the morbid expression of someone who had just walked out of a funeral. One girl’s eyes were puffed up and swollen red as if she had had an allergic reaction to the exams. She was flanked on both sides by friends who rubbed her back and nodded like those Churchill dogs with less enthusiasm and more sympathy, as she wailed tearfully about how hard the biology exam was that she had just sat. I found myself secretly wishing I had learned those duas, prayers my mum told me to recite before starting an exam. It used to be a classroom joke that a funeral was taking place in the old graveyard adjacent to the school, prompting gullible school girls to look out of the window in search of the hearse. There was a funeral that day except this time, it was our own. Didn’t I say teenagers were Class A melodramatics?
Eventually, it was time for my year group, the year tens, to enter the gym, where the handle of the clock was God, the exam invigilator was the devil in plain clothes, and our wooden desks were our salvation from sinking like the Titanic into the laminated flooring – Jack be damned of course. The small desks we were designated, personalised with our names typed onto a sticker on the top left hand corner, were placed at regular intervals in the gym. Like pieces of driftwood floating in a sea of oestrogen, we clung on for dear life as our fate was determined by the knowledge spilling out from our over-saturated brains, and whether our glutes could withstand the numbing sensation of sitting on planks of hard plastic for a few gruelling hours.
As the invigilator laid down the rules of what we could and couldn’t do, I ran my hand under the side of the desk. An expression of disgust crumpled my face as my finger came into contact with dry chewing gum, smooth and fossilised, waiting to surprise the unfortunate fingertip that brushed over its surface. You could trace letters scratched frantically onto the surface of these desks with the sharp tip of a compass, by generations of students who etched an eloquent obituary to their youth years before. “Gemma woz ere 2004”. Teenage vernacular was always short and to the point. The ghosts of students from the past descended on us, whispering of exam elation, despair, and complete boredom, sending shivers down our spines. Other girls etched the names of their boyfriends, past and present, their love immortalised in a cursive heart which enveloped both their initials. I remember fleetingly contemplating whether to etch Aragorn’s name into the desk, but was torn by my admiration for Legolas’ golden locks. My loyalty to fictional lovers back then was fickle. “You may now begin.” Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of pages turning and nervous scribbling as two hundred pens simultaneously came into contact with paper.
The first page of the exam would set the tone for whether you would succeed or fail. The eyes of the girl sat on my right bulged because she didn’t revise the content needed to answer the first question. Exam suicide. Another student repressed a squeal of joy because two months of burying her head in a book and sacrificing her social life had finally paid off. One of the school teachers masquerading as an invigilator frantically walked past his star student several times, wondering why she sat staring at the first question for five minutes with a blank expression on her face. His fears were subdued eventually when he saw a smile ripple across her face as she experienced a Eureka! moment, scuttling off happily with the gait of an Irish leprechaun, assured the ink spilling from her pen would not let him down.
I have boxes stuffed full of old exercise books and exam papers written by the old Aina, the Aina with the illegible scrawl a teacher once said rather curtly, that she had to use a magnifying glass to read. Her assassination of my handwriting still piques my pride to this day. I look for the foolish teenager I used to be in the pages of my schoolbooks or the comments teachers left behind. But like wisps of smoke floating from a candle as you snuff them out, cutting across the room like threads of spider webs shot into the dark, she has vanished. Similar to the girls who scribbled the names of their lovers or their own names into the exam desks, I also wrote my obituary to my youth long ago, I just didn’t know it then. At least now, standing on the altitude of adulthood looking down on a world where a human Oompa-Loompa has become the most powerful leader of the free world, it has finally dawned on me that exam stress was nothing compared to the trials and tribulations that were to follow.