Exams, No Thanks – But…

“Exams? Sure, it’s good to pass them. But one must not worry too much even if one doesn’t top or make the topmost grades. Eventually, like the river that flows on and meanders towards the sea, all of us find our way in life. But we must be like the river: know our direction. If we don’t, that’s when we keep meandering aimlessly. Surely no way to go through the beautiful life that we are given…”

As I thought about the 12000-plus students who are going to sit for their exams shortly, and the tiny tots going for the CPE, and the SC students who will soon too be answering the call, several shudders ran through me.

Let me state the main point of my article: I hate exams and anything to do with exams.

I firmly believe that exams are one of the worst forms of torture devised by man. OK perhaps ‘soft torture’ if we go by contemporary terminology – no guillotines or noose around the neck (that fractures and dislocates the uppermost part of the cervical spine, ouch!) – but torture all the same.

Winston Churchill is credited with having said that there are only two certainties about human life: death and taxes. I would humbly add a third: exams. Alas, they are a reality that we cannot do away with, and they mark us in different ways. There will be a parallel or counter-narrative to everything I am going to say, which are my own experiences, but it goes without saying that each one’s encounter is as true and as terrifying or relieving to the hapless examinee.

However brightly lit the examination hall, to me there was always a kind of doom and gloom hanging about its atmosphere, kind of a feeling of an axe about to fall on my neck, sealing my fate.

Nevertheless, a bright spot in my exam journey spanning thirty years – from the age of five to thirty-five – is that I failed only once. It was a costly one — because I had shelled out a lot for that (damn) thing, but after reflection when the down phase was over in a couple of weeks I had to concede that I deserved to fail. It was, therefore, a sobering failure, as it gave me a chance to be better prepared for the next, last ever time that I took an exam in my life. I literally pulled my ears and told myself: never, ever again any damn exam in my life.

And I kept my word to myself: when the kindly patron Prof Bureau suggested to me to take the exam for the membership of the French College of Plastic Surgeons, given that I was ‘accompanying’ all the colleagues in the department at La Timone CHU, Marseilles who were studying for it, I politely declined. In spite of the fact that he would be able to get me an exemption for the first part, as I was already a qualified surgeon.

Being or not a member of the French College would not have made an iota of difference to my local career pathway, so what was the point in torturing myself again? No thanks Monsieur, I told him as much, and he did not insist. Acquiring the skills was more important to me at that stage than the piece of paper: I was in possession of one from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and to me that was more than enough.

But let us go back to some beginnings, like the examination for the 6th standard, la petite bourse which, as was current in those days, I took twice. We were from l’ecole Baichoo, as the Church of England school later called Otter Barry school was then popularly known, and we sat for the exam at St Jean Bosco school. On the way we stopped with Miss at St Helene church to dip our finger into and bless ourselves with l’eau benie. Anything goes, to try and get through that ordeal!

I did not become a boursier, and had to go through another ordeal to get into the Royal College Curepipe. That was facing the then rector, George Sims wearing his black gown, as well as his two accomplices sitting on either side of him, for a mini-interview. I remember his stern, expressionless face, his black bushy eyebrows that were greying along with his hair of the same hue – much later in my life, when I was training in the UK, I learnt what was meant by ‘black midlander’. And I clearly remember too, what he asked me: to describe the zoulou matchbox that he held up in his hand. What the hell, I had thought afterwards, what a silly thing! And what had it got to do with my coveted admission to Form I? But of course that was the whole point, to assess my ability in spoken English through describing an object. The matchbox happened to be the convenient one around.

I have to concede, despite myself, that these ordeals have a point, sob sob…

To come back to the formal exam hall, I used to be frozen stiff by the chilled silence that prevailed. The frostiness was amplified by the barely audible shuffle as papers were distributed by the invigilators all wearing a mask face, and one waited apprehensively till the last candidate was given his paper. Then the main torturer walked to the front of the hall, and at the appointed time, looking up from his watch would shout: START!

A couple of incidents have marked me while sitting for exams. At the chemistry paper of UVI 3 exam in 1964, for example, a friend who was sitting two rows in front and to the left put up his hand barely a few seconds after the start. An invigilator, who was one of our own teachers and a nice one too, came over and asked him what was the matter. ‘What sort of paper is this?’ he shot out, ‘is this the kind of question to ask? I do not want to sit for the paper, I want to go.’

The invigilator tried to coax him to give it a try, surely he knew a lot, having studied the whole year. Nyet! He was adamant, he would not sit. He had to twiddle his fingers for the mandatory half an hour before he was allowed to leave.

I do not know what happened to him later in life, but I am sure that he must have found his way. After all, an exam is not the end-all and the be-all of existence. But depending upon what one wants in life, or perhaps doesn’t want, I guess one works out things for oneself at the end of the day.

At the same exam, we were all waiting to enter the cold hall for the physics paper, and the RCPL boys were there too. RCC guys were sitting on the far side of the hall across the quadrangle where volleyball was played, and RCPL lads were bunched up on the benches outside the hall. There, that’s him, someone pointed out, he’s Manna, sure to be laureate! Our favourite was HKC Fan Lun. As it happened, both of them did become laureates.

A few months ago, Roland Fayolle, who was cote with Fan Lun, called to inform me that the latter was coming over from Canada shortly, and he was arranging for a meeting with some friends, and would I like to join in. How can one not do so! All of us wonder from time to time about the whereabouts and fate of our former classmates and friends or colleagues, especially the ones we have shared many a moment with. It was indeed great retrouvailles as we sat around the table on a pleasant afternoon, and the first thing we invariably say is: eh, to encore pareil, to panne changé du tout! While knowing full well that this is absolutely not true! But we are human beings, and we need/like to fool ourselves some times, especially when we are at the tail end of our sojourn ici-bas.

As regards Manna, who became an ophthalmologist and bless him, his reputation in physics was well-known. In fact, it was our physics teacher, Mr K Jawaheer from whom we also used to take private tuition, who told us about his prowess in the subject, as he would point out some fault here and there in my homework, the same which was set to Ramesh Manna, whose tuition was separate from ours: that’s me and my friend Farouk, now gloriously retired in England and doting on his lovely grandchildren. He used to take the bus from Curepipe on those Saturday mornings, and I would catch the bus at Eau-Coulee. We had a routine: after exchanging a few words, he would open his maths copybook, and I would copy down the numbers I had failed to work out, such a dud I was in the subject! And present them to Mr Jawaheer as if I had solved them myself!

Which brings me to Maths Paper 3 at UVI 3. There was a calculus number which involved integration, and I left it till the last. I knew what the final answer should be, but got lost in the steps. Barely a few seconds after I had handed over my answer sheet and left the hall, I suddenly realized with fear gripping me that I had missed factoring in the constant k. I trundled home with a fallen face, and was sure I would fail in maths. As it is, I got a 6, the same grade as at my first attempt.

But what the heck! Who cares for it now, I think I ain’t done too badly! Like my friend from Malaysia who was sitting in front of me during the physiology finals at the medical college. Soon after he had the paper in his hands, his body suddenly started to shake. To cut a long story short, he walked out of the hall crying, and did not sit for the rest of the physiology papers, for which he was ‘referred’ by six months. To my pleasant surprise, he called me about three years ago from Kuala Lumpur – that’s nearly forty years after we had parted ways! – and told me about himself and so on. Well, he’d moved on and had enjoyed his career and his life.

Exams? Sure, it’s good to pass them. But one must not worry too much even if one doesn’t top or make the topmost grades. Eventually, like the river that flows on and meanders towards the sea, all of us find our way in life. But we must be like the river: know our direction. If we don’t, that’s when we keep meandering aimlessly. Surely no way to go through the beautiful life that we are given…


* Published in print edition on 27 September 2013

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