My two oldest children are having their exams this and next week. The stress is almost visible in the room as they review their next exam over and over again. I remember taking my exams, I remember the tension and stress, the irritation and excitement.


In a week it will all be over for them and then they will have to wait for the outcome, that one important phone call. And I know how they feel, I took my exams three times. Three most important phone calls. Three times? Yes, three times, I will explain it to you.

When I was sixteen I did my exams in vocational education in (Precision Metal Working) Swampyland. There were two levels of CSE’s then, one basic for vocational training (B-levels, CSE TL now) programs and one proper CSE’s (C-levels, CSE GL now). As I was bored to death at this school, being highly gifted, I presented myself as an underachiever in the years before my exams just to fit in. Getting an A for a test at this school was not a compliment and reason for another pounding in the hallways by my peers. So I got to learn to cope with that and made sure that in every test some errors were made on purpose. I managed to go through school until my exams came that way. I realised that this was my chance to escape from the harsh environment and the cruel schoolmates and show myself as I was, intelligent and capable.

So when exams came I did my best as I never had done before and made sure I did everything to succeed at these exams. And I did. When the results came, in those days the outcome was told by telephone and for each subject the grades came in and they were just great. My favourite teacher, Jacques, phoned me to tell me I passed every exam with outstanding results. And I realised I would do better if I could do these exams at a higher level again. I told him I wasn’t really pleased with these exams and he replied he understood. That was odd, I had passed these exams with the highest results of my class and when I told him I wasn’t satisfied he understood. “I will see you tomorrow, come and see me in my office at school”, he said.

The next morning I reported at his office and he let me in. I told him if I could do C-levels instead of B-levels I might not get these great results but at least that way I could get further in life, lest a year later than my classmates. And he agreed with me, promised to enroll me for next year’s exams without giving a lot of attention to it, thus giving me a low profile in next year’s class. “Just report here after summer recess and I will assign you a table in next year’s C-level class”. And so it happened that, as a unique exception, I went to the same school again to do another round of exams. The results weren’t outstanding that year but they weren’t bad at all. I wasn’t top of the class thus saving myself countless poundings and pummelings, I regained my self esteem that way and I sat exams with confidence. And I got my desired C-levels.

There it is, CSE’s done twice. Now I hear you saying, wait a minute, you told us you have  done them three times. That’s right, three times. Years later I found myself in England. After I left school and worked for a year and fulfilled my 14 months of military service (compulsory in those days) I left home to live in England for some years. As I had chosen to work in nursing I needed to go to nursing training and become a R.N.M.H. But my Dutch diplomas were not valid in England so it was arranged I would sit the necessary GCSE exams to prove myself capable of doing this nurse training. My manager, a very sympathetic man, arranged it all and that morning I went for the first day of five, doing every exam my colleagues already had done years before.

Now doing exams in another language than your mother tongue is entirely different but the stress level is the same. I told myself over and over again that I would be fine but I remember the perspiration, sweat burning in my eyes and the blank moments not knowing what to write down as I didn’t understand all questions. But I managed to finish each exam that week, going back from the city on my pushbike and crashing out exhausted on the sofa in the living room of Old Hall where I lived then. And then Rod called with the results, having agreed that they should be sent to him directly rather than to me first. He was rather pleased, he told me that I had passed every exam and consequently got my place in the nursing training. The results weren’t brilliant he said but they weren’t bad either. And when I asked if it wasn’t a great effort to pass these exams the first time, as a foreigner without proper prior education, he made me so proud of myself again. The best compliment I got was from this man: “Normally it isn’t. But for someone who never went to school over here it is.”