The exam results come out in Scotland today and there is a lot of emphasis on it not being the end of the world if you don’t get the results you expected/needed/wanted.
And I can testify to that.
I remember the day I got my standard grade results and how the postman didn’t come until nearly lunch time because I lived in rural Scotland. I sat waiting by the window for the little red van. And I couldn’t text my friends, I had to actually phone them on the house phone. And that wasn’t near to the window. And there was no internet. Just silence. A strange stillness that settled in the house like waiting in a doctor’s surgery for your name to be called. But alone and with no thumbed magazines and a lot worse. Because it felt like life and death.
It was drummed into us at school: you need to do well in your exams.You need to study.This will affect your WHOLE life.Knuckle down. Put in the hours, NOW, and then the doors of the world will be open to you.
And then the little red van appeared, and I ran to the door, and I took the brown A4 ‘do not bend’ envelope from the postie, and I’m sure he knew that the future (happiness) of so many teenagers rested in his hands that morning; being the messenger and all.
And then I ripped open the envelope and I saw my certificate and I had done well. I had done WELL! I passed them all! With high grades! All credit level! Seven ‘2’s’ and a ‘1’!
I would have run to phone my best friend (on the house phone) and relive that question in the History exam that we were both unsure of and had different answers for and compare the effect it might have had on today, right here, right now.
From the distillation of knowledge scribbled down in arm-aching agony in neat rows before the overbearing wooden panelling of the exam hall, my colourful exam mascots on my desk and the brown and orange seventies print curtains, all the way to results day TODAY and the bright sunshine of relief.
But, whatever. It was over! It was summer!
Until the Highers.
By the time it came to Highers, I had gone a little off-track. I had started to feel a bit like the whole system was pointless, and I didn’t have the inclination to study hard for the subjects that didn’t come naturally to me, like Maths. Maths is important, I know that now. I knew it then too, but for me, the Higher Maths was the wrong choice and it took my attention away from the subjects I did love and excelled in, such as Art and English.
I’d applied to two universities in Glasgow to study English, and it was my one and only true passion. I read and read all the time, and wrote – stories, poetry, a journal. I had ideas all the time for novels and wrote a children’s story while I was still at school. I burned with the love of writing that I held close inside me, and imagined myself as a writer.
The day of my sixteenth birthday was like a dream come true to drive with my Dad to Glasgow to the university open days for the courses I had applied for – one at Strathclyde and one at Glasgow. I remember us parking on one of the steepest hills near the University of Strathclyde, and the sense of awe at stepping into the huge lecture halls on our tour. Wow. I could imagine myself learning so much in that place.
At 16 I might have been a bit young for university, but I had a plan and conditional offers of a place at each university.
And I know it is odd that I was so immensely happy to go to a university open day on my birthday, but the best part of that day is that I got to spend it with both my parents. That doesn’t happen too often for a child of divorce, (and I can probably count on one hand the number of times it has happened since, more than 16 years later.)
It felt so exciting to be on the brink of a new chapter in my life; possibilities, wonderful learning, reading, writing…and yet the career advice I received in the final years of school steered me into the realm of a more ‘realistic’ or ‘secure’ job. Like Journalism.
And I get that you need to have at least one foot on the ground when thinking about the future (though I am beginning to seriously question my thoughts on this as I get older), but the job of a journalist is to report on the FACTS, and when I tried to do that, I wanted to weave them into a story, hinting at the big reveal, building up to the perfect denouement, rather than getting to the point. I felt like Journalism was the polar opposite to the kind of career I had in mind, and I couldn’t see myself working for a newspaper.
But I hadn’t actually got my results yet.
That day was hot and bright too, like the day I got my Standard Grade results, only I wasn’t living with either of my parents. I was still only 16, and to all intents and purposes, homeless. Living from hand to mouth. Not really eating. Not really belonging. Everything felt transient and unreal. I was in transit. Vagabonding around Glasgow on my own. I didn’t have a home.
I was up with the first light and walking the mile or so to my Mum’s house, to where I had elected for my Higher results to be sent. Although I wanted to know how I’d done, and I hoped I’d done well, other events in my life over that summer had me snagged in their nets and I didn’t feel the same nerves or anxiety over this momentous day.
My Mum was going to a funeral that day, and I arrived at the same time as the postman. 7am. In the days when the post arrived that early and could be relied on to arrive, and then there was even a second post, late morning.
But I was there at 7am and so was he and so were the results. I stood in the hall in my Mum’s flat and it was a bit gloomy because it was the hall and the hall didn’t have windows. I opened the familiar brown A4 ‘do not bend’ envelope and stared and stared and stared at the words and letters.
I had taken 4 Highers. I failed Maths (with a D). My other results were a disappointment and I couldn’t believe I’d done so badly. Not that it was so badly. I got a B for Art – that was great. I loved Art. It had been a 2-day exam. But I only got a C for English. C. It was personally disappointing because I knew I could have and should have done better, but also because it meant I wouldn’t be going to university in the Autumn. I wouldn’t be sitting in awe in those lecture halls I had seen only a few months before, because I hadn’t got the grades.
That was that. The end. I put the certificate back in its envelope and left it with my Mum. She went to the funeral. And I walked back to the place I was staying that was not my home.
It was still way before mobile phones, and I didn’t have access to a home phone anymore, what with not having a home. The only way to communicate with my friends was by using a PayPhone (remember them?) or by writing a letter. I know. So I wasn’t really in touch with my friends at the time I got my Higher results. I was so far away from where I went to school and so far away from all that was familiar.
But it really wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t. I was still alive and living and thinking and dreaming. I was sixteen! I was too young for university anyway.
I got a job and worked and did some other things and had experiences and moved back home. I started college at 18 and then onto university. I loved my course (it was Fashion & Textiles, not English, in the end), and I graduated in 2003 with a 1st Class Honours Degree. Result!
If I had got the grades I needed in my Highers to go to university, I would have studied English and it might not have been the right time or course for me. In fact I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the right time or course. I would have loved to study English, but I still can.
Things work out differently than planned all the time; fate takes a hand, and who knows where or what I would be if I had got my grades? Things happen too that are outwith our control – divorcing parents, family crisis, homelessness, hormones. There is always another path.
And now, if I get asked the question ‘What are you most disappointed in?’, say in a job interview, I would answer ‘failing my Highers’, or more accurately, ‘not getting the results I needed in my Highers to go to university’.
And if I was asked ‘What are you most proud of?‘, I would say, ‘Graduating with a first class honours degree from university’.
I was still only 22 when I graduated, and my final year project was a dissertation rather than a fashion or textile collection, so I still found my way back to writing.
Everyone has their own unique path, so if you fail your exams, or like me, are disappointed with your results, there is always another way to reach your potential and find your career and life passions.
And if nothing else, when you’re asked at a job interview for an example of creative problem solving, you’ll have an amazing answer.