Getting Over Exam Anxiety Helped Me Take It Easy With My Children

In hindsight, I realised that great marks don't really matter.

The clunky alarm clock that my mother had given to me startled me awake with its shrill ring. It was 4:00 am. I woke up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and feeling a pang of envy for my sister, still in kindergarten, who was fast asleep. I freshened up and sat down at the dining table to study for the exam that day. My worst enemy—Kannada.

An hour went by, but when I looked at the wall clock it was still 4:00 am. How was that possible? I panicked that the clock had stopped working and that I was awfully late for my exam. I ran to my mother and asked why she hadn’t made breakfast yet, why I wasn’t in school yet. When I stopped myself and looked out the window, it was still dark.

Apparently, my alarm had rung at 3:00 am. I didn’t notice the time when I woke up. I had been awake an hour earlier than planned, but instead of being pleased with myself, it only made me more nervous. What if I fell asleep during the exam? After all, it was the dreaded Class 10 ICSE boards. Failing was not an option.

For years, teachers had drilled into our heads the importance of good marks in the ICSE boards. References to how our lives would be ruined if we didn’t succeed weren’t subtle. Failing was not even spoken about at these times. Failing would be a disgrace, not only to us personally but also our school.

Later that day, at the Kannada exam, I didn’t fall asleep, but I did need to step out and wash my eyes because they had started burning. I was getting stressed about answering the paper in a language that I didn’t understand very well. I returned to the quiet exam hall, sat down at the desk assigned to me and finished writing.

Nearly 27 years later, as I woke my 12-year-old son, a student of Class 6, at 5:30 am so that he could revise for his exams, those memories ran through my mind. By now, I had gone through the ICSE syllabus four times. Once for myself, then while teaching my sister, my older son and now my younger son.

Every few years, watching them leave for their exam, nervous and anxious, made me wish I could pull a Munna Bhai and write their exams for them. After all, not only had I got the syllabus down pat, I actually began to enjoy writing exams. Yes, you read that right. I’m happy to announce my nerdiness, now that it doesn’t matter to me if I’m uncool (or if I’m secretly Amy from Brooklyn 99). The last exam I wrote was for my masters in English, all the way back in 2007 and I realised how much I missed the anticipation of seeing the question paper and then writing down the answers.

“For the longest time, I’d feared exams because of what they stood for.”

For the longest time, I’d feared exams because of what they stood for —the gateway to the bigger world that was scary and exciting, but also very sobering for me. I’d figured out by the time I reached Class 10 that I would be ‘studying hard’ and ‘doing well’ for my own personal satisfaction. There was no parent breathing down my back, brandishing the proverbial whip. My father had died when I was in Class 8. He was the one who wanted me to succeed. My mother was focusing on how to bring us up alone and told me that if I didn’t do well or if I failed, she would just get me married. Not right away, but of course I wouldn’t go to college and I’d have to ‘sit at home’. This was even more terrifying than failing an exam.

So I studied, and extensively at that, waking up at unearthly hours to prepare for my exams.When the ICSE boards began, I felt that same nervousness and anxiety that my classmates felt. I felt one with them, despite our goals being different. They were preparing for life, I was avoiding marriage. But at the same time, every exam I sat down to write, I remember feeling that distinct sense of satisfaction that comes from writing answers (and hoping they were the right ones) and wanting to succeed.

Despite all that hard work, I managed to get just above average scores. It got me into a decent college. Once in college I realised no one bothered about exams as much (to my utmost disappointment). Everyone just wanted to pass and have fun. It wasn’t a professional course like medicine or engineering after all.

In hindsight, I realised that great marks don’t really help us in our daily lives. Eventually, we all find jobs (and that wasn’t even on the cards for me back then) and would it really matter to our bosses if we’d scored 95 in Math? I didn’t think so. This was confirmed when I did land up working in a couple of jobs. What mattered was the ability to work now rather than past victories in exams.

“Right now, it is board exam season and everywhere I see worried parents and children. All I want to tell them is to stop freaking out.”

This is what I told myself when my son started having exams in school. I was more laid-back with him than I had ever been with myself. I was not going to be one of those parents who tried to live their dreams vicariously through their children. But by then, my son had taken the laid-back attitude and given it a completely different meaning until he was merely passing his exams (the teachers loved to use the word “scraping through”). Yes, we’ve had a couple of ups and downs but he’s finally doing an undergraduate course that he’s enjoying and that is all I’d really wanted for him.

Right now, it is board exam season and everywhere I see worried parents and children. All I want to tell them is to stop freaking out. Yes, getting into colleges is a nightmare and that’s the only place where exam performances matter. But eventually, things have a way of working out and we’ll all hopefully land on our feet. Until then, there’s no way I’m setting the alarm for 4:00 am and getting up blearily while my younger son refuses to wake up at that unearthly hour. Let him sleep, I say.