Exam stress, qualifications and the future

Kate Hollinshead

I used to pass a house every day on my way to visit my parents. The house and its occupants were strangers to mebut it was just around the corner and I came to visualise what lay within. It was a typical 1930’s semi detached house with attached garage in a nice part of the village; large front garden and shrubbery, pretty flowers in the border and a front lawn that was regularly mowed but it stood out to me because I was a Mum.

There was nothing special about this house but as I had 3 children of my own, I smiled as I recognised the family life that lay within the low front wall and privacy of the people I never saw but felt I knew.

I spotted the buried tin cans in the lawn and remembered my own son and his dad before him burying cans in the lawn to make the perfect green for the makeshift 4 hole golf course. I saw the basketball pole and catching net attached to garage doors and on occasions when the garage doors were open, I saw the bicycles lined up amongst the punch bags and dart board. I noticed the bikes grew in size as the children did; Peppa Pig with stabilisers turned into a young ladies bike with a basket, the 10 inch mountain bike grew into a 21 inch frame road bike with a startling numbers of gear and gadgets. Summer sandals and trainers piled up just inside the doors turned to Wellington boots in the Winter.

The catching poles for crabs at the seaside on rare English summer days turned into sea fishing rods and the buckets and spades gave way to expensive boxes full (I imagined) of specialised weights, floats and paraphernalia associated with a growing young man, his hobby having developed and specialised.
Like my own son, he had gone from day trips to catch anything in a cheap bamboo cane and net to a young man who planned his weekend camping trips with his mates and bought the proper tackle for sea fishing from his hard earned wages as a paper boy and his weekly spends for being a good lad.

I could see all this on this nice residential small estate and had the time to imagine because the road was recently restricted to 20mph to reflect the young families and, at the other end of the spectrum, the grandparents who walked every day to the local shop to collect their daily newspapers and exchange greetings and favours with those they knew and trusted. I crawled past in the car every day and silently acknowledged a family, chaotic life like my own.

But one day, it all changed; it felt different. The garage doors were closed. There were no bikes or stray golf balls on the lawn. The curtains were closed. I felt sad but I didn’t yet know why. On my way back from my parents house I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign being hammered in the place where the basketball pole used to stand at the front of the busy garage doors. There were no tin cans buried in the lawn. I knew they weren’t just selling up; there was no life at the house. I went home and hugged my children.

It was ‘A’ level results Eve. My eldest daughter Lucy was bright but had struggled through two of the 5 A levels she had taken. She had recently got a part time job in a pub to help with spending money but the late shifts had taken their toll on revision nights. She was worried. She hoped she had sufficient results to get into the University of her choice. Her paternal grandparents were a family of teachers and she hoped she wouldn’t let them down.

My heart ached for her. Her father had graduated and worked as a lawyer, she was hoping to pass her law degree. Conversely, I skipped school with my brother whenever there was something more interesting going on so we were a diverse family, different in academic achievement but mutually aspiring for future prospects. I wanted my daughter to achieve academically more than I had done but i could not bear the worry I saw in her face in trying to live up to my goals. I tried to remind her that despite my lack of qualifications, I got a job in a lawyer’s office and it was me who introduced her more educated father into that profession where he now excelled. “Exams don’t matter” I said. “Just try your best, we love you anyway and it will all be alright”.
 I waited in the car park at College whilst she met her friends, excited but equally nervous about the envelopes they were about to receive. I watched the faces of other students coming back to their parents car parked near mine. Crying, laughing, hugging, talk of Universities or second choices, re-sits, two marks off their grades, local journalists photographing the top achievers, I was overwhelmed by the different emotions of not only the students but mums and dads sitting in the car park trying to appear nonchalant but constantly chain smoking and trying not to notice the anxious faces of the young who believed their future lives depended on opening an envelope in the next 20 minutes.

I came to know just 3 days later that the invisible young man I never knew but had secretly watched him grow; the cyclist, the basketball player and the fisherman, the son, the brother, was called Adam. He too was worried about his A level results. On the eve of the results day, he took himself into that busy garage at the side of the lovely family house I used to smile at and amongst the punching bags and toys of his boyhood, he took a rope, hung it amongst the rafters of that busy garage and took his own life.

He never knew his exam results.

I read in the local paper and learned through his eulogy at Church where I sat alone, a stranger listening in, that he wanted a career in the Royal Navy following his love of the sea, engineering and his natural intellect. He was truly loved and supported. No one knew the pressure he felt. His parents encouraged him but never pushed him. They wanted him to do well of course and find the college of his choice but there was rugby, mates, fishing and growing up to be done too. It seems he felt there was too little time for revision. It was inconceivable that this lovely young man felt he might let down his parents and his little Peppa Pig sister.

The house is occupied now by a lovely elderly couple, near to the local paper shop and neighbours with whom they can exchange greetings and favours. Just like Adam and his family used to do.. The front garden lawn is immaculate, there are no tin cans buried, there is no golf course. The garage has been demolished. They collect their newspapers, there is no paper boy delivering them at 6.30am on his way to college.

Adam got 5 a+. He would have been a junior Officer in the Engineering Department of the Royal Navy. His little sister has just qualified as a mental health Nurse.

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