But what's in their heads?

I have just dropped my son off at the station to go to what we all hope is his last ever Maths exam. He has a horrible week this week: 8 GCSEs, and most of them the hefty ones - nothing fluffy at all.

One of his exams is English Literature. Son and a friend were talking about their respective Eng. Lit exams over the Half Term. "How is the quotation learning going?" I asked. They looked at me blankly. "Ma, we take the books into the exam," said son, gently, to a mother he knows is old and incapable. Seeing my look of horror, friend added, trying, to cheer, "The books have to be clean!"

Oh good.

From one point of view (that of a mother whose son's revision has been virtually invisible) I am glad - one less thing to worry about. At least he'll be able to write SOMETHING. From another, I am horrified. For my exams, in the late 1970s, I learned epic amounts of quotations. My dear, noble, mother, used to sit there on our tatty sofa, listening to me as I paced up and down, repeating lines until I sure they had gone in (fortunately we had that hideous glass fibre carpet so there was no chance of my wearing a hole as I paced).

But the thing is, those quotations did go in: and they stayed in. Getting up one morning recently, faced with an event I really did not want to go to, I muttered to my daughter, who looked suitably horror-struck, "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk." I know my feeling of doom has absolutely nothing to do with nightingales, but that quotation to me always sums up that feeling of sleepy dread when you wake up knowing you have something to do you really don't want to. It is part of my internal landscape, and is always what I think when I am curled in my bed, wishing I could stay there instead of get up and face the horror.

There is a lot more that is part of my internal landscape too: Ozymandias, when looking at some bloated bit of architectural posturing; Wilfred Owen whenever the First World War comes up; screeds of Shakespeare, though I am not, I must admit, that good at remembering which quotation comes from where.

And none of that would be there, none at all, if it had not been for the fact that I had to learn it. My dear son, and all his peers will not have that, and that is dreadful.


Unknown said…
When I did O level english lit, we weren't allowed to take text books into the exam. So I have to swot up useful lines from Shakespeare, Chaucer and various poets.

As the village high school didn't have a 6th form, I had to go to another school for my A levels. The pupils who'd done their O levels there were appalled to discover that they wouldn't be able to take texts in to their A level exams. They'd studied a different O level syllubus to the one I'd done.
I wasn't terribly sympathetic to their complaints about having to manage without their books in the exams. After all, I'd already done it once.
This was 1983.
Jane Badger said…
Well quite. And if you already know the stuff, it must surely make you much more efficient in the exam: you don't waste ages flicking through the text trying to find the bit you want. Or maybe they're not supposed to quote anymore? We were always told we'd get credit for quoting (as long as what was linking the quotes was reasonble). Perhaps it's different now. I will ask the son when he returns.
Juxtabook said…
I did the first year of GCSE in 1988 and at that stage we did have to learn quotes, though there was some coursework introduced. But as you say kids can now take clean texts into their GCSE exam. It is slightly better than a few years ago when they were allowed to take "lightly annotated" texts into the exam. This lasted 4 or 5 years and was murder to police. Just what is "lightly annotated"?? And why when they've got key words like satire, metaphor etc., scattered across their copy of the poem, can't they spell them!
Jane Badger said…
Good grief! Lightly annotated, indeed. If I'd been given that stricture, I'd have written my copious notes in very light pencil indeed. They'd have been light. That sort of thing is a licence to the barrack room lawyer student (son, for example, and yes, ahem, me) to make hay.

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