Midterms are nothing short of a mental battlefield. Our sleep-deprived children step out of the house, their hoodies raised over their ears like helmets, covering hair they didn’t have time to comb while also keeping inside their overburdened heads the Latin words for “seize the day.”
They clutch their swords — their No. 2 pencils and erasable pens; and grasp their tiny shields — the one-page sheets filled with the equations for photosynthesis and the description of the domain Archaea.
When the kids arrive at school, they don’t look left and right because they don’t have much time to chat with friends, avoid enemies or wonder what fashion statement the popular students are making. They are bracing for battle and they have to climb the mountain in front of them without allowing too many mistakes to slow them down.
We adults have been through these moments before, just as we have had shots, skinned our knees and struck out in a big game. And yet watching our kids go through all these challenges brings a whole new level of anxiety, butterflies and, like Pandora’s box, rays of hope. Might this be the time when they succeed just as they feel they are about to succumb? Could this be just the confidence boost they need to help them relax and attack these tests with the equivalent of the light side of the force on future tests?
While the kids write about epiphanies, rarely, as those of us who have gone through this know, do they happen in the middle of an exam. Sure, there might be a moment when they say, “Oh, right, of course, I know this. The answer is ‘0’ because it can’t be anything else.” But more often, even if they figure that one out, they still have another six pages of mysterious questions, such as “What king believed in absolutism?” [Louis XIV of France]; and how did Dante know what my world would be like on test day when he wrote “The Divine Comedy”?
There are all kinds of lessons that await them, some of which apply to the material itself, while others relate to the best test-taking strategy. I recall a test many years ago in which the teacher urged everyone to read all the instructions first before starting. Few of the students did that because they didn’t want to lose time and because any sound outside their heads competed with the pneumonics they were repeating inside their brains like lines in a play.
As the tests arrive on their desks, their legs might start shaking involuntarily, trying to get their minds moving, the way Olympic runners take short, quick jogs before crouching down in the starting blocks. They go through whatever lucky rituals they might have, thinking about the words of a friend or relative, taking a few deep breaths or looking up at the clock, knowing that — one way or another — the hands that slowly circumnavigate those 12 numbers all day, every day, will move them toward their uncertain future.
Maybe they chuckle to themselves at the higher dose of perfume than normal from the girl to their right or the stronger scent of Axe deodorant from the boy to their left. Maybe these other students didn’t take showers that morning because they got up too late or because they sat on the edge of their beds cramming through those last few facts.
Few of them will emerge from the battle completely unscathed. Hopefully, next time around, they’ll remember their earlier wounds and will learn how to avoid making the same mistakes. That, in any context, constitutes progress.