Thursday 26 April 2012

Asleep On The Job

My tiny village is unusually awash with teenagers this week as they slip out of their houses for a breath of fresh air before returning to their rooms for another long stint of Exam Leave Revision.

I don’t envy them.

Although I do entertain the fleeting desire to re-take my Biology O-level occasionally (yes, I'm so old that GCSEs were the stuff of Tomorrow’s World), persuading myself that this time I really would find it interesting, I have had too many exam catastrophes in my past to ensure the rosy-coloured spectacles of school-induced nostalgia slip off my nose as quickly as I put them there.

There was, for example, my music O-level paper where the three hour written exam demanding four essays on Schumann and friends, turned out in effect to be a 90 minute paper in its entirety, a fact my fellow classmates and I first discovered when the examiner rang the ten minute warning bell after only 80 minutes. When we expressed our dismay to our music teacher he shrugged his stereotypically eccentric music teacher shoulders and said, ‘So, how do you think you got on?’

My most catastrophic mishap however, has to be the one involving the Sleeping French Professor.

I admit to choosing my university entirely on its location. I’d been brought up in Northumberland and moved away to the Midlands at a wistful age 10. I was always going to return to Newcastle to study. I never seriously considered going anywhere else. I do remember being relieved that there was a vaguely suitable course in German with French at the university but am ashamed to say that’s about as far as the research into my future went.

So I deserve no sympathy when I say that I had a love/ hate relationship with my course. The heavily language based German part I loved, the predominantly literature based French portion? Well, perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d understood the words.

I should also explain that I was studying German just at the time when the Berlin Wall was on its way down and our language assistant was a fascinatingly hip twenty-something year old with a dodgy leg (hence her being allowed to come to the UK in the first place, she’d explained) from the former East Germany, with many a mind-blowing story to tell – France’s Molière and Balzac didn’t really stand a chance, I’m afraid.

Our Finals approached. We had to do a twenty minute presentation on a subject of our choice. ‘There are no restrictions,’ the head of the French department explained, ‘but students tend to find a fresh angle to discuss on one of their favourite authors from the course.’

Not me!

I’d spent six months living in Paris and I thought it would be much more pertinent to talk about the differences in French and English diet, focussing heavily on eating disorders in both countries and the role of the media in them.

I know. I know.

Facing me were three terrifying members of the French department. The first was an ‘assistante’ from Toulouse who said, ‘oui, oui’ specifically two words before the end of all my sentences. The second was a professor known to me only by sight in the department, a portly gentleman with a thick, grey, curly beard which I remember as being an exact copy of the hair on his head. It’s perhaps a little unfair to claim that the third examiner was terrifying. He gave a sympathetic smile as I entered which only moved once during the conversation to perform a little ‘O’ shape when he read what my talk was to focus on, before it was firmly returned and remained intact to the end of my talk.

I remember very little of my presentation, only tearing up my notes in a fit of pique when I finally secured an exit from the stifling exam room. However I will never forget the professor, his upside down face contorting in his desperation not to fall asleep, his eyelids stretching and retracting, his mouth following their shape as he did his utmost to fight the all-conquering pull of sleep that I knew so well from many a stuffy lecture hall filled with soliloquys from Voltaire.

Mme Oui Oui from Toulouse did try to rouse him now and again with a brusque knock from her elbow but, as anyone who’s every suffered from bored-induced narcolepsy will testify, when that urge comes, it takes more than a jab to return the head to upright.

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well in my spoken French assessment and only marginally better in literature. Thank goodness I’d been captivated by every word spoken by our endearingly Communist German visitor.

At least I emerged with a story to tell and I do wonder if the Sleeping French Professor has ever told the tale from his position behind the desk.

So, over to you! Please share your exam nightmares with us. I know you have some tales to make us laugh and cry and cringe. Go on! We won’t tell…


  1. I find it impossible to go into libraries or exam rooms or anywhere where one is expected to be quiet without a burning desire to leap on a table and yell something very loudly. This is because the mornning of my very last final (Rationalism and Empiricism 2 Kant and Hume, loved Hume, had some issues with Kant)I was told the apochryphal story of the student who lost it one year and jumped on the desk during finals and yelled "I'm an orange, squeeze me." How I made it through that last exam I will never know and 27 years later I still have to concentrate very hard to control the urge to scream!

    1. Hi Skyblue! That's brilliant. I would counsel that the only way to release yourself from this fear of quiet would be to enter a library and scream away. Please can you let me know in advance when you're planning to do it???
      Meanwhile, I'm off to google Rationalism and Empiricism...

  2. I panicked in each and every exam I took - knowledge seeped out of my head on the way into the room. And I was always sat next to that person who'd be writing away and SMILING!

    1. No! They were smiling because they were thinking of something else! I bet you did OK, really, even with the slight knowledge seeping?

      I do think you can either do exams (and that includes the mindset) or you can't. I always used to like them, for some strange reason, which is bizarre as I was pretty bad at them. I always used to do well enough for what I needed but my reports were always blighted with, 'disappointing exam results'.
      Ah well, it's only when you get older that you realise they're not the be-all and end-all we were always told they were!

  3. I haven't got anything to say about exams!But i will say i absolutely loved your piece there -i kid you not i couldn't get the curser down quick enough to read the next sentence!
    Meanwhile i'm really sorry but i don't like to think about exams too much- it's too traumatic and definitely not worth a story! Some people can do them some people can't!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Thanks Antonia, I'm really glad you enjoyed it but I do feel a bit guilty for taking you back to traumatic times :( I promise never to mention the dreaded exams again, ok - well, at least not for a while...

  5. As I've already told you, Jackie, I loved this blog, especially as a current fellow sufferer (and biologist!)
    I will really try to put my brain to work on my own experiences, you have given me the inspiration!

    1. Thank Markable, so glad you liked the post and yes! please do let us hear your exam tales - therapeutic to share!


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