The incredible feeling of passing an exam

I’ m putting the dishes into the dishwasher. My elder son Afonso and I had to have dinner in a hurry “Mom, please, I have to study for tomorrow’s Physics exam”. Of course I hurried. He has been studying hard these last few days, and the last few weeks, and months. Since he got into University and a lot more before that – to get into University. So I’m used to the rhythm and I naturally adapt. All Moms do! And for this exam I know he’s studying particularly hard – it’s a subject he doesn’t like and it’s a hard one. For the last few nights he has been studying out with a friend until 2 am, so I can I see he’s worried.

While in the kitchen I hear him scream! At first I don’t really understand, I think it’s because he’s studying so much, during exams I also had the most strange reactions…but, before I know it, he comes into the kitchen, with a huge smile and he says: “Mom, I’ve passed ! I’ve passed Algebra!” and he gives me a big hug.

This is another first year/first semester subject that they all have to go through but don’t really like. Along with Physics Algebra is part of the subjects they have to pass but that really do not have much to do with what they like (in his case Agronomics Engineering). So it’s a relief when they get rid of them!

As he went to his room to resume his studying (and share the good news with some of his fellow students) I went back to the dishes and could not help thinking how different it was when I was at University.

For one, we did not have internet and could not receive the news while comfortably at home! In the case of written exams we had to go to University on the day the lists of results were published and anxiously look for our respective result in an endless list of names. But then, we mostly had oral exams (as we were studying Law), so it was a veritable torture: all the students that were scheduled for a certain day’s oral exams had to be there at 8 am, as everybody would be called at that time. Then the teachers would begin the exam of the first student, and as he or she came out the following would go in, and so. Until the last, who would have to wait all day and sometimes do his or her exam at 6 or 7 pm. Or, if exams took longer than usual, he or she would be called and told “sorry, no more exams for today” and be rescheduled for the following day. It was torture! And results would be told only before lunch break and the end of the day. But the worst was the fact that after each exam the waiting students would ask the “latest victim”: “what were the questions? How did it go? Was if difficult?” and to each answer we would panic and say “my God, the questions he’s asking are exactly about that part I haven’t studied…I feel as if I know nothing!” and so on and so on. By midday those who remained to be examined would be half crazy, and I honestly don’t know how we managed to go through the exams and still succeed. I, for one, had a good defence mechanism: as soon as I found myself sitting in front of the teacher (they were in fact usually two: the professor and his assistant lecturer) I entered into an “automatic mode” and would answer every question correctly – as long I knew the answers, of course.

I was usually well prepared, as I studied hard, but the degree of difficulty of our exams varied a lot according to professors, the subjects (some were easier, some were less interesting, some we didn’t understand at all, some we hated!), the documentation we had…and our reactions were also different.

As we waited in the corridors for them to call us, my friend Júlia had to pay regular visits to the bathroom to vomit (“oh My God I hope they don’t call me while I’m away” – “don’t worry, we’ll say you were sick!”); another colleague, Tó, spent the whole time nervously muttering to himself “I only want to have 10, I only need to have 10!” ((10 out of 20, the minimum result in order to pass an exam)…and we used all the strategies we could think of. For the exams with one of our teachers, who was a bit “original” and was known to like the yellow colour very much, we all presented ourselves with one yellow piece of clothing, which proved to be quite an endeavour for boys – as our final exams were in June and July, so in Summer, and back then the only possible piece of clothing boys might have in yellow was a sweater – I do remember all my fellow students (the boys) with an incredible display of yellow sweaters and profusely sweating in the heat of summer! As for myself, I had a very nice mustard-yellow jumpsuit (very much in fashion then) and wore it for the exam; I’m not sure it was the yellow jumpsuit but the fact is I had studied very little for that exam and still I passed!

Those were hard times but no doubt they made us stronger, more resilient: if we could face them we could face almost anything. And in the end we were proud that we had to go through such an ordeal – it made us feel we were much better than the students of other Law universities who didn’t have mandatory oral exams. And of course we had so many stories to tell, particularly how we had survived the exam with the worst teacher of them all, and a Nazi sympathiser who enjoyed treating students like dogs!

Immersed in all these memories, I have a big smile by the time I’m finished in the kitchen. As I come out my son is talking to himself as he studies. And I think that, in a few years, he will also have his stories of his years of University. Different from mine, certainly, but still some funny, some happy, some crazy, some scary ones…but all of them memories of unforgettable years that stay in our lives forever. As mine have. And, adding up to those memories, the incredible and unforgettable feeling of passing an exam, of succeeding. The incredible feeling of victory.

Exactly the feeling that my son has experienced today.