Swinging high before the results.
Last night I let my 10-year-old daughter start a fire in our home. Far from a rampant inferno, this controlled blaze involved one letter-sized piece of paper and a few matches in our kitchen sink. Its flickering flames licked at invisible wounds she’d endured during a heart-break earlier in the day.
Currently, in London, thousands of 10- and 11-year-old children are anxiously awaiting the results of something called the 11+ exams – a series of gruelling tests in verbal and non-verbal reasoning, mathematics and English, not to mention interviews and assessment days. These tests help secondary schools to decide which of these thousands of bright and shiny faces will grace their hallowed halls this September. Some of the schools allow hundreds (sometimes more than 1,000) children to vie for as few spots as 30. The competition is literally fierce.
Children all over the city have been studying for a year or more (some parents start prepping their kids at 6!), conducting practice test after practice test in every free moment, to prepare them for this harrowing process. Their current schools teach lessons on interview techniques, verbal reasoning and exam skills. Some kids are tutored multiple times a week. Others have been forced to play musical instruments and join sports teams (whether they want to or not) over the past few years to pad their resumes. It’s akin to applying for university – at 10.
When I was that age, I built snow forts in the backyard, ran through the neighbourhood with friends and played endless games of hide and seek with my little sister. I would have aced an exam on Barbie’s latest fashion accessories, but put a three-hour exam in front of me and I would have folded like a cheap metal lawn chair in a windstorm.
My cheery 10-year-old, on the other hand, has been a superstar. She’s crammed for her exams with a “reasonable” amount of arguing. She’s gone into interviews with self-confidence and given impromptu singing concerts in two of them. My little girl didn’t even complain about sitting exams on three consecutive Saturdays.
The night after each exam, however, her resolve cracked. My daughter’s sweet smile slipped towards her chin as the pressure buried her under its heft. She cried herself to sleep, worried that she hadn’t done well enough to be accepted by a school. “What if no one wants me,” she sobbed into her pillow as I stroked her back.
“Of course they’ll want you,” I cooed. “You’re the spark these schools are missing. We just have to find the one that sees it.”
“But what if I don’t get in anywhere,” she blurted, a fresh bout of tears erupting from her eyes.
“Of course you will.”
“But how do you know?” Her wet eyes pleaded for me to have all the answers.
“I just know. You’ll be accepted where you’re meant to be accepted,” I said, vowing it to be true.
Now that the exams are over, we’ve all embarked upon the dreaded waiting game. Moms who are usually upbeat and chatty stand farther away at school pickup, avoiding other parents’ glances and try not to engage in conversations about results.
You can tell the ones who’ve had good news. The bags below their eyes have been covered with concealer, they’ve accessorized themselves and have replaced PJ bottoms with freshly washed jeans and heels. Some try to mask their smiles, but you can see it in their eyes. Others jump around exuberantly, hugging their friends and rejoicing in the fact that this horrendous process didn’t quash their child’s dreams or self-confidence.
I am happy for them. Honestly. I just selfishly wish that it was me jumping around with good news. Not so I could gloat, but so I didn’t have to see that look of dejection cloud my daughter’s vibrant blue irises – my interesting, unique, smart and talented kid who any school would be lucky to have.
Each time I hear the post fall through our mail slot, I rush to the door with a fluttering heart, hoping to see a large envelope from one of the schools. Small ones, we’ve learned, usually bring bad news.
This past Saturday, as my daughter was away writing her final exam, we received a small envelope. It was from her favourite school; the one she’d dreamed about attending for two years. My husband opened it hurriedly, praying that the letter contained good news. Unfortunately, it didn’t. In his hand lay the first major rejection of our daughter’s young life. I burst into tears as I envisioned having to tell her and witness her face crumple in sadness as her dream was squashed. I held on to the bad news for two days before I felt strong enough to approach her with it.
She took it bravely. “That’s okay Mom. I don’t care,” she said. “Really. Plus, it was tied for my first place, so I still have another good option.” She didn’t fool me. I saw the tell-tale tremble of her lower lip. She bit it lightly, trying to still its movement, but before she could stop it, the tears flowed. I held her in my arms as her body shook with each sob, willing myself not to cry along with her. I felt every ounce of that disappointment as much as she did.
When we got home, I showed her the letter and her tears re-emerged. As she crumpled the paper in her fist I said, “How about we burn it?” Her face lighted up as she looked at me in disbelief.
The flame danced in her eyes as she struck the first match, carefully holding it to the top corner of the letter. A small, half-smile appeared on her tear-stained cheek as the paper curled and vanished. When the flame went out, she lighted another match, repeating the process until all that remained were ashes.
That night, she fell asleep in my bed, hugging me whole-heartedly as she drifted off. I lay facing her. As I watched her face relax with sleep, I knew she’d be okay no matter what news comes in the next envelopes. She was still smiling.
And now for a few quotes to make you laugh:
Why she needs so many pens
Marley: Don’t ask me why I have so many coloured pens in my bag. I use them and when people want to borrow them, they have to give me five hugs and tell me a joke. So I get a lot of hugs during the day and more jokes to add to my collection.
Discussing Rudolf the Red nose Reindeer and who deserves to “go down in history”
Marley: Michael Jackson didn’t go down in history. No one likes his songs anymore, but people still like Einstein.
Me: You forgot to pack a towel for swim practice. Did you borrow one from a friend?
Marley: No. I just shook myself like a dog and then put my clothes on.
Pierce: I’m not going to that restaurant. I would rather go to a Barbie museum or even meet a grizzly bear.
On being generous
Pierce: You’ve got lots of generosity left. So, why don’t you just give some of it to your son? It’s refillable. Yes it is. And when you give some away, you get more. Yes you do. But instead of using some, you are being selfish and making me go to the restaurant. Why are you not giving any kindness today? You should really. Come on. Don’t make me go to the restaurant.
Marley: [Opens a Sweet Heart. It says “BE GOOD”] Is this a coincidence?
Luckily, our car is blue
Me: (Ranting at a driver who, of course, can’t hear me) Thanks for waiting, Cow.
Marley: Mom, why is she a cow?
Me: Because she just pushed her way through when it was my turn.
Marley: But wouldn’t she be a bull? Cows are gentle and bulls are angry.
Me: I guess so.
Marley: Well, then it’s good that we’re not in a red car.