Smarty Pants – It’s ‘A’ level Time!

“The pants and socks schedule is going to be pretty punishing next week!”

So says my younger son, Theo. The pants and socks to which he refers are his lucky pants and lucky socks. He needs them because he is in the middle of his A level exams.

So far the pants and socks have stood him in good stead; the campaign is going well. Even more reason not to deviate from the rituals.

Evidently the pants have power over questions on Cicero, statistical analyses and French and German literature.

Do not question the power of the pants.

Personally, when I look at these pants I’m now furiously putting through the wash three (next week four) times a week I see nothing but a pair of classic, jersey boxers from Oddballs, the testicular cancer charity, bought at a rugby match.

They haven’t always been lucky pants. They started life as regular, comfy pants.

And then they were grabbed from the underwear drawer on the morning of Theo’s university interview day and, because all went well and, one written exam and two interviews later he received an offer (A*AAA), they have become the lucky pants.

The companion socks obviously have been roped in on the act and now we are trapped in a pattern of behaviour Theo imagines could well determine his success or otherwise in these exams.

I don’t like to tell him that the outcome will not be down to his underwear. It’ll be down to the enormous amount of work he’s put in, the extra lessons with his teachers, the passionate dedication to the pursuit of his goal.

It’ll be down to the chaos of our kitchen table and the silence of the house (except when he plays his French Afro Trap and his German news podcasts – then it’ll be down to the racket they’re making in foreign tongues) and the endless cups of brain-stimulating tea he drinks.

I like to think it’ll be down, in part at least, to the notes I leave for him on the morning of each exam. Quotes to keep him going:

“Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway!” (John Wayne)

“Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house!” (John Cheever)

“You just can’t beat the person who never gives up!” (Babe Ruth)

Theo and I call it ‘notivational’ inspiration.

It’s all a far, far cry from my A levels back in 1987.

My memories are of doing almost no work in an era when schools and parents would let you fail because they believed your learning and exams were your responsibility. Rightly.

They are of relaxing on study leave, reading only the things which genuinely interested me: Hamlet and some Jacobean plays (for my English A level) Madame Bovary and some bits of Baudelaire (for French) and absolutely nothing on the Repeal of the Corn Laws or indeed of the balance of power in Europe (History).

I had come to detest History since I discovered after a year that I’d accidentally opted for British Political History rather than Social and Economic. Honestly, I had no interest in Pitt the Younger. I just wanted to hear about how the poor put a pudding basin on their head and cut round it to save on the barber.

I remember hanging out in the pubs with pals discussing strategies for revising. We were really good at that. Much less good at actually revising.

I remember the evening before my first History paper. My friend Adrian called me to discuss the revision we’d not done.

Adrian and I had sat next to each other in every class throughout the Sixth Form. We’d shared notes and text books and jokes. We’d scrawled obscenities over each other’s files. We’d copied each other’s prep.

But we hadn’t done a whole lot of work.

The reality dawned during that phone call. A slow, descending horror engulfed us.

The prospect of not achieving that of which we were capable. Of failing. Of ending up at Aberystwyth University. Or worse, a polytechnic. (I was to be the first in my family to go to university. It had to be a university.)

And all we could do was laugh.

I sat on the stairs in my house talking to him sitting on the stairs in his and we laughed so hard we could barely speak. It was the kind of uncontrollable, bladder jeopardising hysteria you only rarely experience.

I’ll never forget it.

Neither of us achieved our predicted grades. Both of us did pretty badly in History.

Unfortunately there wasn’t an A* for slacking off.

Just as we got the results we deserved, I’m sure Theo will too.

Wish I’d known about the lucky pants though.

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1 comment

  1. It wasn’t possible to do ‘A’ Level exams at the school I went to, it had to be either GCE ‘O’ Level or CSE. In my case it was both!

    I got messed about during my final couple of years at secondary school. I was in the top form until the third year. I messed up on one in class English test and got moved down to the second form, which was studying for CSE (I say “studying” but most of the class were time wasters who created an unruly environment for anyone who wanted to get on). CSE involved a certain amount of course work which would contribute to a percentage of your final grade. After a couple of months, when I was just getting into the course work, I suddenly got moved back up to the top form. That scenario happened twice during two years. Subsequently, I ended up sitting both GCE and CSE exams in all subjects.

    The summer of 1976 was notoriously hot everyday and the exams were taken in the main hall, which had floor to ceiling windows and doors either side – just like a greenhouse! A couple of boys fell off their chair and a teacher had to come in and assist them to a more survivable atmosphere. Several others could be seen wilting due to a combination of heat exhaustion and exam taking stress. I was bored throughout but managed to endure the duration of each exam.

    I got an ‘A+’ for GCE Woodwork, which seemed to come naturally to me anyway. I got a ‘U’ (ungraded) for GCE English because I hadn’t produced enough for the examiners to go on. I suppose the screwed up, part written on bits of paper around my desk were inadmissible. I don’t remember any of my other of my exam results and, in any case, I never bothered to collect any of the certificates anyway.

    I don’t think lucky pants would have helped me at all but teachers who knew what they hell they were doing might have made an immense difference and prepared me for either one type of exam or the other. I hated school and I didn’t need it. What did make a difference to me was my lovely mum. She was always my best teacher in every subject. Whenever I’m writing, I can always feel her presence and guidance. Thank you Mum, I didn’t need any exams to always get top marks in your class.

    The best of luck, Theo and keep your pants on! (I seem to recall someone giving me that advice once but that’s a completely different story).

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