Thursday, 14 August 2008

Panic on the Streets of London

Today I got a phone call. I’d just finished scrumping some of my Dad’s apples while he was safely out of the way, had just got back in the car.

I’m glad I heard the call. Had my radio not locked itself when the car battery was changed I might have missed it.

It was my cousin, M. She sounded like she had a bit of a cold but it transpired shortly that actually she’d been crying. Here’s why:

Severely dyslexic, she’s been studying outdoor adventure management at university for a few years. She loves it, but what she doesn’t love is exams. She dodged an exam in the summer term because she was ill. Having seen her today I would hazard a guess that her fear of exams contributed to that illness.

A week ago some post for her was delivered to her mama’s house. A week later (today) her mama told her that post was there. One of the letters was from her university telling her that she had to re-sit the exam next Wednesday. It was this that had sent her into absolute meltdown.

My response to that would have been to go home, get my study stuff then hit the library.

Or rather, my response would have been totally different because I would have prepared for the exam in the first place and it is extremely unlikely that I would have considered missing an exam acceptable under anything but the most extreme circumstances. But M is not me and has been skipping exams and getting default grades from classwork for years, since her final year at school. I’m not really sure how she managed to get away with this but get away with it she has.

Now that there is no way out of an exam, she’s seriously considering dropping out rather than just taking it like a woman.

There are two issues that are stopping her. I can see where they come from and don’t blame her but she has to deal with them if she wants to move forward with her degree and her career.

First of all there’s panic. I am no stranger to panic myself and although I almost definitely have higher levels of anxiety than a lot of people, panic moves out of my mind as quickly as it sets in. I have a theory that this is because I invite it, but I can give it some one to one time, then show it the door. It works for me. It stops the panic taking over and infecting every thought and bringing me to a standstill.

I’m not talking about panic attacks that truly feel like a coronary, just the sort of brain freeze that used to leave me in an unfocused flap for days at a time.

Right now, M does not have days to be in a flap. She has an exam for which she has not prepared in less than a week and she has paid work in the meantime. On the plus side, she’s been on the course all year so the content shouldn’t have sunk to the very bottom of her mind just yet.

The second is classic and chronic M. She has a huge sense that the world has been fundamentally unjust toward her and her alone. Following her logic, if things don’t work out for her then there is someone else to blame.

Sometimes that person has been me, and M’s mama like a lioness protecting a cub has pounced. In fact, nothing like a lioness unless lionesses have taken to telephoning their nieces and shouting at them for things that really and truly are nothing to do with them.

So I know M does this, and I don’t hold it against her. Her mama does it too but I always hope than M will grow out of it. Right now, in the context of the Unexpected Exam, it unfolds like this:

a) It was not M’s fault that she missed her original exam because she was working too much at her paid jobs, one of which her mama had got her. Thus, it was her mama’s fault.

b) It was not M’s fault that she thought she wouldn’t have to do the exam because she was set an assessment covering the same topics as the exam. Thus, it was her lecturers’ fault and makes no sense anyway.

c) It was not M’s fault that she had done no preparation because she was ill from working too much in the few weeks leading up to the exam and when she was not working she needed to unwind (usually in the pub).

d) It was not M’s fault that she didn’t know about the exam until a week beforehand because her mama only just told her she had post. It’s her mama’s fault.

e) It was not M’s fault because life, God and the universe are unfair and it is always someone else’s fault. If in doubt, blame God.

All of this I have said to her and can be summed up simply by telling her she must take responsibility for her own actions or inactions. No excuses, just take the blame then move on.

I don’t know whether she’s managed to do it, though. Judging from a chat with her mama earlier this evening it sounds like she’s still panicking and so still casting around for someone else to blame. The panic and the blame jointly require energy and creativity, which she could be channelling towards constructive exam preparation.

After all, the exam is in Service Operations Management, not Panicking and Blaming Other People.

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