The perils of education

In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes, Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789. More than 200 years later, we can safely say that almost nothing has changed, but I'd like to add a third: exams.

If you're a teenager reading this - and editors worldwide are sweating acid assuming that teenagers will never pick up a hard copy of a paper in their entire lives, so prove them wrong and keep me in a job, kids - you might be doing mid-year exams at the moment.

Things have changed since I was at school. Not only did I crawl 10 kilometres through the snow to get there, but I grew up at the tail end of an era when parents still held technological sway and the most complicated thing in the house was the video recorder.

I got my first Hotmail address at 17, and a year later my first cellphone - a $199 orange Alcatel One Touch Easy ("The Next Generation - Today!") with a 24-character display, an alarm, 15 different monophonic ringtones, and a calculator.

It was a welcome addition to my friends' collective cellphone pool. There were only two between us in my last year at high school - an old Motorola that Becky's dad lent to whichever of his daughters was going out for the night, and Sarah's mum's Alcatel in sky blue.

All we had to broadcast gossip was the girls' toilet wall - we didn't have Rate My Teachers, Facebook, or nasty memes like those targeting teachers in Auckland lately. And there was no NCEA - I did most of my assessment as exams.

But I never did very well. I had no focus, and spent too much time talking with my friends, remembering stuff only when there was a vivid mental image. I sat spellbound by poetry, Shakespeare, American civil rights, art history, geology, and the workings of the human body, but most else passed me by.

If I'd paid proper attention, I might have known what sort of learning style that represents and made use of it. Instead, I studied for and sat exams the way I now drive a car - erratically and badly.

I never met a question I didn't answer, in the hope there was some half-mark I could wring out of it by writing something - anything. I decided that "static" meant "unstable" in a fifth form science test, because it reminded me of electricity, and that was fizzy and energetic, so, like, duh.

I knew you got marks for showing your working in maths, so I would torture myself calculating the (incorrect) answer and work backwards, making up equations to show how I'd arrived there. I did the same with English essays, writing the planning bit afterwards and inventing paragraph links so my delirious journey through incomprehensibility seemed intentional, at least.

One year, I badly failed geography, which for some scheduling reason I took by correspondence, because I spent the lesson time writing elaborate letters and short stories, including one dramatic epic about a hang-glider pilot whose equipment failed, sending him plummeting to his death on the rocks below, for which I received second place and $75 in the Waikato Times Short Story Competition. That was not worth the shame of a final mark of 36 per cent, though.

Memories of maths still make me wince - I remember sobbing over long division at the kitchen table in primary school, with my mother sitting next to me, mute with frustration - she couldn't do it either.

So young, so wrong, so often, which led to a total shutdown with maths for the rest of my life, and after managing 54 per cent in School Cert, I pretty much abandoned it altogether, although for some reason I loved trigonometry.

I say all this because I would have been surprised back then to find out that my schizophrenic exam results did not turn out to be the end of the world.

Exams require a certain style of learning, one for which not everyone is well-equipped, hence our beloved NCEA.

The occasional sense of satisfaction is underpinned by the dread of failure, and worse: failure measured on a scale against your peers, setting negative self-expectations that can stick for life.

I'm not saying they don't matter, and that in 10 years you won't care what marks you got in your geography exam - mostly because your teachers will be angry at me, and they know better. But also because it still grates me that I mucked around too much at school.

For some of you, things aren't going to go so well in high school, for whatever reason.

I suggest you don't get too discouraged if things don't go to plan, but look ahead - because in 10 years, you might have discovered your niche in life, and for many of you, school will not be where you find it.

It'll be somewhere beyond now, when your school assessments have passed and something momentous grabs your attention. Then all you'll have to worry about are death, taxes, and helping your kids with long division - in your hazy, scary, wonderful future.