Putting Stress in Context

I am currently sitting in the university library stressing over an exam I have to sit tomorrow.  In fact, here is proof:

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As I quiver behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature which will lend me no aid tomorrow, and I ponder writing a blog post for the sole purpose of procrastination, I remember the importance of putting into context every stress we face.  This can be done on varying levels.  The most simple, of course, is to convince yourself that your life will continue regardless of the result of the exam.  If I fail tomorrow’s exam I have the possibility of a re-sit.  I’m only in first year so it won’t go towards my final degree.  Even if all fails and I’m forced to drop out of university, I still have my health, my family, my friends, and the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.  And on a deeper level I often remember how tiny a spec I am, inhabiting a marginally larger spec that orbits a still undeniably small spec, unobservable to the mast majority of the known universe.  On this tiny spec alone there are 7 billion people who couldn’t care less whether I pass tomorrow’s exam.

Even on another level, however, I’ve managed to put this stress into perspective, though in a way more difficult to describe.  I stood in front of a mirror yesterday gazing at my face for a number of minutes (yes, this is going somewhere).  In my sleep-deprived state I happened to notice how peculiar many parts of it looked – in particular the eyes.  Maybe it’s just me and my aversion to making eye contact but I’ve never noticed quite how intricate the eye is.  Patterns streak across the iris in a rich array of colours, hazel-blue in my case, like a fiery aurora.  The pupil floats in the centre, a perfect featureless circle showing only my own reflection back through the mirror.  My wonder did not cease here; I noticed, as my eyes twitched to and from the light, the pupil dilating inwards and outwards.  Eager to test this further I shined a torch onto and off the side of my face in slow succession, watching the pupil instinctively react.  It did this like the focusing of a camera lens in a process I could not feel or sense.

What this showed me, beyond a worrying sign of my own vanity, was how amazing it is simple to live.  To be this incredible biological wonder I don’t really understand or even particularly consider on a daily basis.  We’re so absorbed by everyday obsessions – be they work, taxes, socialising, politics and, of course, exams – that I don’t think many people besides biologists and children realise this.  Whatever happens in my exam tomorrow, my mere existence is a true marvel.  This isn’t an excuse to be devoid of motivation or ambition by any means, but I really believe it’s healthy to keep these things in mind.

Okay, stress-fuelled philosophical rambling over.  Back to the textbooks…

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The End of an Era

Yesterday was my final ever timetabled day at high school.  13 years (75%) of my life, and it is now over.  Sure, I still have a month of revision and exams ahead before completely being chucked out, but… Wow.  I really can no longer claim to be a child any more.

It’s both fascinating and impossible to impartially reflect on these years.  I am incredibly grateful to have received an education and tried to never take it for granted, but there have been many times I’ve had reason to criticise the system.  It’s inescapable nature, either through design of peer pressure, to discourage individuality and push for uniformity; the unfair and unrepresentative use of exams as often the sole form of assessment; and the sheer stress it places on young people, are all aspects I would like to discuss in detail but don’t have the time or willpower to bring together the well-planned arguments this topic deserves [these exams are draining].  The point about peer pressure is definitely one I would like to speak about at a later date.

But of course, there are huge benefits to schooling – state schooling in particular – I’ve experienced.  The range of teachers and pupils to interact with, the friends I’ve made, the opportunities… It’s been a rollercoaster 13 years.

My Varied Week

Warning: this post goes into detail about the ups and downs of my past week.  May involve mild feelings.  If you’re of the irritating belief that we should all be living ice people with stiff lips then you may find this vaguely offensive, though there’s nothing too obscene.

One word: Prelims.  If you know what this means I expect you to be recoiling in horror right now and if you don’t, well, you are envied by many.  Basically, preliminary examinations which act as a kind of practice run before the final exams.  They do count for getting into courses which start before you get results for the final exams, and can also be used in appeals, but I’m in the fortunate position of relying on neither since I already have the grades I need.

So, why was it so Hellish?  Simply, all four of my exams were scheduled between four days of one another.  I am, of course, grateful that I have the opportunity to sit any exams – but did it have to be so stressful?  I’ve spent most of the last month either doing research for my history dissertation (“How great an effect did the pressures of foreign countries have on Apartheid policies between 1960 and 1984?”) and NABs (other horrific ‘unit passes’, which you need to pass in order to sit the final exam).  So basically, I had no time to revise for the exams.

Then I caught a cold.  And snow swept across the island.  It’s as if the world has been conspiring to make me perform as badly as possible in the Prelims!  It’s fair to say this past week wasn’t an enjoyable experience – particularly the three hour Advanced Higher history exam… I still shudder at the thought.  But, somehow, I managed to get to all four of my exams and actually seemed to do alright.  Not had any of the results yet – not that they’re very important at this stage – but I performed as well as I could have hoped.

The most varied day of all was Wednesday, the Hellish history exam.  I genuinely felt in a state of mild shock afterwards, consumed by numbness, unable to get my head out of Apartheid South Africa (not the nicest of places).  A couple of people described me as ‘shell-shocked’, amusingly.  I guess the length of the exam, the longest I’ve ever sat, took it out of me.  I hear exams at university typically last three hours… *another shudder*.  Interestingly, St. Andrews chose that day to let me know they’d offered me an unconditional place to study English.

I HAVE A PLACE AT ST. ANDREWS!!  How did that happen?  That’s so amazing!  I’m so lucky!

And I’m probably going to turn it down.  Hah.  I’m not sure yet, and wouldn’t like to say anything for sure.  I guess, having grown up on a remote island, I’d prefer to live somewhere well connected like a city.  And St. Andrews, for all its prestige, has a very negative reputation of royalty and privilege – neither of which I’m a great fan of!  I’ll have to visit, of course.  It’s exciting to tell people I’ve been offered a place, anyway.  Someone told me I would be ‘mad’ to turn it down.  Am I?

So yeah, that was my dramatic week.  How was yours?

Home, Sweet Home!

This is the first entry ever in this blog to be written from my own home, from the home I’ve lived all 17 years of my life within.  Here is where I shall tell you why – the tale is rather dramatic.  It’s also an explanation towards my total lack of activity over the last week.

On the 29th August earlier this year I arrived at home after a fulfilling day at school and made myself a cup of tea.  I’m not sure whether it was coincidence or a result of the high air pressure addling my thoughts, but instead of browsing the internet for social networks and world news as is my usual routine upon getting home, I decided to lie in bed and read a book – God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin I think, if it matters.

I vaguely became aware of a thunderstorm brewing.  There were dim flashes and faint crashes but I wasn’t phased.  In fact, in what would soon be a fine example of irony, I was eager to see a lightning bolt rather than simply a flash out the corner of my eye, so I sat at the window expectantly.  There existed no fear in my heart; for years I’ve laughed off people’s claims to be scared of thunder and lightning.  “It’s harmless!” I’d say.  It was a particularly bad thunderstorm – my mother had commented on how the thunder was causing the entire house to vibrate – but I thought nothing of it.

And then the house was struck by lightning.  As with most traumatic events in my life, the actual details have been wiped from my memory, but fortunately I wrote a diary the night after it happened in which I recalled the scraps I could remember.  Even then my memories were blurred like a dream.  I described the event as a colossal explosion – a daydream which had leaked into reality.  The house shook violently and my thoughts leapt between images of bombs and meteors, but I quickly realised we’d been hit by lightning.  Out the window I saw bits of masonry, which I think were burning, splintering apart as they fell to the ground.  This must have all happened in the space of a second.

My Mum was in the room which had been hit and she came running into my bedroom, having bared the brunt of the explosion and sparks, but was mercifully unharmed.  We were both terrified and disorientated, having no idea what to do.  I ran across the landing and looked into the room which had been hit.  Plasterboard hung from the ceiling and a mixture of singed smoke and dust filled the air, giving the house a chemical stench.  Believing the house was on fire and in the irrational terror of the moment, we made the foolish move of running to our neighbours’ house.  I only realised afterwards how exposed this had made us to lightning,  being directly in the centre of a storm of this intensity.  I arrived soaked, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

Our neighbours were very accommodating and took us in.  From the window I got my first proper view of our house.  Where the chimney ought to have been remained a stump, blasted to pieces.  Our neighbour’s fuse box had literally been blown apart, though this didn’t feel very important at the time.  I cowered from flashes for the remaining hour that the storm continued in what was, it’s fair to say, one of the least enjoyable moments of my life.  Water flooded across the path and flowed into a small lagoon next to the beach.  You could clearly see the blue/brown divide where the floodwater had flowed in.  I later saw pictures of another road in my village which was completely impassable after a river burst its banks.  I don’t believe the flooding ever became dangerous enough to pose a risk to any homes, however.  I phoned my Dad using a mobile to tell him what had happened, and he was convinced for a long while that I was joking.  The call was cut off after a particularly bright flash.

Once the lightning stopped I finally became convinced to exit the safety of a standing structure and walk home.  We passed a piece of chimney which I kept as a souvenir, but sadly now is lost.  It may have come from our house, or that of another neighbour’s who we noticed was also missing a chimney and had various pulled up roof tiles.  The lightning strike must have forked and hit several houses at once – we never stood a chance!

Upon re-entering the house we realised with relief that it was not on fire.  I opened windows to ventilate out the smoke which the initial strike must have created.  I struggled to climb the stairs, engulfed by the irrational terror of another random explosion, but managed to peak into the room which had been struck.  It was in a terrible state: rubble lay strewn across the ground and water poured in through the gaping hole in the ceiling.  At this point we believed it was rainwater from the roof and, utterly powerless to prevent it, placed a large bucket underneath.  The light switch had been blasted to pieces.  That was not all: our modem had clearly exploded, from the charcoaled plastic which was scattered throughout the living room, and a plug socket had been blown out of the wall, hanging weakly by fried wires.  

With no idea how to proceed next, we drove out to my Dad’s house, about six miles away.  The road was almost impassable in places, covered in rocks and soil which had been washed over it.  We passed him on the way driving towards out house and turned around.  Upon arriving, Dad inspected the damages with shock and disbelief.  None of us had ever seen or even heard of a lightning strike this devastating.  Dad took a look in our attic at the bizarrely placed water tank, and described it as looking as if someone had taken a machine gun to it.  Rubble from the chimney must have scattered into the attic and pierced the metal tank.  The scale of the damages were truly terrifying.  Dad switched off the water and gradually the room became less flooded, though it didn’t stop damp seeping into three rooms – which is still there now.

We packed essentials, most importantly tea, and spent the night at Dad’s.  And so began our 110 day absence from home.  We would live in no fewer than four temporary houses, one of which was absolutely appalling.  There was much stress to be had to do with the insurance company, as would be expected, including being blamed for delays (as if we’d intentionally put off moving home) and being expected to pay £4,000 for rewiring the house (they eventually accepted this was not our fault).  My personal favourite is when the insurance woman asked on the phone, “are you sure that was lightning?”

We spent a lot of time driving the hour-round journey out to our house, mostly to feed the cats but also to observe process on the house.  Repairs didn’t even start until late October, which is appalling.  We waited weeks for the ‘loss adjustor’ (what the Hell does a loss-adjustor even do?  Confirm we actually were hit by lightning?) who missed his flight.  Twice.  And then getting quotes and approving them were even worse.  It was a tearful sight, seeing my home cold, damp and decrepit.  The cats missed us and gradually grew furrier coats in response to the cold.  One traumatic day we turned up, while the house was being rewired, to hear miaowing coming from the bathroom floor.  After shedding blood pulling up the rotten floorboard, we rescued our cat who had been trapped beneath it.  I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if we hadn’t found her.

The strike had its advantages, however.  Our temporary homes were right in the centre of town, where I got to experience the luxuries of a well-connected life.  It confirmed to me that I would prefer to go to a university in a city, such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, rather than a more isolated one like Stirling or St. Andrews.  To be able to go shopping at virtually any time, to walk to school, to make plans with friends without the stress of travelling, was enjoyable.  It also taught me that as long as I have fundamental needs met such as water and shelter, I can live anywhere.  This is another valuable lesson to have learned in time for university.  Of course it also had its obvious downsides: lack of home comforts, lack of cats, heavy stress, etc.  The house was a museum preserved in time; the empty mug sat on my desk for many months.  But in time I may be able to look back and see how the lightning pushed my life into a positive direction.  And also, pragmatically, the house was completely rewired after the meddling antics of its previous inhabitant.  There’s no longer the fear of electrocution every time we flick one of the uniquely wired switches.

But here I am, in my bedroom, back to normality.  The house has taken a week to get into an inhabitable state, and is still in a great mess – which is why I’ve been so quiet on this blog recently.  I’m already considering digging a bunker in preparation for the next thunderstorm.

Universities Everywhere!

My life has come to the point where universities have begun to dominate my thoughts.  They have always been there, on the periphery of any brief glance over the parapets into the future, but have gradually crept closer and closer.  So many questions: Which course?  Which university?  Combined degree?  Which accommodation?  Student loans?  What to put into the personal statement?  Should I stop pulling my hair out?

We’ve been told woefully little at school about the process, as we’re expected to do research ourselves.  This is fair enough, but there is no practical way of comparing universities.  Each website says a variation of, “We’re the best!  Look at these pictures of happy smiley people!  We dare you to doubt them!  Ooh, look, incomprehensible figures which prove we’re better than the others!  Etc.”  Visiting the university is an awkward option for those of us who live on an island and are leading shaky lifestyles due to not having the stability of an inhabitable home (it’s a long story).  The university trip organised by my school ignored two of the universities I am considering (St. Andrews and Glasgow) and gave us a twenty minute tour, in the rain, through the third (Edinburgh) before spotting the Travelodge like a desperate mirage in the distance and abandoning all pretence of giving us a meaningful visit.  The league tables hardly help, with a 0.1 difference in scores between each one.

Despite this, I’ve managed to do some narrowing down.  I’m certain that I would like to enter in an English course, perhaps branching out into Politics or History in my first and second year.  The university trip did make me realise that I don’t think I could live in Glasgow, which leaves St. Andrews and Edinburgh.  Recently I’ve realised I might prefer the well-connected isolation of St Andrews, where there would always be a quiet spot to hide away and read a book if necessary, but there are also aspects pulling me towards Edinburgh (Scottish Parliament!  Fudge Kitchen!  Spires in all directions! Weeeee!).  I guess I shouldn’t complain at being spoilt for choice; I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to go to university at all.  But I would have liked even a fraction of more support when making one of the largest and most important decisions of my life.

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(This is my first blog ever (eek!) so I haven’t really refined my style yet.  It may sound fairly self-indulgent and whiny.  I hope not).