Exams Once Ruled My Life by
(287 Stories)

Prompted By Exams

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I was never a fill-in-the-bubble girl. Multiple choice questions confused me because I overthought everything. But when given a good old blue book essay to write, I was filled page after page in the turquoise ink I favored back then.

Exams once ruled my life. Now, having experienced many true tests over a lifetime, I realize that no amount of preparation guarantees a good result. It is what I do with the hand I’m dealt that truly matters.

Although I think blue books are still used in some university classes, they were ubiquitous back in my college days at the University of Michigan. Perhaps because most of the classes I took were in the English and History departments, I should have bought stock in the company that manufactured those little blue books. “Compare and contrast” and I was off to the races. I wrote so much that I usually used two blue books to contain my copious answers.

In retrospect, I stressed too much about exams. I was the over-studier who highlighted text in yellow on the first pass and then switched to pink for a second go around. In high school, I felt compelled to earn all A’s, with the exception of gym. Not much to study for in PE classes. I suspect my main motivation was to earn my father’s approval, or minimally his attention. It stung when he would examine my stellar report cards, the fruits of all of that hard work, and comment, “Why did you get a B in gym?”

My mother ascribed his comments to his sense of humor, but no matter how often she reassured me that he was proud of my academic achievements, it stung that he could never express this. Partially, it seemed unimportant to him for his daughter to excel academically. In his eyes, my destiny was to earn an Mrs. Degree at college, not prepare for a future career. Being accepted to a good university (in the state of Michigan, only) was important because there would be better spousal choices.

At college, I finally broke away from parental pleasing and allowed myself to have fun. But my attitude toward exams was deeply ingrained in my personality. I still over studied, thus having too much to share in those blue books. I remember once feeling unprepared and thinking I needed to pull an all-nighter for a history test. But I was exhausted and having trouble staying awake. A friend gave me some caffeine pills (or maybe they were something else?) and I dutifully took them. When I complained that I was hyper-awake but unable to process information, he casually offered the sage advice, “What’s the worst that can happen? You will be up all night.” Indeed, I was.

The resulting blue book essay was long, rambling, and probably incoherent. My professor, who was blind, had a graduate student read it to him and rewarded me with a “D.” I went to see him in tears, but it was to no avail. He simply said the grade was his impression of what I had written, and I would have to try harder next time.

These days, that would never happen. Two of my children are college professors. Students ask for all kinds of consideration if they do poorly on an exam. They submit extra papers to soften the blow of a potential bad grade. Also, no one expects to receive anything less than a “B” ever. And this is at prestigious universities.

Nevertheless, my exam anxiety followed me beyond college. Even as a mature woman and mother of three, going back to school to earn a Masters in early childhood education stirred up all of my worst tendencies to stress over exams and important papers. I’ll never forget the first assignment. After an almost twenty-year break from formal schooling, I was anxious and a bit rusty. The assigned topic was huge, but the limit was three pages. Impossible for me. Using my son’s Apple IIc computer, I was able to express most of my thoughts in three single-spaced pages with very narrow margins. Much to my chagrin, the professor refused to read it. I had to resubmit it double-spaced with standard margins, all within the three-page limit. At this point, it dawned on me that I didn’t need to share everything I knew to earn a good grade in this class.

This was a powerful lesson for someone who still had examination dreams long after there were any more tests to be taken. You know those dreams. You are going to take a final exam but you had never been to class or studied. You can’t find the classroom for an important test. You look at the exam questions and can’t think of anything to write. Married to a psychiatrist, I know these dreams are not literally about exams. Life is full of things that test us in one way or another. People like me will always be worried they may come up short.

Exams once ruled my life. Now, having experienced many true tests over a lifetime, I realize that no amount of preparation guarantees a good result. It is what I do with the hand I’m dealt that truly matters.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You bring up so many interesting points in this story, Laurie. I, too, HAD to get all “A”s in high school to try to prove to my mother that I was as smart as my brother (I’m not really – he’s in a different league, but her two very judgmental sisters had cast doubts about me, thought that he helped me too much and that I’d flunk out of school when he went off to college five years ahead of me, so my 4.0 GPA in high school was a sort of “up yours” to my mother and her sisters). I worked hard in college too, graduated with a 3.52, magna cum laude with departmental honors, so I’m not a dummy, just not Phi Beta Kappa. I love your comments about learning life lessons, and not needing to write everything to show that you learned something. Very wise. I’m trying to do a better job of editing myself in these stories; making them more focused, less rambling. Sometimes I success but not always. But that is the discipline of weekly writing.

  2. Ah, I remember when my dream came true…I actually went to an exam and did forget to study. Thought it was the following day. Oops.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      My worst fear in my younger days. But, my friend, we have both learned that life hands us much harder exams than those college blue books, and there is no way to study for them. We get by with a little help from our friends.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, Laurie! I related to the “Why did you get a B in gym?” anecdote. In my family, if we came home with a 94 on a test, my father would say “Who got the other 6 points?” as an attempt at humor. So I can believe that your father was joking about gym class. But it’s too bad that he thought you should only go to college for an MRS degree. Since my father only had daughters, he had to put all his hopes and dreams into us.

    I’m impressed by the fact that two of your children are college professors. Wonder where they got their academic drive from! Also blown away by your filling two blue books to answer an exam. I almost never even got to the staple in the middle! Maybe your handwriting is a lot bigger than mine. Anyway, I’m glad not to be writing in blue books any more!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Suzy, those of us who were disappointed with an A that was 94% are legion. Two of my granddaughters still feel that way, so maybe it’s genetic? One recently shared how disappointed she was for receiving an A instead of an A+. If course, she was allowed to do extra credit work to raise her grade. I had two brothers, so I suppose my father thought they needed to find careers to make a living. Ironically, neither of them was much of a student.

      I am not only glad to have no more blue books in my life — I’m happy I finally learned to be more succinct when I write.

  4. Marian says:

    All so true, Laurie. I got the grades in high school, had a lot of financial motivation to get scholarship aid (which worked). I can relate to the Mrs. degree issue as well, but ironically because I wasn’t a pretty girl in high school (that’s an entire book rather than a story), my parents thought it would be helpful to do well academically so I could take care of myself! The one time I really had an issue with a blue book essay was answering a question that required us to critique an anthropology professor’s book. Alas, I was honest and got a “B.” Don’t think that would happen today, as you say. There would be an uprising!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Marian, we came from a very different era. At least for my kids, I told my daughters the same thing as my son: Do your best, go to the best college you get into (in any state), and follow your passion. It may have been a reaction to the advice I was given, but they all ended up with fulfilling careers. I thought my daughters should be able to take care of themselves regardless of where life took them.

  5. Lots of great stuff here, Laurie. I was fortunate that my parents never ever made the kinds of comments you reference nor put pressure on me. I know my experience may not be typical; besides your example I am too well familiar with my first wife’s experience. We met in college. She was an exceptional student – top of her class in secondary school. Multiple book prize winner. But when she got the inevitable less-than-A her dad, a practicing *hole, would sarcastically grill her on why she had “failed” (his term). Good on you for surviving and thriving.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      My father was a man of his generation. Only later in life did he understand that what his his daughter and granddaughters achieved had meaning. I know this was especially true for his granddaughters.

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