A woman writes on her exam anxiety: Exams are designed to make me feel I don’t know enough
By: Mimi Mwiya
The very first time I remember having a panic attack, was a night before an exam. It was the last exam of year-end final, and I had had two weeks to prepare for it. It was a Community Development module, easily my favourite that semester. In the days leading up to the exam, people would ask me how exams were going and I’d say, “I only have one more to go. I’ve got quite some time to prepare for it and it’s a pretty easy module.” I think that is what triggered the panic: all the pressure I’d put on myself by telling people all the reasons I had to do well on it.
It was the night before the exam and I found myself wondering if I knew enough, if what I knew was what I needed to know to pass the exam. I tried to do some reading, but I couldn’t get myself to concentrate. I tried to sleep, but I kept worrying about the exam and simply could not still my mind long enough to fall asleep. So I got up to cook. I was not hungry, but I needed to do something, anything, to make morning come as quickly as it could so I could get the exam over and done with. I went to the hostels’ shared kitchens and put on a pot of rice. If the security guard there thought it odd that it was 2am and someone had tears running down her face while watching over a pot of rice, he hid it well.
That exam came and passed, I did well on it. I tried to explain my anxiety over it, but I failed to make anyone understand it.
This month, I found myself having to deal with exam anxiety again. It’s taken me a long time to realise that I don’t do well with tests and exams. I learn by living and experiencing. I can only remember stuff if I can attach a story or funny incident or a feeling to them, and that is not exactly the kind of learning exams and tests are designed for. And so I feel exams and tests are designed to make me feel I don’t know enough, ergo, I’m not smart enough.
Except, I know I’m pretty smart, it takes pretty smart to make it as far as I have despite my disdain for school. And I hate school because it makes me feel like I’ll never know the things I need to. About three years ago, I was taking a bath in Mongu, and I realised soap foamed much faster there than it did in Lusaka and Windhoek, and I noticed the oily looking layer lurking on the water. And for the first time, about a decade after they’d tried to teach them to me in physics class, I understood the concepts of scum, hard water, soft water, and all that stuff. See, learning by living, takes yeeeaarrrs, it takes living, it takes a lifetime. Learning by living cannot be crammed into four years, four days or four hours, it takes life. And so in the times that I’m expected to know enough to pass a text or an exam, I panic, I think there is no way I could possibly know enough, or I could learn enough in the given time.
I think of all the times I’ve failed, and anxiety strikes. I cannot get myself to focus enough to study, I cannot get myself relaxed enough to sleep, and because I feel I should be studying, even though I can’t study, I feel too guilty to do anything that might relax me. And so I get stuck in this loop, where time is moving far too slowly and all I’m doing is waiting for it to move. My breathing is forced, but I’m breathing, just wishing I wasn’t. I feel helpless and hopeless, and all I can do is wait for the feeling to pass, all I can do is wait for time to pass. And time does pass, but it passes slowly.
And eventually, morning does come and I’m okay. But I remember I wasn’t, and I live in fear of the next time I won’t be.