High School

How I Stopped Freaking Out About My Exams

words by Joseph | photo by @clemcnabb

It was about three in the morning when I finally broke. I was on my fifth cup of instant coffee of the night and had already finished my emergency supply of study snacks. I was buried in a textbook, but only because all my friends had gone to sleep and there was nobody left to distract me. The thing is, after a lot of coffee and very little sleep, the words stopped making sense.

To me, doing poorly in school was something I had never even considered. I was at a selective high school and it was just assumed I would go on to university and get myself a degree. But before that, I had to finish my final exams and unfortunately for me, I turned out to be quite the lazy fuck. I was disorganised and didn’t like to start assignments at convenient times, and so this is how I found myself awake- but not lucid- at 3am, trying to make sense of squiggly lines that were supposedly Biology terms. It was the fourth time in two weeks, so naturally I was freaking out a little more than usual.

The thing about these kinds of panic attacks is that they’re self-induced. It was me who went out with friends that day instead of locking myself in my room to study. It was me who spent hours on my phone watching dumb conspiracy theory videos. It was me who kept messaging my girlfriend instead of reading about some monk doing experiments with peas. I had no one to blame but myself, and blame myself I did.

But it was bullshit. I let my sense of self-worth get so caught up in how I did at school that I started to feel bad about the things that actually made me happy. I wanted to see my friends that day because they fucking rock and I smile more when I do. I wanted to watch conspiracy videos because they’re bloody hilarious and I want to be prepared for when Avril Lavigne clones come to take over the world. I wanted to message my girlfriend because I was feeling shit and she always knows what to say to me when I’m like that.

I tossed the textbook aside and looked around at the mess I made in my room. In the pursuit of academic success, I had made myself miserable and if that’s what accomplishment looked like, then I didn’t want a lick of it.

We shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops just to prove to everyone that we’ve done well at school, and those hoops definitely shouldn’t get in the way of all the other things that actually add value to our lives. Wanting to relax is normal for a teenager, and so is spending time with friends and playing sport and going to parties and getting drunk for the first time and getting your heart broken and mended and everything else in between. Staying up making study notes until the morning birds start their songs- that isn’t normal.

When I realised this I went straight to sleep. When I woke up for that exam I was what most people would call underprepared. But I did it anyway, and you know what? I did fine. And so was the rest of the HSC.

And now, several years later, my ATAR is as irrelevant as my MySpace password. I can’t remember the last time somebody asked me what it was, and I’ve ended up exactly where I’ve wanted to be anyway. I’m happy I broke the cycle of freaking out over exams, and I’m proud to be the kind of person that values things like a good conversation or a shared sunset over marks and scores and other arbitrary indicators of success. So shoutouts to coffee-induced delirium – you get some wild epiphanies that way.