An Examination of Examinations

by kangcuzzi

With one week left of this thing we call ‘exams’, I’ve had my fair share of rants and ‘bants’ about the entire ride. Sure, there’s a certain pleasure in moaning with all the exam lingo we’ve picked up across the jungle of school and the Internet. For once, there’s something we can all talk about. But the more I’m engulfed – or rather, detached – from this incredibly esoteric sphere of ‘pseudo-academia’ (we’re only seventeen, after all), I’ve come to realize that there are more to learn through examinations other than the molecular structure of a cell membrane or the Poisson distribution. Less to do with facts and figures, more to do with values. 

I’ve thought long and hard about these exams. As a teenager myself, I’ve had rowdy moments in which I’ve contemplated their worth in the long run. In the short run, the fact that tens of thousands of like-minded peers are experiencing the exact same thing leads me to wonder whether this excess leads to the devaluation of each individual examination. It all sounds like economics (which I don’t take), but hey – exams are economics. They’re fast and ‘easy’ to quantify. Too easy, in fact. And this is where the problem lies.

What troubles me is how ‘easy’ numbers are. We’re enveloped in a society that often defines us based on our numbers, be it in a classroom, a gym, or an office. It’s no big surprise: numbers are universal in their value, we all have a basic grasp of what these numbers mean and it doesn’t take two hours of intense conversation to gauge how well someone is doing. It’s ultimately a trade-off between efficiency and nuance, and in the hectic scheme of things we almost always go for the former.

I understand that this phenomenon is inevitable. But what isn’t inevitable is the attitude that each of us can take towards these numbers. We can either let them engulf our lives into a series of figures and statistics, or we can hang them up on a clothesline somewhere – private yet ‘out’ enough so people are satisfied, yet of no particular importance to us. What matters is what goes inside our homes, what we do in between the washes. Do we read? Sing? Build figures out of cardboard?

What do we do in our spare time, and what does it say about us?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it makes no sense to keep two weeks of my life ‘on hold’. It makes no sense for me to label two weeks – out of the fifty-two I live every year for the many years I hope to live – as ‘special’ and ‘applicable to terms and conditions’. Terms and conditions being: lockdown, junk food permission, hours spent working on the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t make sense for two reasons.

Firstly, I’m no big deal. We’re no big deal. We’re all cogs in this great machine of life and there are people in this world we’re never going to meet. We are ‘these people’ in the eyes of some people living in other parts of the globe. Also remember the fact that 71% of our Earth’s surface is water – great, glistening, gleaming bodies of water – and another huge chunk consists of the most breathtaking panoramas of the natural world. Lush mountains, evergreen plants, flowers with hues left untouched by the stains of mankind. Nature reminds us that we are very, very small in light of how incredibly big this world is. It also reminds us that because we are so small, it does no good to contemplate the world through a lens that is too self-contained. It reminds us that we have every reason in the world to live freely, because there’s nothing that’s actually stopping us from doing so.

Secondly, who do I want to be? I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be someone with double standards for my life, especially if I’m the one with the power to set them for myself. I don’t want to pre-determine some days as being good, other days as bad. Each day presents a fresh new canvas for us to splash, and although the amount of paint we have varies on where we are, how we’re feeling and how much we have, it makes no artistic sense to pre-empt creativity. As an ‘artist’, however, I have to be sensible: I have to maintain my bearings whilst still breathing in the fullness of life.

What I’ve tried to do over this exam period is balance my obligations as a student with my want to be involved with something greater in this world. I’ve ‘studied’, yes, but more than that I’ve read, I’ve sketched, I’ve painted, I’ve watched movies and I’ve written poetry. It not only kept me sane, but kept me rooted to the reality that’s more ‘me’ than a number will ever be. And it honestly made all the difference. From the examination perspective, I’ve walked out of the examination room with confidence regardless of how I did, simply because I acknowledged the fact that life, inevitably, has us move on (and that there was a really nice photo I took a year ago that I wanted to sketch). It gave me a sense of purpose. From the individual perspective, I’ve accomplished some things over these two weeks that I will never forget. I’ve sketched some of the best sketches I’ve ever done, read some of the most intriguing books I’ve ever read and actually cooked proper food for the first time in ages. The thing they say about how the IB is a two-way choice between sleep, social life and academics? Lies, all lies! It just depends on your attitude, that’s all (and how many sweet potatoes you have lying around at home).

It becomes problematic when the easiness of numbers renders them the only means of gauging an individual. In a heavily results-oriented society like Hong Kong, the endless conversations and badgering on grades are, sadly, inevitable. But only truly ‘sad’ if we let it get to us.

We’ve got to realize that exams aren’t be-all and end-all. We’re human. We aren’t superhumans who can churn numbers for ten hours and still keep in tip-top psycho-physiological shape.

It’s a bit of a cliché, really, but all of us – as individuals – are worth more than the numbers we receive. These numbers reflect nothing of what we write at 1AM in the morning when we’re feeling particularly inspired by the way the clouds are still alive at night, the way our parents wake us up in the morning, the roads we’ve walked for the past ten years of our lives and somehow never got sick of. They’re a false façade that reek of the wrong values, because they prize the end rather than the means. I am a massive believer in hard work and dedication; the reason why I personally strive is that regardless of what I’m doing something for, the values that lie behind my action of working hard already speak volumes. It proves to me that I have the potential to go through even the most arduous of tasks if I maintain a healthy attitude.

And I’m happy to say that I’ve done just that. Regardless of the numbers, I’ve learnt more about myself during this period than the numbers ever will. In the words of Sylvia Plath, I am, I am, I am… 

Although this post comes from humble ’11PM-musings’ origins, I want it to be arrogant enough to say that it’s worth a read and a thought. It’s hard to make something clichéd sound poignant in a 1,000 word piece, but here’s my contribution to the collection of word-patterns our world has to offer. Hopefully at least one person out there will take my words to heart, and face the onslaught of paper inked with menial questions with individuality, flair and a touch too much of joie de vivre.