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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Exams, Luck and Folklore

It's that wonderful time of year again when students gather in the corridors outside all the biggest rooms, stressing each other out with last-minute revision/advice. It's a weird place to be as a teacher: obviously the exams are theirs, you've done your bit, but at the same time... And the anxiety coming off them in waves doesn't help.

Here are a few of the luck-attracting rituals and practices I've seen and heard of recently.

Special items

  • Lucky pants and lucky socks seem to be the most common items of clothing with a special status. There are tales of students having to wear the same underwear for all exams, even if they fall on consecutive days...
  • Lucky jewellery is also fairly common.
  • Talismans, mascots and charms can also be found (students will sometimes try to bring little ornaments or toys into the exam room, but often are prevented from doing so as they are not sanctioned objects).
  • The lucky pen is of course a standard exam season item. It's not at all unusual to hear a panicky student explaining that yes, they have another pen but their lucky pen has run out. Clearly failure will follow.

Special preparatory behaviours

  • Ritual breakfasts are required by many, ranging from specific cereal that is only eaten at exam time (one boy swears by Coco Pops, but never eats them the rest of the year) to comfort foods like banana sandwiches.
  • For others, not eating before an exam is essential (even an afternoon one - ack!).
  • Some students use mp3 players while queuing for the exam room to avoid all that nervous 'did you revise x?' 'do you think y will come up?' that some find comforting and wrecks the mojo of others.

Exam room ritual behaviours

  • The Lining Up Of Pens is a ceremony performed by many, requiring writing implements to be arranged in a very specific way.
  • Some students have to walk around the little desk before sitting down. 
  • Twiddling of bracelets and rings is commonly done in a ritual way, or a pendant or ring may be kissed for luck before commencing. 
Obviously, many students also place their faith in revision and study :) It's interesting how we find comfort in specific objects and odd little behaviours. I'm not suggesting that students believe wholeheartedly in these things, but these are very real habits that people have established as part of their coping strategies to get them through the horror of public exams. If that's not folklore, I don't know what is.

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