A pink taxi

A pink taxi

December 4, 2010


My first memory of an exam was one in geography, which I failed when I was in the fifth grade: I had to fill out the map of France with the names of cities, seas, rivers and mountains and glue it on the examination paper. I glued it upside down and was given a Zero for that reason. Ever since that exam, I have fetishized the map of France, which I tenderly called the Hexagone.

My eldest son, in anticipation of his own exams in six years, asked me about my French Baccalaureate experience. It has been 22 years since I passed one of the most challenging examinations I can remember. I know I wrote about the Perestroika for Economics, I chose the topic of work/slavery for the Philosophy exam, and was so exuberant in my Rimbaud poetry commentary at the French oral exam, that they failed me.

My memories of my Phd comprehensives are less clear. Perhaps the contents of the French Baccalaureat are also the ones I remember with more precision. All the essentials for life, plus a rich dash of culture, are included in the French state exams.

Some school systems have suppressed examinations. The supporters believe that exams only incur stress and cramming. I stand on the opposite end of the spectrum: I believe exams are hurdles that confirm the passage to the next level. I just recently took art history exams at the University of Geneva, in order to attain half a degree! My children, like I did myself, take violin, ballet and martial art exams. No matter how casually they study Farsi, they learn from official text books in order to know that they have reached a certain level. My son is still struggling with the second grade book after four years of study!

Yet,I have a different approach then most when preparing for examinations. I believe that the actual preparation and studying  is much more important than passing them. My son knows that. We build up together for the exam, starting ahead, understanding and debating the contents, talking about analysis and methodology. While grades are important and excellent ways to evaluate yourself or your child I make sure NEVER to dwell on average grades, only to congratulate for good grades.

I often use the analogy of the painting class my four year old took in Geneva. My son attended a studio, with rainbow paints and many size brushes and the session was open to all ages, even to adults. I never saw a single painting because the instructor didn't want parents to pass judgment, which I believe would only be positive. She didn't believe that creativity required positive interference.

In this same vein, my yoga instructor has never passed judgment on his students. Every session gets its corrections but no accolades. Its the process that matters, the enjoyment, the art. Worse day, better day. Those are mere details.

Exams are milestones. Important ones. But it is the effort that you have put in them that you remember, not the actual exam.


  1. Dear Mein Fuehrer,
    I humbly beg to differ and I believe that exams were created to cause nothing but stress (and post traumatic stress disorder). If I could create an educational system that would completely eliminate exams from the curriculum I would. (your reason for living, would therefore be eliminated but you could then increase the number of BikramYoga sessions you take. Or better yet! Teach Bikram Yoga so you can make others suffer) There are so many children that don’t do well in exams. I was one of them (and so were the other 33 kids out of the 35 that were in my class).
    I remember in University, when I had a final I would get so stressed that I would forget everything! However, all my other papers in which I had time to give thought, etc. were above average. I don’t think I retained anything for which I studied for in exams. When I was a child, what I do remember are the morning contests on who could do their fractions faster, spelling bees, gold stars on book reports in grade school which built the foundation for me to be interested in subjects later on. (I know! Right? How dismally backwards of them!)
    I also believe in giving encouragement and support to children for their grades if an effort was made ( vs. the bamboo stick under the nail method which you seem to favor) If you traumatize them now, Mein Fuehrer, then they will dislike the subject for all eternity. Encouragement will engage children to produce better to receive more encouragement.
    I’m kind of scared to send my kids to you for tutoring now….

    P.S. Your Bikram Yoga instructor doesn't give accolades because it would be against the whole "pain is your friend. Learn it, love it. Use it" mantra...

  2. Exams can torment some like the Abu Ghareib prison chambers.My wife is one of them,exams, visits to the dentist,or a vaccination needle were tormenting.I remember meeting her the first time with hives all over her face because of a biology exam.When the time came to sit for her comprehensives,she froze and became a mute.
    Once I sat for my Econ 201 exam,and I could not comprehend a word on the terrible stenciled papers,it could have been Chinese!. I got my first and last F,that could have cost me my career.When I woke up from the disaster,counted my damages,I decided to take things seriously and face the beast.I was the first to open the public library at the University,and adopted the stacks as my second home.I never studied after sunset,and woke up early to face Exams with a clear mind.That was the way I tamed the exam beast,and went on to graduate and enter life.
    Exams never end,because as we cross various phases in life,we are being tested and examined in the various facets of life,in matters touching on finance,health,raising children,and keeping a sane balance.