(that title sounds unnervingly like a My Chemical Romance song)
It’s over. A decade of mine, a ten-year stretch of life full of experiences, achievements and frak-ups, is dead. Not in a particularly broad sense, or even in a numerical sense – I’m currently nineteen, not twenty – but in one very specific sense: for the first time since I was nine, I am going to radically change my working habits. Starting tomorrow.
But I shall start with a little history on my, now former, studying practices. When I was nine, with two years to go until I finished primary school, I started working for the dreaded entrance exams, a series of examinations held independently at secondary schools across London to filter applicants. Not every school was ‘selective’ in this way, most weren’t, and my local one definitely wasn’t, but the ones with the most money and best teachers put on their own exams for students aged 10-11 who wanted to attend, and only the best would get in. Looking back, this created a kind of vaguely meritocratic elitism, that the smartest would be rewarded by being made smarter, while those that struggled would be forever cut off from that world, and forced to do A-level critical thinking. Of course, it’s hard to determine how academically successful a person will be at the age of ten, which is why a blogging buddy of mine went to our local shitty comprehensive and is now at a Russell Group uni, while half of the morons who scraped into my secondary school through the exams are now posting pictures of themselves high, shirtless and alone on the moonlit streets of Wood Green, so it’s an imperfect science. But I wanted to make that cut.
A big part of these exams were verbal and non-verbal reasoning papers, which you can see online if you want to know more about them; these tests were supposed to examine a child’s intelligence, without the kerfuffle and padding of English questions or the randomness of Maths questions that some bright kids were unprepared for simply because their primary school didn’t teach that kind of trigonometry. The reasoning papers determined your character’s base HP, if you will, while the subject-based papers determined their resistances to certain attacks, and how fast your PP would regenerate. Critically, reasoning wasn’t taught in primary school, because it would have been irrelevant to the majority of kids who weren’t going for the entrance exams; as a result, my practice (according to my parents) for these exams was me sitting down, aged nine, and relentlessly working through papers for literally hours on end, not satisfied until I could ace any reasoning paper within half the time limit.
In the end, I only passed one set of reasoning papers, but I didn’t care; to me, relentless work over long, uninterrupted stretches of time as the way to get results and, consciously nor not, I rather decided on that method of working for the next decade of my life. I got an A at GCSE maths by completing whole chapters of textbooks at a time, not stopping or checking my answers until hundreds of questions had fallen by the wayside; I got an A at AS French by taking whole pages of the dictionary and swallowing them, learning twenty, fifty, up to seventy words in a single sitting. And it worked, especially for things I didn’t find interesting.
But then, it started to fall apart. I applied the same model to Old English last year, and limped out of the exam with a 55, equivalent to a 2.2, two whole grades below where I know I should be hitting; my revision for my criticism paper revolved around learning books’ worth of quotes, relying on my brainpower to form them into arguments and ideas on-the-fly in exams, and I scraped through that exam with a 57, and another shitty 2.2.
I’ve already changed my work habits; Old English translations are now my most enjoyable piece of studying to do, because I know more about how the language works, and I can understand what I’m doing. But these new habits were still stretched over whole afternoons of study, hours spent picking through fifty lines of Ælfric at once, making notes of every case, of every tense, and identifying the subject and object in every sentence. It’s satisfying, but gruelling, and ultimately unhelpful, for today I hit the wall; I couldn’t get through a bit of Middle English, not in the sense that I was tired, but in the sense that for hours I hammered away at that book, unable to find anything to interest me, a foothold to let me explore the ideas of those pages that some professor somewhere obviously thinks are worth my reading. For hours I worked and, for the first time in a decade, after hours I’d gotten nowhere.
I might have had a brief personal crisis. And I may have vented about it to one too many friends who weren’t prepared nor willing to offer advice, which didn’t help my already self-loathing mental state, as now I was throwing my problems onto other people expecting them to solve them by magic.
But then someone did solve them, the only someone whose relationship with me predates nine-year-old James’ Spartan desire to work until he passed out. It’s the old ‘break tasks up into smaller sections’ idea, but now it makes sense; my degree isn’t a slog (OE translations aside) but an engagement with and appreciation of the ideas held by people from completely different worlds to me; literature isn’t about hammering through a thousand lines of Chaucer in one go, but breaking each section down, repeatedly finding an idea, stopping and then finding new ones to mix with the previous one. I’m stunned it’s taken me this long to realise this, but now that I have, I can align my impression of my degree with the way I’m studying it, and unite the image I have of myself as an English student with the realities of reading Old Icelandic in my bedroom, like a kind of literary vlogger circa 2007.
This may be obvious to you; you may be thirteen years old, and have this all figured out. But I’m determined to the point of blind stubbornness most of the time, and it’s taken me ten years to realise that my studying methods aren’t perfect. So that decade of work is dead, and starting tomorrow I’ll not approach a reading list in the same way. I’ve finally moved on from my nine-year-old self.
I’ve finally got the perceptiveness of a ten-year-old.