As I begin writing this, my son, along with thousands of other UK teenagers, is sitting a GCSE in English Literature.
He’ll be finished in half an hour. It’s on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
I say he’ll be finished in half an hour, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s finished already, as he’s come home from two exams so far saying breezily: “I finished half an hour early – I’d said everything I wanted to.” Then he settles down on the sofa with steak crisps and Capri-Sun to watch How I Met Your Mother, a US TV sitcom that makes him laugh.
Last week it was French Reading and Listening. How did they go? “Fine,” he said, peering into the fridge, emerging to add: “It’s just a guessing game, really.” He’s nothing if not philosophical.
I know many parents would find this casual approach to GCSEs alarming. Some parents I know would find it unacceptable, appalling.
My son is not an idiot. He’s a bright boy, naturally engaged in politics, current affairs, intelligent comedy and sport talk, emerging aspects of culture, quirky facts. He knows what’s what.
He knows that revision, lots of it, does work when it comes to achieving excellent exam results. Even so, it’s not for him. “Does it really matter if I don’t get 11 A*s?” he asked me gently the other day, when I suggested his approach to his GCSEs was overly laid-back, and a bit sad, considering how well he might have done.
I wonder at his attitude. Perhaps he looks at us, his parents, both studious teens who did well in exams … and thinks, for what? Perhaps he thinks we’ve not done anything of real note or interest, and we’re certainly not millionaires. If he does think this, perhaps he’s right.
It’s true we’ve never pushed him. When he was eight, he was diagnosed with cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, had several rounds of chemo and was in intensive care for two days. Thankfully (inadequate adverb though that is), he was cured and is well (and yes, I do still worry about jinxing as I write that).
Most children with cancer now survive, thanks to clever, dedicated people. But some children die. Children treated on cancer wards discover this first-hand. Not every child, not every friend, will get to take their SATs, or their GCSEs, or their A-levels, or a degree.
Sometimes I wonder if cancer has robbed my son, and us his parents, of ambition? I hope not. If he were a natural scientist, I’d have longed for him to become a doctor. Maybe it’s fortunate he’s not.
The fact is, I couldn’t be any more proud of him. From the kitchen, I hear him laugh at How I Met Your Mother and yep, I really don’t mind how well he does in these GCSEs. But I am very glad that he is taking them.